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?