My house is your house

The sector would be unable to operate effectively without its front-of-house staff. So why do they feel underpowered and undervalued?
Front of House Workforce
John Holt
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Clare Denton
Clare Denton
Lauren Hollowday, Leeds University Library Galleries

Lauren Hollowday is a gallery assistant in the Stanley and Audrey Burton and Treasures of the Brotherton galleries

Lauren Hollowday had mixed front-of-house (FOH) experiences while studying for her undergraduate degree. “I was lucky enough to get a paid position as a box-office assistant at an arts centre, which involved invigilating the gallery space, assisting with exhibition changeovers, ushering and bar work,” she says. “I felt involved with every aspect of engaging with the public.”

Then came a temporary contract at a large museum, which was a different kettle of fish. “It had a more corporate environment; there was little communication between FOH staff and the rest of the organisation, which felt limiting and prevented the feeling of being embedded and involved.”

Hollowday eventually landed in Leeds, where she is currently working in the Stanley and Audrey Burton and Treasures of the Brotherton galleries. “I had never worked with special collections and I have loved learning about the rare books and manuscripts, and the archiving and conservation.

“I have also been involved with events, marketing, exhibition changeovers, research, digitising collections and attended management meetings. The team at the galleries are supportive and passionate about developing the skills of FOH staff.

“I am eager to keep learning as I see these multi-disciplinary roles as the future of the sector,” Hollowday says. She believes the effectiveness of FOH activities depends on the ethos of the organisation.

“There’s a feeling in some institutions that because FOH staff tend to be on the lowest wages – and are often volunteers – and spend their time in gallery spaces rather than the offices where decisions happen, they have less to offer the organisation.”

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Lauren Hollowday

There’s also a perception of FOH teams as the people who stand in galleries telling people not to touch the exhibits, Hollowday says, which leads to a belief in some quarters that it’s a job anyone can do.

“A great-quality visitor experience comes from gallery attendants who are engaging, knowledgeable and always open to speaking to visitors. FOH teams need to feel valued to be enthusiastic about the organisation and provide those great visitor experiences.” 

Clare Denton, University of Oxford Museum of Natural History

Clare Denton works as the front-of-house manager 

Previously the proprietor of a fancy-dress emporium and an actress in West End musicals, Clare Denton feels her glittering work experience was the ideal preparation for her FOH management role. “There are lots of transferable skills,” she says. “From facing the public with a smile when dealing with a problem to running a team with their rotas, admin and finances, and ordering supplies.”

Alongside the necessary first aid and fire-safety training, Denton also prepares her staff for difficult conversations. “We have a huge education programme and can’t take in school groups that turn up unannounced. Telling people they can’t come in even if they’ve travelled a long way is hard. Also, while I’m happy to smile at people and ask for money, other staff find it awkward, so we train them in seeking donations. It’s all about supporting them.”

The varied FOH roles won’t suit everybody, and as part of the interview process, Denton watches applicants welcome actual visitors for 15 minutes. “We once had a girl come in who seemed confident. When I asked if she envisaged any problems working for us, she said she didn’t like children,” says Denton. “We have hundreds of kids here every day, so that could have been an issue.

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“People apply to join us boasting archaeology degrees and PhDs, while others have no museum experience. But if they can’t look me in the eye they won’t be able to connect with visitors.”

Denton was surprised by last year’s surveys that highlighted the disenchantment felt by a lot of FOH folk. “The difference here is that senior management recognises the exhausting work we do and that if the public face of the museum is not looked after, the whole place is devalued.

“I recently went to my bosses and said I’d like to kit the team out in thermal socks, woolly hats and hand warmers as we stand at the front door in cold weather. They said, ‘Fine, do it’. Similarly, I fought hard to get a dedicated quiet space for lunch hours, which would be better than a noisy staff room for someone who could have been talking all morning.”

She says it helps that there are no traditional hierarchical structures in the venue. FOH members sit on all museum committees, ensuring decisions have an FOH perspective, while close contact with back-room operations ensures a flow of up-to-date information.

“I’m just as prepared to sort a blocked toilet or clean up after a teenager who’s been sick on the stairs as any other team member. What we do is so achievable and effective, and creates such a happy working environment, I don’t understand why every museum isn’t doing it.” 

If the public face of the museum is not looked after, the whole place is devalued

Clare Denton, front-of-house manager, University of Oxford Museum of Natural History
Margherita Ciavarretti, Museum of Freemasonry, London

Margherita Ciavarretti is one of the front-of-house team

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Having completed a master’s degree in museum studies, Margherita Ciavarretti (opposite) looked forward to landing what she calls “one of the fancy jobs” in collections or education programmes. “I did lots of unpaid work, but it didn’t quite work out,” she says.

