Monday 22 July 2013

Meet Rosa Shaw

Rosa Shaw (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Meet Rosa Shaw. She’s the first person to greet us when we enter the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She’s one of the memorial’s guards and one of the institution’s faces. She’s polite, she has a good sense of humour, she’s helpful. If someone looks lost or confused, she doesn’t wait for them to ask for help, she approaches and tries to see if she can be of assistance. The uniform could cause some inhibition to the visitors - a permanent concern among those of us working in the communications field – but, looking at Rosa and the way she does her job, it becomes clear that, more than a question of aspect, it’s a question of attitude.

Rosa makes me think of many guards I have encountered in museums. People who look terribly bored and tired; or people who avoid eye contact when we enter a room and then follow us closely, although we are the only visitor in that room; or people who might be loudly discussing family or union problems, paying no attention to visitors. Guards of this kind make me think of how much more interesting their job could be, and how big the benefit for the museum or the cultural institution they serve, if they were given appropriate training and different responsibilities - more responsibilities - than just sitting on a chair or standing at a corner, looking stern and bored, having as little interaction with visitors as possible.

Guards at the Brooklyn Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
I am saying this, because I’ve also had other kinds of experiences. A couple of years ago, I joined a guided tour to the Pastrana Tapestries exhibition at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon. As soon as the tour was over and as I was heading for the exit, I overheard a guard having a conversation with two ladies, explaining everything one needed to know about those works of art, but with an enthusiasm and commitment that equaled those of the education department staff. And in a language that was much more accessible than that of the texts on the panels. More recently, while visiting the El Anatsui exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, I overheard two guards exchanging views regarding one of the works of art on display. It was a pleasure listening to them. Later on, one of them greeted a small group of visitors and offered to take their photo in front of one of the works, so that they could all be in it. The whole atmosphere was light and friendly and informal, I felt that it made such a big difference.

Museum guards might look silent and stern, even threatening some times, but they have eyes and feelings and opinions regarding the works that surround them. The Washington Post published a very interesting piece on Washington museum guards a few weeks ago (read here), where they would talk about their favourite work of art and the reasons why it is their favourite. One of them also mentioned how working in a museum awakened her interest in art and consequently made her look at all things in a different way. Reading their interviews made me think of how much I would have enjoyed having a direct conversation with them, both as a visitor and a professional.

Front-of-house staff in cultural institutions (whether guards, ushers or box office assistants) are some of the most important people in the team, in terms of institutional marketing. They are the face, they are the voice, they are the attitude. They are the ears too, as they get closer to the visitors/audiences than most of the administrative staff ever get. Front-of-house staff have a decisive role in the shaping of the quality of the whole experience of visiting a cultural institution. A disappointing exhibition or a performance that turned out to be a disaster will not make people keep away for ever; people take a risk and know that it might not fulfill their expectations. On the other hand, if someone is not well treated, if they come across staff who are impolite or in a bad mood, who lack information, who are unhelpful or show that they don’t care, this might definitely determine if someone will come back or not. Even when we have to make a choice between two interesting exhibitions or two interesting shows, it’s very probable that customer care, the place where we feel that we are better treated, will make all the difference in our decision.

Despite their strategic position and role, though, front-of-house staff get to be very neglected by management; underestimated too. They are not given the appropriate training in public relations and customer care; they are not given information about what it is that they are guarding or selling or taking people to their seats to see; quite often, they are not even given important information about what’s going on in the institution, in terms of programming or timetables or prices/discounts or other practical information the public might be looking for (have you ever experienced the discomfort and embarrassment of a Front-of-House member of staff who can’t answer a logical question or, worse, who is informed by a visitor on what is happening in the institution he/she is working for?); they feel frustrated by the fact that their opinion is not taken into consideration, even when it concerns visitor opinions or comments which they are simply passing on, as they are the ones who hear or receive them.

Front-of-house staff don’t ‘just’ guard or ‘just’ sell or ‘just’ answer the phone or ‘just’ take people to their seats. They are a valuable part of the team, they are the most visible part. They are the ones that welcome people in, talk to them, promote the institution – not only its contents but also its vision and principles. It seems only too obvious and natural to me that they would be given the tools to do their work and to do it well. Rosa seems to be pleased in doing her job. And it’s  certainly a pleasure to watch her doing it.

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