Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Should Everyone Work on the Front Line as Part of their Career?

Let's say you're a person eager to break into museums. What's the fastest, most effective way to get employed?

When I was 21 and pondering this question, I came upon an answer that worked for me: work on the front line. I figured I could pay someone a lot of money to go to graduate school, or I could pay nothing (and hopefully get paid) to learn on the job. This decision fit well with my learning style--I tend to lean towards real-world experience and self-directed endeavors. Over my first year in museums, I worked at five different institutions as an educator, exhibit builder, exhibit cleaner, art model, and whatever else I could find. I never stayed at any one institution for longer than I was learning (about 3 months on average), and I never made more than $7 an hour. But I learned enough to know what I wanted from full-time employment and how to get it.

Now, several years of full-time museum work later, I'm consulting. I don't miss all-staff emails or office politics. But I really miss the time I spent working on the floor of museums, interacting with visitors and watching how they engaged with things I'd built. I've come to feel like front line time has been the most educational and undervalued part of museum work.

Spending time on the museum floor can be exhausting, but it's also a pleasure. It's a learning environment free of meetings and bureaucracy. It's a place to learn, one interaction at a time, how to serve visitors better. The stultifying, repetitive tasks teach you how to be more efficient and effective. The constant interaction with visitors gives you an opportunity to delight, mixed with a healthy dose of reality. In most museums, the people who design visitor experiences don't operate them--so they (and I'm included here) miss out on the important feedback loop of how visitors use what is presented.

The challenge is that front line time is not typically valued highly--in any industry. The people who sell the postcards and guard the art and shelve the books are the lowest folks on the totem pole, both in terms of dollars and power. This means that people who want to move up in an institution must move away from work on the floor. Graduate students try to get entry level jobs that involve desks, not aprons. And senior professionals are not encouraged to waste their time talking to visitors in the lobby. While many museums are starting to institute weekly or monthly "floor time" requirements to help all staff become more connected to visitors, these policies are the exception, not the norm. I worked at one museum where my boss asked me politely not to spend so much time on the floor because it wasn't a good use of the salary they were paying me.

This is a problem. It subconsciously trains staff to think of direct service positions as inferior, whether they came in feeling that way or not. It encourages young professionals to avoid front line positions for fear they'll be trapped in Visitor Services, unable to reach Education or Exhibit departments. It exacerbates the extent to which designers, marketers, and program developers may think of visitors as "other" instead of as familiars for whom they have respect and regard. It prevents the whole institution from learning effectively from front line interactions. And it tells people like me, who get inspiration and energy from working with visitors, that those activities are not a valued part of the design process or the workday.

I don't want to overglamorize front line work. It can be monotonous and physically and emotionally demanding. Rather than drawing a line in the sand between low paid front line work and highly paid office work, I think it would be more effective for visitor-facing institutions to develop hybrid job descriptions in which front line work is a duty among many. What's exhausting for ten hours can be valuable and enjoyable for one or two. Designers and educators who rotate through floor time have a better sense of their clients and goals. Staff at all levels can pitch in with hosting, admissions, and guard work and learn something from the experience. And everyone benefits from leaving their desks for a couple of hours and moving around. It clears the brain better than surfing YouTube ever can.

I'd like to find ways to balance front-line and behind-the-scenes time, especially for designers, marketers, and educators. But I realize I'm writing from my personal experience as someone who enjoys interacting with people and finds that conducive to learning. I appreciate that that's not true for everyone. What impact has front line work (or its avoidance) had on your professional career?

42 comments, add yours!:

William said...

Really enjoyed this post, Nina. Well done. For me, the "front lines" time for me comes at membership events, and we always rotate the staff who are working at the door so everyone gets a chance to spend time interacting with members, soliciting feedback, etc.

samuel said...

i started working in cultural sector (french cultural administration) at front desk also. i made me more sensitive to how we treat people, how we make them feel welcome, how we actually answers their "real" needs...many times i had questions i could not answer to. or i would get phone calls to transfert but no one answering and no clue about how to deal with it...now, working online, i feel i do "front desk" job also and with that experience i've learned to anticipate better, to think about ways to be responsive...but still i find those "down to earth" concerns, direct, live interactions (online and onsite) should get much more attention from managment in museums, starting by sharing projects and motivations with front desk staff, but asking them about feedback in return, by being inclusive, if not by being "with" them from time to time...

Alysia said...

