Caring for engagement teams post lockdown

The function of engagement teams has changed in light of Covid-19, says Jon Sleigh
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Jon Sleigh
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Engagement teams continue to change the landscape of the museum, adding greater levels of emotional depth, connection and change in instructions. Societal change has happened from Covid-19, and so it is inevitable that the function of engagement teams has altered too. 

As the perceived icey historical veneer of museums crack with ever greater ferocity, museum spaces increasingly offer us emotive spaces that resist silent reverence. Instead, voices are raised in activism and the display becomes a tool for advocacy.

Museums become places to inhabit with culture rather than just where we wander past curated displays of culture. The fine balance of safeguarding those who engage with collections is crucial. It’s a shifting landscape of how they manage professionalism while being part of highly emotive conversations that require empathy. Engagement practice is inherently personal in creative spaces.  

Returning to these spaces post lockdown adds to this challenge and safeguarding concern. Engagement teams have been directly impacted by the pandemic on many levels. They are returning to museums carrying worries, struggles, sacrifices, loss, frustrations and vulnerability.  
It’s important to recognise that emotional labour is not equal across organisations.

Engagement is a front line, draining and demanding position. As rewarding and beautiful as the role is, it inherently carries emotional labour far more so than for someone in a non-front facing role. It’s not a question of hard work or value in museums compared to others; rather it’s the nature of that work and care fatigue.  
Safeguarding post lockdown needs to recognise that heightened emotional labour brings with it heightened safeguarding. An already demanding engagement role is amplified post lockdown by the human cost of the pandemic. While much is being said of safeguarding staff physically, it’s important to update the expected emotional toil accordingly.  

Engagement teams are the first ones in and the last ones out. One minute they will be knee deep in the spotlight of delivering to hundreds of people, and the next tackling the mess left over exhausted and in the company of a half-eaten sandwich.

Engagement teams add massive amounts of energy, life and joy to organisations. They burn brightly and make a difference to the lives of others. 

In turn, let’s all check that robust internal procedures are in place to make sure they are okay.

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The emotional toil is and will be greater on engagement teams navigating the new normal, and support needs to be in place. From experience packs of biscuits help too… but that’s just me. 

Jon Sleigh is a freelance arts educator, learning officer and learning curator based in Birmingham

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