On the front line - Museums Association

On the front line

A new charter will aim to address the low morale among visitor experience teams
Front of House Workforce
The People’s History Museum recently changed the name of its front-of-house department from ‘visitor services’ to  the ‘visitor experience’ team
The People’s History Museum recently changed the name of its front-of-house department from ‘visitor services’ to the ‘visitor experience’ team People’s History Museum

This spring, the Museums Association and FoHMuseums, the network for front-of-house workers, are launching the Front of House Charter for Change. The charter will articulate ways in which museums can create a culture where front-of-house colleagues are valued, respected and treated positively, in line with other members of the workforce.

It comes in response to research by FoHMuseums showing that staff in visitor service roles consistently felt less valued, less motivated and less able to impact on museum practice than those working back-of-house. They reported poor pay and fewer training and progression opportunities, and often felt less integrated, with some saying they were left out of all-staff meetings or had ideas and suggestions ignored.

The research took place before Covid-19 and since then, it’s safe to say that the situation for many has worsened. A consultation carried out during the development of the Charter for Change bears this out: in the early days of Covid, when front-of-house workers were furloughed, many felt cut adrift and unsupported by their organisations.

As workers whose skillset lies in sociability and interaction with people, they felt the isolation of lockdown keenly. Visitor services teams were also disproportionately hit by the redundancies that swept across the sector in 2020.

Charter for Change

The Charter for Change articulates ways museums can create a culture where front-of-house colleagues are valued, respected and treated positively, in line with other members of the museum’s workforce.

By focusing attention on:

  • Wellbeing
  • Inclusion
  • Recognition
  • Training and development
  • Pay and conditions

Museums are more likely to:

  • Decrease staff turnover and increase attendance
  • Increase talent and deliver excellent customer service
  • Create a positive experience and a good reputation as an employer
Silver linings

Despite these challenges, not everyone had a bad experience during lockdown, says the MA’s workforce development officer, Tamsin Russell, who ran the consultation. “Some organisations stepped up
and committed more time for continuing professional development or other interesting tasks – there were a few positives,” she says.

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Other front-of-house staff have said that frequent Zoom meetings helped them to bond more with their own team members – who often work shifts, so don’t always cross paths – as well as with other people in the wider organisation.

After the first lockdown, front-of-house staff came back to a very different environment. Working on the front line during a pandemic, before vaccines were available, was a huge responsibility. Workers had to navigate complicated new ticketing systems and one-way routes, as well as enforcing the ever-changing government regulations on face coverings, hygiene practices and data collection – and do it all with a smile beneath their masks.

With most colleagues still working remotely, museums were a lonely place for front-of-house staff, says Chad MacGitchie-Simpson, head of visitor teams at the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery. “It was tricky to be hyper-vigilant all day, grappling with new software and information that didn’t make much sense, trying to keep ourselves and visitors safe,” he says.

Many team members have since experienced burnout, says MacGitchie-Simpson.

Source of conflict

Hybrid working can also be a source of conflict, according to MacGitchie-Simpson, as it can breed resentment between those whose roles mean they have to be present in the museum and those at home – something that will need to be kept in mind as organisations rethink working models.

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Front-of-house workers have borne the brunt of staff shortages due to sickness and self-isolation, most recently during the Omicron wave.

The Whitworth was one of many institutions to close just before Christmas, as infection rates grew. “I told everyone to go home and relax,” says MacGitchie-Simpson. “We’re getting out of the mindset that it is everything to keep the doors open. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it.”

Ensuring everyone in the organisation understands each other’s role is key to making front-of-house workers feel valued, says MacGitchie-Simpson.

Special offer: 10% off membership

Calling all front-of-house museum colleagues

To mark the launch of our Front-of-House Charter for Change, which explores how we can improve the treatment and experience of front-of-house museum colleagues, use the discount code FOH10 at the membership checkout for 10% off your individual MA membership until Monday 11 April.

This means not just offering visitor services workers experience back-of-house, but asking staff from other departments to fill in on the exhibition floor.

“The best step is people coming in and working shifts, and getting to know the role,” he says. “It helps them to understand more about the role and its complexities. These are highly skilled, motivated and dynamic people – they’re not standing around doing nothing.”

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Cross-departmental working can lead to a richer, more in-depth understanding of what visitors are looking for from exhibitions and tours. “When you pull all of that together, that’s when the magic happens,” says MacGitchie-Simpson.

He hopes the charter will lead to a measurable plan of action. “There needs to be representation at leadership level – museums need to show that they’re a space where people can speak up, challenge and be creative.”

MacGitchie-Simpson says the charter should act as a set of values for all of the organisation. “It holds more weight if the whole museum is held to account.”

Many institutions are pioneering good practice in this area. The People’s History Museum, in Manchester, recently changed the name of its front-of-house department from “visitor services” to the “visitor experience” team, in response to a suggestion from a team member.

“It’s far more than a semantic change,” says Chrissy Davison, the museum’s head of finance. “It reflects the skills and knowledge the team has in being able to open up conversations about our collection. They are the foundation of our museum.”

Proposals will improve the workplace experience

The Covid-19 pandemic has repeatedly shown the importance of front-of-house to the museum sector.

The indispensable role played by these staff was no clearer than this winter when, as Omicron swept across the UK, museums were forced to close. This was not due to any lockdown, but as a result of front-of-house staff shortages caused by Covid.

Despite this, research by the Museums Association and FoHMuseums has highlighted the mixed experiences front-of-house staff have had prior to and during the pandemic. The Front of House Charter for Change will create a list of recommendations that any organisation can use to assess and establish a route map to improving the workplace experiences of front-of-house workers.

The charter should not be seen in isolation. The MA’s Sticks and Stones report illustrated how being made to feel insignificant was one of the most common examples of bullying, for example.

This feeling of insignificance has been particularly felt by front-of-house workers.

If they are not suitably supported, the activities of museums, such as working with communities and carrying out decolonisation, are put at risk, simply because those who engage and communicate with the public are not being valued.

Museums can thrive only when we are all valued and supported to succeed.

The recommendations made in the charter are reasonable and many can be applied to any person working in the sector. And the principles that underlie them are unifying and should be embraced by all.

William Tregaskes, co-founder of FoHMuseums

Learn more about the charter at our one-day conference

The Museums Association’s workforce development officer Tamsin Russell will introduce the Front-of-House Charter for Change at our upcoming one-day conference, Getting to Know You: Understanding Museum Audience, on 28 April.

Fully funded places are available for MA members who face access barriers.

Book your place now

 

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