Sometimes I like it more...I especially enjoy the energy that kids and families bring to my work each day. That's where I started when I wanted to explore teaching in a formal setting versus and informal environment. You get a lot of energy -- good and bad-- from visitors, but you need a lot of energy to sustain the visitor experience as well!

Eric Johnson said...

I started on the front line selling ice cream and soda at the National Zoo before doing front line work at information desks at several museums and libraries. It's really been invaluable in terms of building a customer-focused approach to my career, something that I've tried to keep front and center even as I've moved into more professional positions.

For those who have been on the front line: remember how you always say, "When I become an administrator, I'm not going to forget what it's like on the front line"? I truly hope you/we don't. I think one of the ways administrators of museums, libraries, and other similar institutions can stay grounded is to talk continually to front line employees, to see how policy affects folks on the ground and to learn what the public is really experiencing. Administration should never happen in a vacuum.

Anonymous said...

I had one of those "hybrid jobs" early on--2-3 hrs per day on the floor, 4-5 in the office--and while the museum never figured out the logistics (things like, how do staff attend meetings when there's never a time everyone's around, balancing long-term projects that need sustained attention vs being on-call for visitors--also, I think it was a fairly expensive staffing model), it was really valuable to me. I miss it enough that I started volunteering for similar responsibilities with another cultural organization now that I am behind a desk most days for my employer!

Nina Simon said...

Anonymous,
This is something I'm really interested in - how to make a hybrid work, where the challenges are. I'd love to hear more stories about these kinds of set ups.

I'm working on starting a venue myself now, and this is a key part of figuring out how to make it work. It's going to be focused on visitor participation, so of course the designers need to be on the floor and vice versa. I've been wondering about how hybrids can affect the power and $$ structures of museums.

Kate said...

Interesting post. I think my time spent on the front line was great training -- visitors keep you on your toes, and you learn a lot by trying to answer the incredible variety of questions that come up. My supervisors were supportive of my efforts to continue my un-official education. I could attend tours and lectures on the clock, and read museum publications on slow days. I miss that reading time, as well as all that time I spent with the art. I also miss that culture that develops among front desk staff, guards, etc. (Such an interesting group, as evidenced by all the attention the Met guards are receiving lately.)Unfortunately, I think there was a general divide between the front line and museum administrative staff. It was possible to get hired to an administrative position, but only after several years and a master's degree at least in progress. (Hence I got a development job at a different kind of non-profit!)
A hybrid system would be interesting. It would help administrative staff stay more in touch with what's happening in the galleries. The museum was also starting to involve front desk staff in more administrative tasks when I left (trying to utilize that downtime), and I think that could be useful as well.

Rebecca Lawrence said...

Nina- the hybrid positions occur at the small museum level. This is what I love about working at a small museum. I have the opportunity to dabble in all of the arenas. I wear so many hats- from overseeing the education program to occasionally filling in at front desk taking incoming calls and greeting visitors. It's the best of both worlds.

Nina Simon said...

Rebecca -
Great point. I totally agree. That's one of the things I learned early on in my front line time - the small museums were the places where literally all staff have impact and influence.

Can it scale?

Haritha said...

Yes, yes, and yes. Whenever I get stuck developing exhibits, I go talk to the security guards, front desk staff, and programmers. I also started on the front line, and it was more valuable than any class.

SW said...

I worked at a museum that required all staff to work on the "front line" regularly. I agree that this is absolutely the BEST way for many people to truly understand visitor needs and how our work is perceived by our guests. The idea of ensuring that all staff have this experience can be appealing for all the reasons you cite. However, some people don't gain energy from interacting with visitors. It is pretty much the last thing they want to do. They can't - and don't want to - personally facilitate visitor experiences. As a visitor, I don't want to meet that staff person! We need enthusiastic people like you, Nina, facilitating amazing experiences on our front lines. Some of these less-social types of people are brilliant at what they do and make great contributions to our work. Working directly with the public is not the only way to learn about our visitor experiences--and is certainly not the best way for some people.

I believe that we should ensure that there are opportunities to work on the front lines (with training) for EVERY staff person who wants to interact directly with visitors (designers, book keepers, CEOs, etc.). No matter where you work in the museum, it helps to truly understand the public dimension of our work. I believe that we should value and learn from those who work the front lines every day. A few hours per month on the front line just does not compare with the experience that our front line staff members have. We also should be making opportunities for our front line staff to experience work in other parts of the museum. They can contribute new perspectives, energy, enthusiasm, and capacity. We have much to learn from each other.

Stephanie said...

