We began FoHMuseums to start a conversation on the value that front-of-house staff bring not only to the visitor experience but also to organisations and the wider sector. Last year we surveyed 190 participants on their experiences of working in museums, galleries and heritage sites, and this informed many of the talks we gave about the issues that this section of the museum profession faces.
A follow-up survey this year has had 564 responses. This has enabled us to gain a much deeper understanding of people’s professional experiences working in museums and heritage.
In the latest survey, 65% of respondents worked front-of-house as their first paid museum role. This is consistent with last year, with 89% having experience of working front-of-house. Those who identified as working front-of-house considered themselves as being at the start of their career. This indicates that working in such a role is an important step into a museum career, but also the most widely available work in a competitive field.
Our survey demonstrated that there is a quite considerable gap between being employed in front-of-house roles compared with those back-of-house. The former are more likely to feel less valued, less motivated to work in museums and less able to impact on museum practice. We found that 52% of the people who identified as working front-of-house are not motivated to pursue a career in the sector. This percentage is alarmingly high – what talent and voices are the museum and heritage community losing as a result?
Many of the comments we received as part of the survey identified a lack of opportunity to progress and training that was limited to the narrow definitions of their role. Many respondents expressed a feeling of not being integrated into the workplace, having their ideas and suggestions ignored, and not being able to attend meetings, including those described as being for “all staff”.
Despite this, many from all departments – from leadership to the shop floor – recognised the important role that front-of-house staff play in engaging the museum with the public, and the valuable perspective this work could bring to museum practice.
Our findings are an opportunity for a wider discussion to take place on the value of front-of-house workers. We hope that it will lead to a reassessment of the opportunities that museums, galleries and heritage sites can offer to individuals looking to start their careers in this field, ensuring the long-term commitment and passion of front-of-house workers for years to come.
Abi Godfrey is a visitor services assistant at the Holburne Museum, Bath, and co-founder of @FoHMuseums