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Unsung Hero: Linda Baker of Falmouth, docent extraordinaire at Portland Museum of Art

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Unsung Hero: Linda Baker of Falmouth, docent extraordinaire at Portland Museum of Art

PORTLAND — When you talk to Falmouth's Linda Baker, two facts soon emerge: She knows her art, and she loves her job as a superstar volunteer docent at the Portland Museum of Art.

“Art tells us about history,” Baker said recently. "About what was important at the time it was created.”

Baker's life path, as is the case with most people, didn’t follow a straight course.

She grew up in New Jersey, where she attended nursing school. From there she moved to Boston, where she worked in pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital. After her youngest child was grown up, she returned to school, earning a B.A. in history at Emmanuel College. While there, Linda got her first real taste of art appreciation.

“Sister Ellen, the art history teacher, was wonderful," Baker said. "I did well on papers that addressed various pieces of art, and that experience stuck in my mind.”

Later, after earning her business degree at Simmons, Baker spent many years conducting research on new drugs for a major pharmaceutical firm. She also demonstrated her strong leadership skills as president of the League of Women Voters chapter in Reading, Mass.

In 1998, Baker moved to Maine with her husband, who had a position with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maine. She worked out of her house, conducting drug research and overseeing clinical trials.

After retiring in 2000, Baker sought ways she could combine her interest in art and her communications skills to make a meaningful difference. She inquired about volunteer opportunities at the Portland Museum of Art, and soon thereafter enrolled in a docent-training course. In 2002, she was officially certified as a docent.

Baker’s docent duties have run the gamut: giving general tours to visitors of all ages; leading tours for school groups; going out into the schools to give students early lessons in art appreciation; and serving as president of the Docent Council, which meets monthly.

Baker especially shines before an audience of young people. During busy school seasons, she might give three or four tours a week.

“I’ve found my niche with children,” she said. “Young people see things in a work of art that docents might miss. And the younger they are, the more open they are to learning and the more you can learn from them. With children, anything can happen, and it usually does.

“I love to see that little spark in their eyes," she said, "that moment when they really get it about some painting or piece of sculpture.

For Baker, as for all of the museum’s docents, the tours and presentations do not follow a one-size-fits-all pattern.

“With children in school groups especially, I first take the measure of the group,” Baker said. “I assess where they’re from, whether they’ve ever been to a museum before, what art they’ve experienced in school, and so on. I then tailor my remarks accordingly.”

Dana Baldwin, the museum’s director of education and the 2011 recipient of a National Museum Education of the Year Award, knows she has a winner in Baker.

“Linda Baker is one of our top go-to people," Baldwin said. "She’s very smart, very conscientious, and very welcoming. And she’s a terrific teacher, always creating new ways to make a visit to the museum a fun and engaging experience.”

Consult the website, portlandmuseum.org, to learn more about volunteer opportunities at the Portland Museum of Art.