Staff Decision-Making and Responsiveness in Audience-Centered Museums
Neil G. Kotler, Ph.D., Virginia, USA
Museums in the 21st Century have accepted the notion that there responsibility is twofold: first, to collect and interpret and protect their collections; second, to provide visitors with exceptional experiences and services. The acceptance of the latter view took decades to fully achieve since a number of museum professionals considered their professional obligations as primary, often at odds with their obligation to visitors. The ethic of service was shaped in the U.S. by museum pioneers such as Charles Willson Peale (Peale Museum in Philadelphia), John Cotton Dana (The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey) and George Brown Goode (the Smithsonian Institution). Great Britain, Germany, and other European nations had their own pioneers who recognised the importance of museum service.
Audience-Centeredness, as it developed in the U.S., referred principally to services offered to visitors and the experiences that visitors were able to take away from their museum visits. Services consisted of employees (guards, information aides, curators, educators) having welcoming behaviours to visitors and offering knowledge to share with visitors about the museum collections and other assets. Service also involved providing visitors with maps and way-finding guides to museum treasures and other objects and collections. Service consisted of maintaining clean facilities (restrooms, dining halls, galleries). Finally, museum service was judged by the quality of the merchandise in the gift shop and of the refreshments in the restaurant or cafeteria.
Connor-Prairie, a significant living history museum and historic site in Indiana, enforced its service ethic by hiring what it called “mystery visitors.” These individuals visited the museum to determine the quality of services in all aspects of museum operations. Mystery visitors did not announce their visits to the director or staff. They visited all facilities and programs, gauged staff reactions to visitors, and wrote reports on the quality of service or the disservice toward visitors occurring in a museum. The Mystery Visitor program became an important tool to uncover undesirable practices and to correct them.
The Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Quebec several years ago created one of the most intensive service-oriented programs existing in a museum in North America. Visitors were considered to be guests. Staff were rigorously trained in all aspects of serving audiences. Staff were trained and they graduated with praise or the lack thereof. Bonuses were offered to staff, who exemplified the highest quality service.
Besides services, audience-centered museums offer visitors a range of
experiences, which aim to make museum visits highly satisfactory and likely to lead visitors to share their positive views with friends and family. Over the long run, good museum experiences thereby increase visitorship. Six primary types of museum experiences have been found in first-rate museums: (1) learning; (2) sensory and aesthetic perceptions (museums have objects and major senses are involved in viewing and appreciating these objects, including sight, occasionally sound and smell); (3) recreation (consisting of relaxation, diversion, the purchase of goods in the gift shop, the purchase of refreshments in the restaurant, and watching and listening to other people); (4) sociability (most museum visitors come with family and friends and, therefore, value sociability, sharing experiences with others and enjoying the company of others); (5) celebrative experience (honouring an individual, group, or nation for its accomplishments and its contributions to the good of other human beings; connecting with the past and luminaries and their achievements; finding heroes who could be ordinary citizens doing enormous tasks well and appreciating events that transform communities for the better); and (6) enchanting experience (encountering things that uplift the mind, imagination, and spirit; finding fascination with people, things and places; lifting oneself out of the routine of every day life to a higher level of inspiration, rapture and awe).
Great museums offer visitors a measure of each of these experiences and different combinations and degrees of each. The Getty Museum in the Brentwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles offers exceptional beauty and enchantment, as visitors look upon the ocean, view the homes and hills of Los Angeles, and enjoy the beautiful gardens and heights that the Getty offers. Recreation, too, is found in the shops and restaurants at the Getty. The Walker Art Centre’s once-monthly Family Days offer visitors a combination of experiences, most of which are intense and highly prized. The Minneapolis museum helps children learn from museum educators how to make clothing of different historical eras and how to draw. Parents often socialise with other parents, whose children are together in learning and playful settings. The museum has concerts performed by children and by teenagers and this offers a sense of celebrating the talents of young people. The special food served in the restaurant and the special merchandise available in the gift shop reinforces the recreational quality of the museum visit. Enchantment is found in the great art that is exhibited in the Walker’s galleries.
Museum staff have to be committed to helping visitors capture the best experiences available in their museums. Otherwise, the most rigorous training will not transform individuals into visitor-centred staff. This places great responsibility on the director and other senior-level museum professionals to recruit staff who potentially show the qualities of service to visitors. This also places a burden on a museum to maintain staff training and, in particular, to train staff to handle crises, ranging from children who get into fights to adults who complain loudly about food service.
The major variable in training staff for audience-centred museums is the disposition and attitude of staff members. If they are motivated to interact with visitors, arouse their imagination and ideas, and make their visits special and enjoyable, then visitors will have the opportunity to have unforgettable experiences that elevate their feelings and thoughts. Museum staff members themselves have to make decisions on whether to participate with visitors and undertake the sometimes discouraging or awkward moments of interaction with museum audiences. These affirmative decisions should have the full support of directors and senior-level professionals.
The Krannert Art Museum on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana has taken an additional step of promoting interaction between staff and visitors. Visitors are able to participate in small groups along with a curator and share perspectives, questions, thoughts and feelings. Museums like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City encourage members to join curators to visit objects and collections that are stored beyond the galleries.