At the PlayHouse, we brought on two new managers this week. These managers are responsible for supervising front line, daily operations – things like opening and closing registers, making sure the museum is ready for visitors when we open, and toys and exhibits are cleaned and sanitized at the end of the day, and throughout the day dealing with any visitor concerns or other problems. Their training, developed by our Operations Manager, included five days of conversations and instruction about membership, cleaning policies, staff, and more, as well as time spent getting to know the museum, shadowing employees, and starting to manage while mentored by experienced managers. This was the first time we had hired managers, rather than promoting from within, and I was (and remain) very impressed by the thought the Operations Manager put into training, and the intensity of the training she created.
But as I sat down to write this week’s blog post, it occurred to me that what this training did NOT include was time to engage as visitors, and to absorb our larger goals for visitors in any deep or meaningful way. Which intersects with a question I am constantly grappling with, which is how to effectively achieve museum goals for visitors, especially when they might challenge visitor (and often staff) expectations.
As I thought about this post, I made a drawing of our hoped-for visitor outcomes, to try to think about what we are asking of staff:
But it didn’t take long to come back to the answer I already knew: In order for staff to help visitors achieve these outcomes, staff must embody these outcomes. It is impossible for a staff member who is not curious to teach a child to be curious.
This is a problem currently prevalent in K-12 education, which is beset by top-down curriculum design and training. If the goal of K-12 education is for children to know basic math skills, perhaps it makes sense for teachers to implement a standardized curriculum based on “best practices” for teaching these skills. But if the goal is to foster innovation, curiosity, and problem solving – the much-touted “21st century skills” – then teachers must be trained and encouraged to be innovative, curious, and solve problems. We are compromising the teaching of important aptitudes by training and testing based on discipline-specific skills.
This is true in museums as well. If we want visitors to be curious, and to begin to explore independently, then staff needs to both embrace and be skilled in this approach to the world. (I use the goal of curiosity because I think on some level this is – or should be – a goal across all museum disciplines.)
I want to think this through in staffing in two ways – in a children’s museum context and an art museum context.
In a children’s museum, this means that when floor staff catch a child using a toy from one area in another area, they need to understand that that the child is likely experimenting (“I notice these wind tubes suck up balls. Will they suck up this plastic food, too?”). Which means they need intervention tactics which stop the child from potentially breaking an exhibit component by sending plastic food up an air tube meant for smooth round balls, while at the same time supporting experimentation generally, and re-directing the child’s curiosity to something that is less harmful to the museum. Which is no small task under the best of circumstances. In order to do this effectively, the staff person needs to embrace and recognize curiosity, to BE curious. To be able to genuinely say to the child, “I love that you are experimenting with things, but this one will break the machine. What are some other things we could try? Maybe we could see if the plastic food floats in the water table? Or if we can get two balls to go up the air tubes at once?”
In an art museum, this means that when a visitor gets too close to a work of art, a nearby guard needs to understand this as an act of curiosity. Instead of saying, “You’re too close, move away,” the guard might say, “I’m sorry, we don’t allow visitors this close to the art. I’m curious about what you are looking closely at – is there something here that particularly interests you?” Or when a visitor asks at the Admissions Desk how large the exhibit is, and whether they have time to see it in an hour, the Visitor Services representative might answer, “It isn’t an enormous exhibit, but there is a lot to see and think about. I personally love the work on the 5th floor, and could spend an hour there alone. One strategy we recommend is walking through the entire exhibit and then go back to a few pieces that you love or are curious about.”
This applies to all staff, or at least any staff that encounters visitors in any way, from the admissions staff to curators and exhibit designers; from marketing and public relations staff to museum educators.
What might this training look like?
In a children’s museum, we might challenge staff to come up with their own experiments in the galleries. Spend time at the water table: what are you curious about? How can you experiment and learn more? If one of those experiments endangers the exhibit or visitors, are there other ways to test your curiosity? What is the most exciting experiment you can come up with here? What do you wish you could test, but can’t yet, so that we can tackle this challenge as a staff?
In an art museum we might include gallery time in training for all staff, with similar questions: what works are you drawn to, and why? what are you curious about? what are strategies for answering your own questions? how can questions lead to more questions, as well as answers?
Beyond training, we need to encourage staff to ask questions, to challenge the ways we do things; we need to create an environment in which meaningful change comes from the front lines. Which also means creating space for an ongoing dialogue with staff about what is working and how things can be better. It means learning about individual strengths and interests so that staff bring these to the table and use them to think critically about the museum and its visitors. Before we can help visitors ask questions, innovate, and explore, we have to foster the same qualities in staff.
I blog because it helps me think through issues that I might not otherwise attend to or tackle. This post has helped me think more deeply about a challenge that has been sitting at the edges of my consciousness for quite a while. The PlayHouse will be closed for a week in late August for cleaning and touch ups, and this post leaves me with new thoughts about additional uses for that time. I would love to hear ways in which other museums have approached staff training, especially – but not only – in children’s museums, to help staff learn to think creatively, be curious, explore the world, believe in their own power to create change, and celebrate difference.