Creating development opportunities for visitor assistants

Amy Saunders and Laura Lewis-Davies, 16.07.2018
Two case studies from the V&A, London
The visitor experience department at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London is made up of gallery assistants, volunteers and volunteer guides.

My colleagues and I proposed a development programme that aimed to increase opportunities for gallery assistants to deliver short talks about the collection and to increase collaboration between departments.

We called this programme Flip, which stands for flexibility, learning, inclusivity, passion – the linchpins of the programme.

The main aim was to support gallery assistants to share “gallery experiences” with visitors and give them a deeper understanding of the museum’s collections.

When I became the department’s administrator, I was asked to implement the Flip pilot programme, working with the apprenticeship and trainee programmes manager to shape the project.

By collaborating we established a programme that fitted our original proposal exactly with the additional bonus of it being an accredited unit of the Diploma in Cultural Heritage.

All full- and part-time gallery assistants were invited to apply, with 12 selected at random to participate. This process created a diverse cohort with varied areas of interest.

To support participants research and develop their gallery experiences, we paired them with curators and conservators. A series of classroom-based sessions explored visitor expectations and approaches to delivering engaging gallery experiences.

Accompanying these sessions were work-based learning assessments in which the gallery assistants submitted evidence of their research, practised their gallery experiences and carried out self and peer evaluations.

The first cohort of participants have completed their projects, presenting their talks to visitors, colleagues and for assessment for their cultural heritage unit.

My involvement in the programme has enabled me to develop my professional skills, especially my understanding of work-based learning.

I offered one-to-one sessions to participants who needed support and was the main point of contact for questions about the programme.

I am pleased to see that the pilot project has been successful and we are very proud of what the gallery assistants have achieved. We plan to invite the next cohort to start their projects in the autumn.

Amy Saunders is the visitor experience administrator at the V&A

Work-based learning at the V&A

Work-based learning is most effective when it’s developed in partnership with end users – the learners themselves.

The visitor-experience team then approached me to explore how we could design a new development programme created by gallery assistants for gallery assistants – it had the hallmarks of a successful programme as it started with the needs of the learners.

The gallery assistants had come up with the idea for Flip. My challenge was to work out how to enable them to bring the project to life, and ultimately “flip” the expectations of the visitor through the creation of gallery experiences.

The objectives of the programme were:

  • To give gallery assistants the opportunity to utilise and develop their research skills to explore objects of personal interest.
  • To build cross-departmental relationships and pair gallery assistants with curators and conservators to enrich their research.
  • To enable gallery assistants to enhance the visitor experience through their own passion and learning.
  • To develop an accredited programme to recognise the achievements of the gallery assistants.

We selected a work-based learning unit from the Diploma in Cultural Heritage that focused on three key areas: identifying visitor needs and expectations; researching information about the collection; and delivering facts, stories and themes to engage others.

We registered the cohort as learners with the awarding body, set them up with e-portfolios, assigned an assessor and internal verifier, designed the learning sessions and resources, and then began delivery.

We had gallery assistants from six different teams involved in the pilot. Scheduling learning sessions was challenging, so we split them into smaller groups to accommodate shift patterns.

It was important to allocate the gallery assistants sufficient – and equal – time to do research.

The range of gallery experiences that the pilot team have developed is fantastic. Props, images, sounds, poems and juicy gossip have all featured, highlighting the innovative approaches the gallery assistants have taken to storytelling.

We’re in the process of collating feedback, and the gallery assistants have cited building positive relationships; being invited to do longer talks by curators; and learning about their objects in Blythe House (the V&A’s study and research centre in Hammersmith) as the highlights.

With the pilot cohort we are focusing on how to embed the gallery experiences in the visitor-experience programme.

Laura Lewis-Davies is the apprenticeship and trainee programmes manager at the V&A and co-convenor for the Group for Education in Museums London