Using Your Expertise to Impact the Visitor Experience
By Colleen Higginbotham, Deputy Director for Visitor Experience at the Chrysler Museum of Art
The visitor experience is an often-overlooked aspect of museum operations. It’s a part of daily focus for most MSA members and it is a core part of museum missions, but it has historically not been given the attention or priority it deserves. That is changing — and improving the visitor experience is a central part of many museums’ current strategic plans. Museums are realizing that a strong visitor experience can help increase attendance and diversify a museum’s audience, but they may not yet see how the museum store could be a key component in accomplishing those goals.
I know from conversations with MSA colleagues that members vary widely on the influence they feel they have in their institutions. Changing this influence is a slow process, but there are a few ways you can increase your influence related to the visitor experience.
Own and Articulate Your Expertise
We all know that the museum store is a vital part of the visitor experience. It’s a destination that visitors look forward to and a place where even novice visitors feel comfortable. It’s the one place that allows you to take a part of the museum home with you. These mementos become a part of the lives of our visitors, allowing them to remember and share their museum experience as they enjoy family time — building a puzzle, showing off an awesome piece of jewelry, or displaying a tea towel, magnet, or coffee table book for guests. This can help them display their passion for the subject matter and your museum as part of their identity.
In many museums, the staff in the store may be one of the primary staff interactions for visitors. During their visit, your team hears about their experience, their opinions, and their personal lives. You need to be sure you are sharing this information with others. Share the feedback you hear about programs and exhibitions. If you have created visitor personas in your store, team up with someone to share those with other departments and create personas for the museum as a whole. If you gather statistical data, create attractive reports and share them with your colleagues. You need to be the biggest advocate for the role of the museum store in the visitor experience.
Grow and Share Your Expertise
Your visitors are diverse and unique, and museums want to increase that diversity. You want your staff to feel ready to provide personalized service to each visitor. Hopefully, you’ve chosen warm, friendly, and passionate individuals to work in your store, but even retail rock stars want to grow and learn. Professional development is important, as well as a key benefit you can offer your team to help them excel in your store and something that can assist them throughout their career. There are several opportunities to offer training to your team that will help them understand the diversity in your visitors and grow their service skills.
You could bring in a guest speaker to talk to your staff about important topics such as museum visitor motivations or personas, accessibility, welcoming the LGBTQ community, and confronting racial bias. There are both paid speakers and community partners who can offer expertise on these topics.
For example, you may have a local organization whose mission is autism awareness and advocacy. Many of these organizations are willing to come to your museum to train your staff on how they can be more welcoming to visitors on the autism spectrum. This conversation helps your team understand the experience of these individuals, allows them to see beyond their personal experience, and improves the visitor experience in your store.
This topic, and the others mentioned above, are beneficial to museum departments throughout the institution. In this example, curators and exhibition designers can learn to create displays that are more sensory friendly. Docents can learn how to be inclusive in their tours. Educators can directly collaborate on program development. Your visitor services team can learn to identify spaces where someone could take a break and, perhaps, build a kit of items available to visitors such as noise cancelling headphones, weighted lap blankets, or fidget toys. This one topic can benefit all aspects of museum operations.
So, if you book a speaker to come to your museum, you should extend the invitation to others in the museum as well. In the reverse example, you may also learn about a potential partnership with another department in this type of organization and ask for your team to be included. No matter who initiates this, develop a habit of including multiple departments in these sessions. This builds and reinforces your role as a museum leader and an expert in the visitor experience.
Colleen Higginbotham is the Deputy Director for Visitor Experience at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk and author of the book Creating Great Visitor Experiences: A Guide for Museum Professionals. She has over 25 years of customer service management experience and is passionate about crafting unique visitor experiences personalized for each visitor.