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Museum visitor teams and the art of informal engagement

Museum visitor teams and the art of informal engagement

What is informal engagement and how do you create it in the museum? What makes a meaningful interaction with visitors?

This week, we’re taking a close look at museum visitor teams and the important work they do, creating informal and structured engagements, and fostering meaningful interactions

I’m chatting to Dickon Moore, Visitor Experience Manager at Wellcome Collection in London.

Dickon Moore brings 15 years of experience working in visitor teams at UK galleries, museums, and heritage sites, including Tate and English Heritage. As Visitor Experience Manager at Wellcome Collection in London, Dickon explores the unique form of engagement work visitor teams can create, drawing from his extensive experience and insights into visitor engagement with ideas and content.

In this episode, we explore the evolution of museum visitor teams, their unique role in facilitating engagement, and the strategies they employ to support team members during challenging interactions. Listen to episode or read the transcript below.


The Art Engager Podcast #127

Claire Bown: Hello and welcome to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. I’m here to share techniques and tools to help you engage with your audience and bring art, objects and ideas to life. So let’s dive into this week’s show.

Hello, and welcome back to The Art Engager podcast. I’m your host, Claire Bown of Thinking Museum, and this is episode 127. Today, I’m talking to Dickon Moore about how visitor engagement teams play a vital role in creating meaningful engagements with the public. Before our chat, don’t forget in last week’s podcast, Bonus episode, I was talking to Hama van Uffelen about the slow looking program and experience they’ve created at the Van Gogh Museum.

So if you haven’t listened yet, head back and download episode 126. And don’t forget that The Art Engager has over 100 episodes to choose from. You can take your pick from the back catalogue of different episodes to brush up on your skills, be inspired and learn new techniques. And if you’d like to shape future episodes, get in touch.

If you have a question for the show, an idea on a theme, or a subject we haven’t yet talked about, or if you want to suggest a guest, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m always eager to hear from you, especially if you’re an educator doing innovative work around engagement with art, objects, and audiences in museums and heritage.

And finally, if you’d like to support The Art Engager and help it to continue, you can buy me a cup of tea on buymeacoffee. com forward slash Claire Bown. All right, let’s get on with today’s episode.

My guest today, Dickon Moore, has worked in visitor teams for more than 15 years at UK galleries, museums and heritage sites, including Tate and English Heritage.

In that time he has seen how visitors really connect with ideas and content and how this can be supported by the staff who are the closest to them. Dickon is increasingly drawn to to the unique form of engagement work that visitor teams can create, and now explores this as a Visitor Experience Manager at Wellcome Collection in London.

Now in February this year I was lucky enough to spend a week working at Wellcome alongside Dickon and his talented team. I was there leading some professional development workshops for the team and also Also facilitating some slow looking sessions for the public. I also had the opportunity throughout the week to chat to lots of different team members about their work and experience how they work with engagement first hand in the museum.

Now let me say straight away that the work that Wellcome are doing around engagement is really exciting and if you’re in the area please go and experience it for yourself. Now at the end of the week, Dickon and I sat down and explored the work that he and the team do at Wellcome. So in this chat, we talk about what visitor engagement teams do and how that differs to the work they may have done in the past.

We talk about how they strike a balance between the different sides of their work, the operational side on the one hand and the engagement one on the other. And we talk about how visitor engagement teams get unique insights into visitor behavior and how those learnings can be incorporated into engagement work.

We discuss the different types of engagement work the team do, for example informal versus structured, and what visitor teams need to do engagement work well. We talk about the importance of social impact. in the work that Wellcome does, and the three ways that they define meaningful interactions. We discuss what Wellcome does to support team members before and after challenging visitor interactions.

For example, we talk about de escalation work, listening practice, and reflective practice sessions to explore the emotional impact of challenging interactions. I had such a wonderful week with the team at Welcome and loved getting to know everyone.

Here’s my conversation with Dickon. Enjoy. Hi Dickon and welcome to The Art Engager podcast.

Dickon Moore: Hiya, great to talk to you.

Claire Bown: Could you start by telling us a little bit about who you are, what you do and perhaps where you do it?

Dickon Moore: Sure. My name’s Dickon Moore and I work front of house with visitor teams. I’ve been doing that for about a decade now. In heritage sites, art galleries, and now at Welcome Collection in London where I’m a Visitor Experience Manager.

Claire Bown: So perhaps you could roll back the years a little bit and tell us about your journey into this area of work .

Dickon Moore: Sure. Well, I guess it’s a fairly common entry route.

So, I started off for English Heritage in Somerset in South West England as a historic property steward, and then worked as a supervisor at a different English Heritage site, and then worked at Tate after that, Tate Modern in London, and Tate Britain a bit as well as a visitor experience manager, and that’s the role that I also do now here at Wellcome Collection.