This is a really interesting topic. I definitely agree that it is very valuable for desk staff to spend time working on the front line (I work in Education, but the majority of my role is working out in the museum with kids). When managers are in touch with what their staff regularly engage in and what is working and what isn't, planning decisions are much more effective and supportive. However, I've also seen this attempted but it either becomes too time consuming or unauthentic. Sometimes if managers are thoroughly involved with understanding and listening to their staff they can still be very connected and make good decisions without actually being out on the floor themselves.
Equally though, I think it is important for front line staff to understand what is going on with 'higher-level'discussions, as it can better inform what they are doing and their suggestions for changes and improvements.

reganf said...

Good post, and something I've thought a fair bit about over the course of my career. Not that I set out to work in museums - it was more a sequence of happy accidents that led to this point! But I started out in science centre outreach, and then went into exhibition development.

Most of past 10 yrs I've been in the design company end of things, and it's always been frustrating that you don't have the exhibit floor just out there 'on tap' for you to test ideas or just get a sense of vibe. Also, as a consultant (I feel your pain Nina!), it is really hard to close that loop: your contract has ended and the new projects are in your intray, and in many cases the client team has themselves disbanded and working on other projects. Any strategies? Going as a visitor down the track isn't always an answer, particularly when as a consultant the exhibition is often in another part of the country.

Regan Forrest
Australia

Cool Insider said...

Nice post Nina and it certainly sparked an idea which I have for the longest time. Right now, as the Director of HR in an upcoming art gallery, I could look at a way of implementing these hybrid jobs so that everybody could be serving customers and in touch with what they desire.

The tussle between artistic originality and customer orientation could perhaps be better solved if everybody - curators, programmers, HR, financiers, and even the Museum Director - takes on a frontline role every now and then. If the hotels and banks can do it, why can't museums and art galleries?

Anonymous said...

Nina,
I am in the process of pursuing my M.A. in Museum Studies. I feel like the work I have done on the front lines has been beneficial in the sense that it accompanies what I learn in the classroom. I have talked to many professionals in the field and a lot of them have made me feel that museum studies programs tend to be irrelevant. I find this rather insulting, especially considering how many job postings mention advanced degrees. I think the idea of working on the front lines supports the need for museum studies programs. What I have learned in the classroom has greatly affected my ability to work the on the front lines in a positive way and vice versa. They are both great learning opportunities for those wanting to break into the field.

Megan Fischer, Providence Children's Museum said...

I love this post, Nina - yes, yes and YES! I started out as an intern facilitating experiences for visitors in our exhibits and programs, then became a floor manager, then visitor services manager, now in marketing and public relations. The 3.5 years I spent directly serving visitors were crucial to my understanding of our families’ needs and perspectives – it’s given me a much better knowledge of our audience and thus how to communicate with them. Having that front line exposure – even if it’s not long or frequent – clarifies for staff what the organization actually DOES on a daily basis, how it can and does serve its mission and big picture goals with each visit and every interaction. From my time on the floor, I know that so many amazing moments, stories, conversations happen in our museum all the time, which has been a huge asset as we’ve entered the realm of social media - I realize the wealth of material we have beyond our office walls and, as a staff, we’ve been working to capture and share it. We’re a midsized staff that more often than not does the work of a large one so it’s hard to imagine hybrid jobs, but I think we always need to look at and think about what we’re doing in new ways - especially if it helps us better serve the mission.

Maria said...

I think this is a great post. As a graduate student I have to say that I am all for the "front line" experience and I am proud to say that is exactly what my program encourages. I spent 3 months working in the gift shop and others in my program worked and are working the visitor center and other front line type jobs. Yes, we are still going to classes that are preparing us to go into collections, education, exhibits, etc. but we are also getting the real- life experience. And 3 months in the gift shop taught me a totally different set of skills than a class that taught me about museum gift shops and visitors...however I am glad I was able to get the classroom time as well.

HMS said...

When we open in October, everyone at the Durango Discovery Museum will work at least two hours a week on the floor, at the entrance, in the museum shop, or answering the phone.
And that's an order. (Kidding--we all just agree with you that it's a good idear.)

Antorra said...

I've started working on the front line for Polo Museale Fiorentino. I really enjoyed the experience and I might still work there if the law had not changed, but you know that's Italy so...
Anyway, the most important thing I learned was that I wanted to know almost everything about how the museum communicates its content, on and off line.
At the moment working as a web designer I find that the only moment I can interact with the public is when we launch a beta version of a new website and ask for users' feedback.

J Goreham-Penney said...

