Monday, May 28, 2012


Last week, at a workshop with twenty five Connecticut organizations who are part of the StEPs CT program, I began the day by asking participants to share a time they felt really welcome at an museum or historic site--and the group shared a wide range of answers that really expressed the many ways in which visitors want to interact with us  (and, by the way,  it was a great way to shift the day's dynamic from museum worker to museum visitor).

Here's some ways visitors felt welcomed:
  • Getting a special peek behind the scenes.
  • A tour guide or docent who really engaged and spent time with them.
  • A tour guide or staff who really left the visitor alone to explore.
  • Knowledgeable docents.
  • Front desk people who looked happy to see you,  who looked up when you came in.
  • Staff who worked to find out your knowledge and interests.
  • Labels that worked at many different levels (although in general, welcoming museums are characterized by people, not labels).
  • Labels and lighting big enough and bright enough
But there was one story that I'll paraphrase here that really struck me as important.  One of the participants, a board member at a volunteer organization,  choose to describe a long-ago museum visit.   She remembers walking home from the swimming pool one day when she was a kid, with a few friends, in their swim suits, carrying their towels and for some reason, which she can't now remember, they decided they wanted to visit the historic house they passed on the way.  Marching up to the door,  they rang the door bell.  She doesn't remember paying any admission and thinks the woman working there just let them in for free,  in their swimsuits.   She still remembers what she saw that day, and how exciting it was when the guide took a foot warmer down, opened it up, and let them look inside.  She had a great smile on her face decades on as she shared the story.

Over a great dinner in Minneapolis,  Susie Wilkening and I had a long conversation about engagement with objects and about whether objects really matter.  This story, with the simplest of objects and the most welcoming of museum workers, reinforced for me the power of both people and objects.  It's the combination together that makes museums compelling, unique places.  What's your welcoming story?


Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

I agree with--and have experienced as a museum visitor and a docent--each of these qualities that make a visitor feel welcome. And it is interesting that two of them seem to oppose each other: talking with and engaging in conversation with visitors AND leaving visitors alone to experience the place in their own way. Of course this means paying attention, having the insight to know what a visitor wants/feels comfortable with. Good advice for a host of any kind, and not as common a practice as I wish it were! The docent as host is a great, not-often-enough-discussed subject. Thanks!

Tegan Kehoe said...

I agree that all of these elements are important to welcome. One of my favorite parts about working directly with visitors is the opportunity to offer these moments!

The idea of feeling welcome got me thinking about something related -- how to welcome people who may not be feeling welcomed elsewhere. I'm still learning how to do this, myself, but here are a few thoughts on what museums can do:

- Welcome speakers of other languages with a handout in their own language explaining what they will see the galleries.
- Welcome visitors of all abilities by offering elevators, audio tours, large-print type, etc. --- and making it clear where to find them!
- Welcome visitors of all abilities by remembering that not all dogs are just pets, and not all service dogs have the distinctive seeing-eye dog harness. Welcome visitors who have hearing dogs, seizure alert dogs, etc, by greeting them along the lines of "is your friend a service dog?" instead of, "no dogs except guide dogs."
- Welcome visitors of all genders, including people who are transgender, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming by addressing your tour groups as "friends," "guests," etc., rather than "ladies and gentlemen."
- Welcome them even more by providing single-stall restrooms labeled "restroom" instead of "men" and "women." Trans people, gender nonconforming people, and anyone who may look unusual for their gender often get harassed (and even beaten or arrested) for using the "wrong" bathroom. It doesn't have to happen in your museum.

These thoughts are from my experience on the museum end and from talking with friends who have faced these challenges.
While some of them only apply to a small number of visitors, just like the ideas for welcoming everyone, they are easy to do and go a long way towards making someone feel not just accepted, but welcomed.

(Wow, your post inspired me to write a comment the length of a very short essay!)

Linda said...

Thanks Ginny and Tegan for your thoughts. Yes, I found it interesting that different members of the group wanted different things (and sometimes I want different things at different times--many of us are probably unpredictable in that way). So paying attention is probably first. And Tegan--what a great list! I once watched a front desk person ask a young couple if they'd ever visited in a tone that impled that there might be something wrong with them that they hadn't. It's so much a question of tone and just thinking about it. Your suggestions are all so easy--they just require a bit more thoughtfulness--and training. And I wonder whether organizations do training to address these you know of any?

Bruce Whitmarsh said...

I think that the responses really point to the need to properly train and invest in our front line staff. Even if they are volunteers, these are the people who make a visit to our museum enjoyable. Including my own experience as a visitor, the well trained docent has made the difference between good and OK museum visits.

Elisabeth Nevins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elisabeth Nevins said...

If only all museums—historic sites especially—had such an open-door, come as you are approach. What SIMPLE gestures, and what a powerful impact—years later and this woman still smiles and, perhaps more importantly, volunteers at a similar institution. I can only imagine that her approach with visitors to her museum is similarly warm and welcoming.

In response to some of the comments to this post—after years in this business I wish it was as "simple" as using some kind of "magic bullet" training method that would mold all frontline museum staff into the perfect hosts. Training is certainly important and essential, but at the end of the day, I'm starting to believe you either have it or you don't. It's a magical quality to find in a staffer/volunteer and I don't think it can be taught. When we find these magical people we need to do whatever we can to make sure they stay working for us as long as possible...

Rainey Tisdale said...

Several years ago I was working at a historic site that received visitors from all over the country. A group of staffers spent some time experimenting with different ways to greet these visitors as they came through the door--what to say, where to stand, etc. Each of us would take a shift greeting, and then we compared notes. I grew up in the South and took a Southerner's approach to my greeting: open, effusive, trying to start a conversation. It turned out that worked really well for some visitors and really poorly for others, partly based on where the visitors themselves were from and partly based on other issues. This is another take on needing to be able to read your visitors, and have the flexibility to give them the kind of welcome they want.

Linda said...

Great comments everyone--Rainey, what a great idea of having everyone on staff try out their styles as a front of house person! And Bruce, partly a matter of training and expectations but also, like Elizabeth mentions, some people just have it. I remember reading somewhere that Southwest Airlines hires for attitude, not skills, figuring they can give people the knowledge they need to do the job but if they don't have the right attitute, then nothing else matters. And that's true whether you're paid staff or volunteer. I think one problem is that familiarity breeds a sort of lack of attention. So get out there, work at the front desk, and really observe what's going on!