Saturday 21 November 2015

Bridges, not barriers

One of the things that really struck me on my trip to the States was the segregation between customer service staff and security staff at large American museums. In some cases, the customer services staff are museum employees, while the security guards are from an external firm. The customer services staff at the front desk are friendly, engaging, empowered to talk to visitors: the security guards are silent forms, doing their best to be invisible whilst also being watchful.

As this article about The Broad makes clear, the divisions between the two sets of staff can be very strong, and there's vested interest in keeping the roles separate:
But Stevan Layne, a veteran security consultant to museums and other cultural sites, is not persuaded that pleasant conversation and detailed knowledge about art should be in gallery attendants' job descriptions. To him, it's a way for museums to cut costs by folding separate security and visitor service functions into one. "I'm opposed to doing that," Layne said. "It can be a distraction from the primary mission" of protecting the art.
What bullshit.

Anyway. I started thinking about that again this week when I read this article in the Dallas Morning News about Nasher Sculpture Center guard Patricia Ann Jackson. Now, Jackson sounds like a really great asset for the museum:
Everyone’s a critic. The phrase is not typically meant as a compliment, but for those of us who do the job professionally, it’s not only a badge of honor, but a goal. Building an engaged public is one of our chief responsibilities, and we need all the help we can get.  
At the Nasher Sculpture Center, that help comes from an unlikely source, Patricia Ann Jackson, a native Dallasite who has worked as a guard at the museum for the last three years, mostly in the lower-level gallery, where she has gained a devoted following for her considerable charm and perspicacious, if idiosyncratic, commentary.  
 “If you come into a room and I’m the guard, I should be able to tell you something about the pieces that are in the room, and not just be a piece in the room,” says Jackson, 46.
But the overall tone of the article - which when I read it made it feel like Jackson was being presented almost like a talking dog, a strange and entertaining anomaly - made me feel really uncomfortable. Maybe it's just because my experience in New Zealand has been so different. In the three museums where I've worked FOH, and here at The Dowse, the expectation has always been that you will be engaged, and in turn be engaging. That this is where the job satisfaction is, in a role that otherwise involves a lot of standing around and telling people (a) not to touch that and (b) the toilets are down that flight of stairs and to the left. That American museums are only just coming around to the idea of the people on the floor with the visitors being there to act as a bridge, and not a barrier, astounds me.

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