What does good staff training look like?


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:

march 6 staff map

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?”

girl at MC - smaller

A child watching balls travel through air tubes at the PlayHouse

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?

playhouse water table

The PlayHouse water table

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.


One thought on “What does good staff training look like?

  1. Thanks for your post. I manage the K-12 Education Programs at a History Museum, and think about and facilitate staff training a lot (my staff attends training once every other week!) There are two activities I do with my staff during their training that I have found to be immensely helpful in: A.) facilitating staff understanding of how students interact with and make sense of the museum space and B.) empowering staff to encourage and deepen student interaction with the museum.

    The first activity is an exercise in uncovering barriers students may face to accessing the museum space and its content. My staff spends a lot of time looking at everything from implied messages in the architecture, to language used in labels, to the artifacts we choose to put on display, to the characteristics of the staff. They think about how students may interpret these messages embedded in the museum, and the skills they may naturally draw on to overcome them. I find this activity makes my staff better prepared to anticipate ways in which students may struggle to fully engage with the museum, which in turn helps them to make accommodations that make the museum more accessible for all students. In sum, it is an exercise in considering multiple perspectives (which also happens to be one of the big goals we have for students on our programs!)

    Another activity I find very usefully is something I call “student comment scenarios.” I created this exercise because I got really tired of hearing my staff (and the docents I formerly worked with) complain that when they would ask open ended questions the students never really got the “right answer”. So I started observing a lot of tours and jotted down some of the student responses. What I noticed was that students were actually making incredibly astute observations about and connections to the artifacts and artworks, but that the way in which it came out of their mouths initially seemed “wrong” or off topic. I transcribed these comments, and gave them to my staff to do a few things with: 1.) They work to identify productive follow-up questions based on what the students had been thinking about, 2.) They name the thinking skill the student is actually using (this helps them realize that students are doing hard and meaningful work), and 3.) They group like statements so that they can more easily draw common threads from the group’s comments. I found that this exercise enables my staff to better handle student comments on the fly, and more importantly it helps them to realize that even though students may not deliver “text book perfect answers” they are engaging with the artifacts in really deep and meaningful ways.

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