I agree with Anon @ 5:48. It drives me insane that people are so down on museum studies programmes- when it's usually mentioned in the job postings! Quite frankly, I learned things that were integral to my development as a museum worker in my museum studies programme. I also learned important things working the front desk. There's no way my front desk experiences alone would ever have helped me get into my current collections management position, where I get to do what I love for a living.

Nina Simon said...

Anon and J Goreham,

I did not intend to demean museum studies programs or students in this post. I agree that museum studies programs (and all kinds of museum work) can be a very powerful learning complement to front line work. I think you need both--the deep dive into long term projects/learning and the frequent interactions with visitors. I'm arguing for integration, not replacement.

While I personally didn't take a grad school route (and have written disparagingly about museum studies programs in the past), my perspective on this has softened. There are many good and useful paths into museum work. I just hope that they all include front line time.

Anonymous said...

I volunteered at a museum where the front line presence was entirely volunteers. Curators, registrars - never interacted with visitors. In fact, on weekends, there were frequently no paid staff anywhere in the museum. We're not talking about a tiny historical society but a multi-million dollar annual budget museum. The staff was totally out of touch with the public and the volunteers, who often didn't even rate eye contact with the staff. What should have been a vibrant community was actually a group of people who volunteered there in spite of the museum infrastructure but because of the other volunteers and the visitors. Pleas to get the staff more involved fell on deaf ears. Right now they're spending a huge amount of money on a new exhibit without any input from volunteers or the public. So much for community involvement!

Mopalia said...

The best learning I've done in museum studies (I'm in a program) has been in the internships. The main advantage of the program is that it forced me into classes about museum topics that I thought I had no interest in - mainly, management,law and ethics. I ended up skipping most of the collections courses and doing a lot of collections internships and volunteering. If you haven't worked the front lines, though, you really don't know about museums and the public. Watching people cruise past the things we're taught to do with informative sign, display, etc. in about 30 seconds makes you realize that what you are learning about how to do things in school may not be what the visitor really wants to see. I'm reminded of an exhibit that was put up with almost no artifacts because the designer thought artifacts were boring, so there was lots of reading and movies to watch. Most visitors walk into the exhibit, look at the artifacts and read the small cards next to them, and ignore the pages of text on the walls and the movies. If you're not watching your visitors, you're not seeing your museum in action. Great post, as usual.

Adrianne said...

One of my fears as I hope to move into management is that I will have to sacrifice the front-line contact that I enjoy so much in museum work. It definitely gives you valuable perspective on vistors' needs,wants and learning styles that you can't get when you're stuck at your desk.

Angela said...

As a nurse, I find this issue in the hospital setting. The "bottom of the totem pole" nursing assistants have the most contact with the patients, followed by nurses, with doctors checking in occasionally. The vast majority of the hospital staff never even see a patient. While the assistants have the lowest pay and do the most physical work, they are the ones that the patients remember. A patient will recommend a facility based on how they are treated, and that treatment mostly comes from the assistants and nurses. It's easy when you get behind a desk to always look at the bottom line and not the actual person who you are treating. Some facilities have the upper management take nursing assistant classes so they can help feed and change patients, letting them participate on the front lines.

In a museum setting, there might be amazing exhibits and perfect labels, but I'm more likely to remember the helpful, friendly people or the rude, angry staff. Sometimes getting out from behind the walls and interacting with those whom we are serving keeps us on track with our mission. I'd also recommend trying on a visitor's shoes and experience what they are seeing.(Like how being a patient helps medical staff realize how they want to be treated.)

Robert C said...

Wow . . . I could ramble on for a very long-time about this one. I am officially in the Museum business for less than 3 years, from a previous 15 years or so in archaeology - mostly with an applied focus. What drove me up the wall during the archaeology period was doing very engaging projects in the community and schools but having my bosses in state agencies frown on my amount of contact time. So now I am the director of a small University-based museum where I get to set my own agenda - and today, I met with Graduate Assistants on their projects, led visitors through exhibits and chatted, met with a community member on potential community-based exhibit projects, did my standard administrative things, posted to our FB page, worked on our newsletter, and I am now staffing the front desk while others are at lunch. I consider myself fortunate to have this diversity of opportunity.

Here are a couple of things that seem relevant: An AAM survey has it something like the average museum employs 5 paid staff and has 70 some odd volunteers. To me, that means at most institutions we all wear multiple hats and if we do not have good front line skills we will not survive. I am fortunate to have worked so much of my career on the front-line because the experience certainly informs absolutely every other decision I make today whether in exhibit development, educational programming, special events and more.

