Visitor Engagement Guard Program
Project Name: Visitor Engagement Guard (VEG) program
Name: Thor Eisentrager, Assistant Director of Security, Ann Isaacson, Senior Educator, and Debra Hegstrom, Senior Educator
Other Mia departments involved: Learning Innovation
Project date(s): Planning phase 2012-13; project initiation:Dec 2013 – present
Audience/user: Externally, the Visitor Engagement Guard (VEG) program’s audience is any and all Mia visitors, from open to close, who might be interested in learning a bit more about the artworks on display. Internally, we want our guards to use the program as a means of professional development that demonstrates their knowledge about the artworks they encounter every day. This also includes awareness of public programs at Mia.
Project goals: To train existing Mia guards in visitor engagement practices that position them as an additional source of information about the works on view and that support Mia’s goal to be a welcoming and inclusive environment. Additional goals include: to align with Mia’s 2021 Strategic Plan by enriching the visitor experience, to recognize guards as a valuable resource for both the permanent collection and special exhibitions, and to provide a sustainable training model for continuing education and mentorship.
The VEG program was implemented to change visitors’ perceptions of museum guards, to see them not simply as those who ask visitors not to touch the art, but rather as an approachable source of information uniquely positioned to offer insights about the objects on display. We are seeking a new visitor/guard dynamic that provides for a richer experience for all parties. Visitors have different motivations for visiting museums and different types of learning needs. Our guards can offer an approach that satisfies the desire for short, sometimes serial, encounters for further knowledge. A visitor may not want to invest time in a tour, but would still like a few questions answered about the art.
At the time the VEG program was being explored, Mia had already been doing work on enhancing visitor services and team building that included Security staff. After Mia’s Chief Operating Officer Pat Grazzini and Director of Learning Innovation Karleen Gardner spent time observing and informally interviewing other museums who had executed programs that combined guard and guide duties, we knew we could implement a similar program at Mia. Whereas many other museums hired new employees to fill these positions, we decided to recruit from our existing guard staff.
After our discussions with other museums (Guggenheim NYC, Walker Art Center, SITE Santa Fe, Phoenix Musical Instrument Museum), we formulated job expectations and guidelines and then recruited, interviewed, and selected from among Mia’s guards to fill those roles. A background in art history was not required, but we did look for candidates with a record of great security performance and skills as well as a notable commitment to the museum and longevity of experience. We knew that security had to remain the first priority, but also found that the dual roles expected actually complement each other: monitoring visitors is easier to do when you are engaging directly with them.
One outcome of the program relates to the model developed by Learning Innovation staff for training the guards, which includes interactive gallery discussions and written information sheets about individual objects. In order to ensure sustainability, we implemented peer training where the guards also hold gallery discussions with one another and write information sheets for objects. The wealth of written material developed–comprising over 100 objects–is very helpful when new guards enter the program.
An unforeseen and welcome outcome is the extra steps the VE guards have taken to enhance their positions even further. They’ve taken the program to another level, building their own system of contextual information (organized on the iPads they carry) by reorganizing the existing interface model originally designed for docents into something better suited to a guard’s unique job.
Evaluation Tools: VE guards log their interactions from each shift using Google docs on the iPad, noting the number, duration, and any important information from their conversations with visitors. We started this process with written forms but have now developed an online form that guards can fill out directly on the iPad. In this way they can learn from one another and staff can also easily view and comment on what has been recorded.
LI staff has collected feedback from the guards using an online survey tool where they can answer questions about their own satisfaction with the program and offer suggestions for improvements. The guards also meet bi-weekly with the training and logistics security manager to share engagement ideas and tips for encounters in the galleries.
With the help of Audience Engagement staff we conducted some intercept interviews with visitors who had just had an interaction with a VE guard. These proved awkward, as it meant visitors had a perhaps unexpected interaction with a guard followed immediately by an unexpected debriefing on that interaction. We have found the “secret shopper” method to be more useful in that it involves observation by a neutral party about interactions observed between guards and visitors. The shopper, posing as a visitor, completes a report that evaluates the interaction and submits it to the Director of Security.
Resources used: Staff time is our primary resource. We train guards two or three times yearly in three-hour sessions, during which Learning Innovation staff offers presentations on several permanent collection objects. Program participants have also toured various departments: digital photo lab, prints and drawings department, conservation lab, framing workshop, and registration. VE guards carry iPads to be able to easily access information, and wear “Ask Me” buttons to encourage visitor interaction. This program was built with existing resources and time. The guards selected were given a pay increase and are paid for the time they spend in training.
What worked? We have created a sustainable model that supports ongoing learning and expansion of the program. We’ve seen that visitors respond well to the opportunity for short informational encounters with guards. Guards have taken the initiative to continue researching and learning about Mia’s collection. One of the guards applied for and received a grant to attend a printmaking workshop and also viewed the extensive print collection at another museum. We have seen our docents interacting in new ways with Mia’s guards. They are frequently sharing collection information and resources.
What were the challenges? There are a few challenges. We continually evaluate how security responsibilities mix with VEG duties so that security and visitor interactions are balanced responsibly. Some guards left the program due to changes within the department related to particular duties and assignments at entry/exit doors. Since the VE guards are mostly in the galleries with visitors, positions such as captains and lieutenants and floor leaders, who have additional duties outside the galleries, are not compatible with the VEG role. Assigning shift schedules can be challenging. We believe with the addition of 6 more engagement guards (for a total of 12) we will be able to schedule up to 6 at a time with up to 3 on the second and third floors of the museum.
At Mia: This is a cross-departmental project that brings staff members together for the benefit of both departments. Sharing knowledge and resources across departments strengthens Mia’s goal to engage with our visitors in meaningful ways. The program has provided new opportunities for Security staff to connect with LI, Curatorial, and other departments during their training. VE guards can help visitors explore works of art that could be challenging or hard to understand.
In the museum field: In designing this type of program, keep in mind that valuable resources and knowledge reside within your own guard corps. Many guards have a deep interest in art and are also practicing artists. The challenge is to recruit committed and passionate individuals who can responsibly manage the security duties while offering a unique interaction with visitors in the galleries. If your museum works solely with contracted guards there will likely be greater staff turnover. This type of program will not work as well in that environment.
Public: The availability of guards as a source of collection information during all museum open hours enhances the visitor experience in a new way. One-hour tours are offered in the museum by volunteer docents and guides at specific times. Guards can help fill the need for visitors who desire knowledge from shorter encounters while exploring the galleries on their own. Guards are perceived as friendly, approachable, and knowledgeable in their role engaging visitors. Visitors can deepen their relationship with the museum through conversations with staff members.