When she was eventually offered her current post at the Museum of Freemasonry she was worried that the subject might be too niche. “But when I arrived, I realised it was about the history of the organisation rather than the experience of becoming a mason and all it entails. People who come here – whether they’re masons, readers or simply curious – don’t know what they might find, so it’s up to us to shape that experience.”

The museum, which is based in an art deco building, is redeveloping its identity and direction, reflecting freemasonry’s more inclusive attitudes of recent years, says Ciavarretti. “We don’t peddle propaganda; we simply talk about the cultural background of masonry, its history and symbolism, which is an enriching experience for visitors and us alike.”

Margherita Ciaveretti

Ciavarretti acknowledges her career is a work in progress. “If you study hard and spend a lot of money on a course, you perhaps might not want to be front of house. It’s not what you worked diligently for, but you can use it to show managers what you’re about in the hope they give you the chance to perform different roles.

“I understand why people can feel frustrated in other museums where they are not given the opportunity to show how passionate they are about the work. But here I’m asked for my opinions and encouraged to develop projects. I’m learning every day. It’s important for the future to know how museums of all kinds work.”

Martyn Jones, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Martyn Jones is a front-of-house supervisor

When former colliery worker Martyn Jones joined the FOH team at St Fagans, he was reintroduced to his own history. Among the many buildings at the open-air museum site are the Rhyd-y-car cottages, a terrace of 18th-century miners’ homes that were brought from their original location in Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, and rebuilt at St Fagans in the 1980s.

“I am from Merthyr Valley and remember the Rhyd-y-car cottages in their original place,” says Jones. “I also worked underground with a man who lived in Rhyd-y-car. It’s great to see my history represented in the museum in this way.”

Martyn Jones

Jones began as a coalface worker at Taff Merthyr colliery aged 16 and stayed for 15 years. He then joined the police force, where he served on the front line at events such as royal visits, the Ryder Cup golf tournament and a Nato summit, experience that stands him in good stead for his role at one of Wales’s most popular cultural attractions.

“I am experienced in dealing with large crowds, which comes in handy during busy periods at the museum,” says Jones, who joined St Fagans five years ago. “The jobs are quite similar in that you have to interact with the public on a daily basis. As FOH staff, we protect the collections from theft and damage, and I help ensure the safety of staff and visitors on the site.

“I joined St Fagans because I’d always been interested in history and wanted to play a part in promoting Welsh culture. I’m learning Welsh and I’m fortunate to work in a place where I have the opportunity to speak and write it every day.”

Helen Roberts, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Helen Roberts works as a museum enabler

After a lifetime of uninspiring office jobs, Helen Roberts’ move into museum work was life-enhancing. Following a stint as a volunteer interpreter at the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, she was offered a part-time job as an FOH enabler. “I didn’t know much about art, but as a result of this job I’ve been to exhibitions up and down the country and even joined an art class,” she says.

Roberts says that while the job was initially about ensuring visitors and exhibits were safe and treated with respect, she was encouraged to undertake other activities, such as devising specialist sleepovers and tours around the building.

“I came up with an after-hours torch-lit tour in the galleries and followed that with a ghost hunt in the Victorian corridors. I dressed up as a character in a Henry Raeburn painting in the museum and invented a story about why she was haunting the building.

Helen Roberts (right) dressed as a character from a Henry Raeburn painting

“One of my colleagues was a scary mummy, and Jack the Ripper was also wandering around. We’re not experts in the history of art, but we have a lot of knowledge about how to make things fun,” says Roberts, who also received training to run dementia-friendly experiences.

Another highlight was the history of chocolate tour that told the story of Cadbury in Birmingham, Roberts says.

“We provided a pestle and mortar for visitors to smash up chocolate and came up with the idea of making a collage out of chocolate wrappers. The FOH team heroically volunteered to eat a lot of confectionery to amass the paper to make an enormous wrapper emoji. Everyone rose to the occasion and a lot of orange-flavoured treats were consumed, but only because the packaging is such a striking colour, of course.”

Not everything goes to plan, however. Roberts recalls being asked for directions to the Cavern Club where the Beatles played and having to inform the geographically challenged visitors they were in the wrong city. “I offered them a trip around our Ozzy Osbourne display, but they weren’t keen.”

Roberts acknowledges that the job might not be for everyone. “If I were younger, I’d probably feel demoralised at times. You need a lot of stamina and patience, and it can be frustrating when you’re bursting to share your newly acquired knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history and your visitors are just bursting for the toilet.

“In my seven years here, I’ve seen a lot of people blossom in the job and go on to greater things. Others, however, become disillusioned because they thought they’d be curators after a few weeks.”

John Holt is a freelance writer

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