I teach in a Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program through an Applied Anthro Dept in a University that stresses engaged scholarship. Students complete two 150 hour internships that range from the National Civil Rights Museum to rural homestead museums with one paid staff. In core courses students complete projects with area museums as well. These requirements lead to a diversity of real time experiences informed by classroom background.

Today, I enjoy that the end product for me is actually viewing the process of cultural heritage as a tool of empowerment. A total blast that I enjoy immensely.

canthum said...

While I worked as a front lines staffer, I was always surprised at the disconnect between non-front lines staffers and other museum interactors. (I also feel this way a little while in grad school for Museum Studies...). How can the museum be available for the public if the non-floor staff don't express an interest or encounter the museum's floor environment?

I have found the most successful non-floor staff to be people who do enjoy interacting with the public, attending the museum's events, and absorbing the floor environment.

Interestingly enough, most of my work as a front lines employee was after hours or on weekends with the highest levels of attendance. This left me with a lot of responsibility, interactions, and opportunities to hear what was really going on. However, I had to actively seek out learning opportunities to enhance my service to visitors because I was only part time and not part of the office culture.

Hybrid positions... interesting and possibly very beneficial. I guess structure depends on the style of the museum. As a visitor, I would love to encounter the range of employees. Imagine running into the curator in a gallery and getting to ask a question or share a comment!

I would also like to be greeted by a front-lines person who has the capacity to inform me and enhance my visit, orient me if I am new, etc. Just a meditation on this last thought: http://thewordspeak.tumblr.com/post/459451142/white-walls-one-of-the-self-proclaimed-premier

Nina Simon said...

Canthum,
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You should also check out this great art project by photographer Andy Freeburg, who juxtaposed gallery attendants at Russian art museums and Chelsea galleries. Fun stuff.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Mary said...

Working the front lines in a museum is critical to understanding the true implementation of its mission and how the audience responds. Everyone has done such a great job of discussing that here.

I would like to reiterate that hybrid jobs can be found in small museums. I'm the museum manager for my organization, which means I do a lot of management kinds of tasks, but I sit at the front desk, so I'm often the first point of contact for visitors. Our Executive Director taught us that no matter what we were working on, whoever walked in the door was the first priority.

It can be tough to switch focus from writing a research-heavy newsletter article to beaming at a visitor and I have to admit, it takes me a few minutes to adjust. It's worth it, though, because our visitors teach us so much. They tend to think we have all the answers on county history, but really, taken in aggregate, they know waaaaaaay more than we do.

Anonymous said...

I love the passion that the "professional" or administrative staff have for front line positions, and I hope that as I "move up the totem pole," I am fortunate enough to find a hybrid position. It sounds like the work we do on the front line is well respected by the administrators mentioned in this blog (maybe with the exception of budget minded bosses). But, before the salaried staff begin taking hours out of our work week, it would be nice to show that respect to the people who actually do work on the front line. Give us a place to hang our coats and put our purses, give us a lunch break, pay us not only for the hours that we work on the front line but also the many hours we spend at home preparing for it. Treat us like real staff members. I love being a part time museum teacher, but I hate that I have to be one because I don't have a masters degree and am therefore not qualified for a "real" museum job. When I get my masters degree (which costs a pretty penny), I am also frustrated that I won't be able to afford to be on the front line anymore.
I hope that hybrid positions become more the norm for museum professionals who would benefit from them, but first the front line work has to be treated as professional work and not just talked about as such during annual appreciation dinners and by administrators wishing to fulfill their feedback loop.

Anonymous said...

I got my start on in the museum world working directly with guests and it's an experience I will cherish forever. This experience provides the opportunity to become the flesh and blood incarnation of the museum's vision and developed a gut-level understanding for how your implementation of it works (or doesn't). As a manager, I also have the ability to understand the needs of all forward-facing staff and can plan to support both our employees as well as the guests.

When I'm feeling caught up in piles of paperwork and have spent what might seem to be an eternity the first thing I do is hop down to the floor and facilitate a program. After all, being able to provide those experiences are why we're in this game and there's no better pick-me-up than helping create a fun and personal experience for our guests.

While I've taken coursework in museum studies, I'm certain my time as a forward-facing employee is most responsible for preparing me for the work I do today.

Margaret Middleton said...

Agreed! Echoing most of the comments here, I value the brief time that I spent on the floor of museums.

