NWFed trustee, Claire Sleightholm, reviews our recent In Conversation event on the Changing Role of Museum Front of House

As we reopen our museums following the pandemic, how crucial are visitor-facing roles to the sector’s recovery?
Have these roles developed as a result? These questions and more were considered in an exclusive NWFed member event, In Conversation: The Changing Role of Museum Front of House, hosted on Zoom in February 2022.

On the panel were Chad McGitchie-Simpson, Visitor Services Team Lead for The Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery, and Chair of the Northwest Visitor Team Management & Development Network; and William Tregaskes, Co-founder of Front of House in Museums and Museum Manager at Cynon Valley Museum. The panel was chaired by NWFed trustee and Manchester Art Gallery Visitor Services Officer Dwight Clarke.

A very positive conversation started by considering how front of house roles have changed since the reopening of museums. Chad McGitchie-Simpson reminded us that those working in visitor services thrive on connecting with people, and these were the teams who became instantly disconnected from their role and from using their skills. On the reopening of the museum, the Visitor Team were among the first to return, and had to deal with a shifting set of procedures and a more cautious public, yet still provide a their usual warm welcome. This need to be responsive and adaptive was a point picked up on by Will Tregaskes, who went further to suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement and other cultural wars refocused attention on the front of house teams as visual representations of their museum.

Further discussion on diversity highlighted the importance of visitor-facing roles to be seen to be ‘a proper job’ with highly valued skills rather than just a security guard (an important and skilled job for the right situation) or a stepping stone to other museum roles. Chad believed this had come about with a culture shift placing greater value on the skills required for these roles alongside permanent contracts. The term ‘Front of House’ was also brought into question. Is this an outdated term that ‘others’ the visitor team, as was felt by those at Manchester Art Gallery?

William reflected on how the expertise of the visitor teams have not always been valued. He argued that ‘everyone should see themselves as front of house in one form or another, because ultimately museums are here for people. If you’re not here for people then you’re just a storage unit … It’s incredibly important to focus on the public and not just the objects themselves because without people, objects are nothing. I like to see front of house in museums as conservators, preserving that intangible link between an object and person’.

The conversation continued to suggest ways in which a visitor team can be developed, including the innovative ‘strength finder’ process used at Manchester Art Gallery. Questions from delegates rounded off the event, considering how to engage front of house with the wider museum, appropriate salaries for these roles and practical examples on how to develop your role when working in a visitor-facing position.

The conversation provided a responsive and through-provoking look at real examples from our sector. I went away feeling that I can learn much from the skills and positive behaviours exhibited by our visitor-facing colleagues in making museums more relevant for our visitors.

NWFed members (and those who work in member organisations) can view the event online here. To access the password, please email info@nwfed.org.uk and put ‘Future Role’ in the subject box. If you booked to attend the event, you should already have received an email via Eventbrite with the password and link to view.