Direct experience with visitor interactions with exhibits and activities have informed the way I've developed craft projects and repaired and designed exhibits: from material choices to component placement to the wording of interpretation.

Those insights remind me to step out on the floor often, even if it's not my primary job or inclination.

gih said...

@nina

yes, you are right, perhaps some museum have most info about everything that help people in their research and quries.

mark said...

Insightful and accurate as always Nina.
It is frustrating that to be in a position to make a difference you (normally) need to be further and further from the action. I wonder if making all posts more identifiable and similar by using something like competencies would that make them more interchangeable? The communication skills exercised by frontline/gallery floor (and lets get rid of these titles) need to be just as highly tuned as the development manager asking for donations or the curator dealing with artists. Different audiences but as a first impressions maker and also part of the experience that visitors are paying for or are seeking out the face they see needs to be as welcoming as the Director receiving a £1million cheque.

If everyone has the same competencies to aspire to then the work done by everyone can then be equally viewed, measured and distributed as appropriate throughout the organsiation's needs.

Nina Simon said...

mark,
I think the Wing Luke Asian Museum does what you describe very well. Their set of principles "critical to success" include "hiring staff for their relationship-building skills, not just subject-matter expertise." Visitors, staff, volunteers, and board members have blended roles - and they all have meaningful relationships to the institution. It makes for a very unique place.

I wrote a case study on that museum in Chapter 8 of The Participatory Museum - it's near the beginning of the chapter.

Xianhang Zhang said...

This reminds me of the debate within software about whether engineers should do customer service and the similarly small number of companies who make a serious commitment towards it.

It also reminds me of the big shift in Manufacturing towards Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyota_Production_System . This American Life just had a recent segment on GM's experience trying to adopt the TPS and it's a fascinating story.

Unfortunately, experience has shown that it often takes the threat of extinction to force an organization to take this shift seriously.

Emily said...

Graduating from my undergrad in the arts and in the hopes of potentially moving up the museum ladder, I started working at the front lines in a contemporary art museum. I was excited to be around art, working within the art community, and being around artists. Having worked at the front lines for two years, I expected to learn a lot from my colleagues in Visitor services, Security, Administration Staff, and Curators about the process and operations of a museum.

What I didn't expect was learning more about the purpose of a museum through my interactions with museum patrons. Engaging with the visitors about the art, or explaining to them why it is important to not touch the Anish Kappor "Past, Present, and Future," or, helping them find the best route back home, have proven to me that visitors are equally important, if not more important, as the art hanging on the wall. For if there is art on the wall and no one comes to see
it, what's the purpose?

Although that was 3 years ago and I never moved up the ladder within that museum, my reason working at a museum has changed. Currently, I'm working full-time at a photography school (as the front desk person and the gallery manager) but working towards my masters degree in museum studies.

I've familiar with the Web 2.0 concept and user-friendly platform and found your blog very fascinating! A lot of the current issues I'm studying at my grad program is relevant to your blog and I'm so eager to see more of your posts! Thanks!

Maria Mortati said...

When I was an Exhibit Developer at the Exploratorium, I think I had a pretty hybrid job. They insisted that every developer do one day of maintenance per week. This meant, doing the "bucket walk" of turning on the exhibits, fixing anything broken, etc. You were out amongst the crowds and seeing what broke often (or not), what people gravitated towards and how... the list goes on. I also spent time managing corporate volunteers "helping me" with maintenance. A good way to develop potential affinity groups. Finally, our machine shop was in the middle of the exhibit floor (almost). So anytime I was working on the lathe, etc., visitors were watching. It was exhausting living a loud, fishbowl life. I learned more than I could pen in this post.

KBF said...

Nina - Thank you so much for this post. I am currently working in visitor services and hoping to break into a collections management or registrar position. As you know, this can be extremely difficult and frustrating. Your post espouses a view that I wish more people shared - that experience on the front lines is valuable and, even better, necessary. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I work in the visitors services department at my museum. I loved this post. Even though I have a degree I am in this position, sometimes I do get the feeling I will be "trapped" in visitor services. Even though I work for a great organization, sometimes there does seem to be a disconnect between us and non-floor staff. Before I saw this blog a few co-workers and I were talking about the same thing you mentioned how the people who design the visitor policies/operations aren't the ones working with the visitors and while they may do good research they don't know what is unique to our museum with our visitors. And sometimes it seems like we don't have a say in those policies or much of one. And sadly this position is very low paying but very important to the museum. I do agree there should be more hybrid jobs as well as everyone in the museum being required to spend time on the floor.