Claire Bown: And tell us a little bit about Wellcome Collection. I’ve been lucky enough to be here all week and get some behind the scenes insight into the fantastic work you do around engagement as well with the visitors. So can you tell us a little bit about the collection of Wellcome and a little bit about how the team is set up?

Dickon Moore: Sure, Wellcome Collection is really interesting. It’s, it’s a kind of an exploration of the intersection between lots of different things, health and medicine in particular, but also so many other. areas, it explores life very broadly through different lenses. At the moment we have an exhibition for example about beauty and but looking at it from a very subversive perspective and trying to interrogate what beauty means to to humans.

So the way we’re set up is we’ve part of a bigger charity, Welcome Trust, which is a global foundation, so it’s quite an unusual setup really. We’re a museum that operates as part of that organization, We’re in Euston in London and we have a historic collection that was gathered in a very colonial context and there’s lots that we’re doing now on on the collecting practices that were problematic and we’re reviewing a lot of the items that we held and have repatriated some of them.

But now we look to interpret them in the best way we can. And we’re also a library, we’re a museum and library, so we have a very extensive collection of printed materials, including the first ever printed materials that exist we hold. So yeah, really interesting collection that we explore in many different ways.

Claire Bown: And your team, so you have this team of Visitor Engagement Assistants, What do your team do on a day to day basis?

Dickon Moore: I found out about the Visitor Experience Team here before I’d even been here. And that’s because it’s a really high performing team of creative facilitators of engagement with visitors. And the team at Wellcome Collection are really engagement focused.

More than any I’ve ever met. come across in London. It’s really just our bread and butter. So to answer your question about what we do more day to day, we’re a front of house team. So we’re looking at the practical elements of the public venue and operating it safely and effectively. And we look at visitor navigation and cleanliness and all those practical things.

And then we’re looking at engagement work. It’s those two areas that we cover. And with engagement work, we define that as spontaneous interactions with visitors that pop up every day all the time and normally based on curiosity and open questioning. And then we have more structured engagements so every day we have usually three public free daily engagements that take different forms, guided tours, talks, but also then workshops, object handling, and then we increasingly look to some interesting engagement areas such as slow art.

Claire Bown: Yeah, quite a busy role by all accounts and it must be quite hard striking that balance between what you describe as visitor engagement interactions and the more supervisory roles. How do they marry that balance between these two roles?

Dickon Moore: Yeah, that marriage brings many opportunities and many challenges as well.

We generally refer to it as operational work, the kind of more practical side of it, so operational engagement. And the operational work, sometimes it is a challenge because it can take precedent because we respond to You know, issues in the building fire alarm might go off, like we go into kind of operational mode and there’s lots of practical health and safety security elements to that, that sometimes take priority, rightly so, but I think it also gives us so much.

It gives our engagement work such a unique quality and I think we’re still Understanding what that is and learning to articulate that because it’s not so long that visitor teams such as ours have been doing engagement work like this, or they have but a little bit on the side and it hasn’t really been acknowledged.

To try and summarize what that gives us, it’s that we’re in the gallery spaces every single day. We understand, therefore, how visitors really respond to different things and what their needs are. And so when it comes to our engagement work, I think we use that learning. We have so much observation of visitors and interactions of so many different sorts to build upon when we’re designing our engagement work.

So I think we’re perfectly placed because we have the greatest proximity to those meaningful moments that visitors share with objects and artworks of cultural significance than anyone else. We really see that every single day. And I think that’s what gives us our unique type of engagement that we can bring, that I think is different to, to what other teams who are back of house or even like learning teams that have that as their sole area of responsibility.

And we also have a live programming team, youth programs, and we have other teams who do those more structured and more formal programs, but I think the difference between them and us is that we have workshops and different types of daily structured and planned engagements, but also complemented by the spontaneous opportunities that come up all the time, every day.

And that’s really increasingly how we see Our role is to find the right way to, to approach people and enable them to find their own ways into art and objects. And that can be a really big challenge. Talking to strangers is a really big challenge. It can be really scary. And talking about art and the themes that museums are raising, that can also be really scary, really challenging.

To do both of those things spontaneously, there’s quite a lot in that. And I think the specialism of that has not historically been recognised, so that’s really what we’re trying to do here.

Claire Bown: You mentioned historically, so how has the role of front of house visitor teams, how have they changed over the years?

Dickon Moore: So I did a bit of research into this and it used to be just so fundamentally different. It was really very different in that in the past teams were really very security focused and sometimes overzealously so. There were stories when I worked at Tate Britain about how you were there in your suit and you had the queen’s badge on on your lapel and you had your hat and your whistle and you were disciplined if you spoke to a visitor. and that’s a while ago but I think that is our past, that really we weren’t there at all, in definition anyway, to engage with visitors.

I really like to think though, the people who along the way have been rebelling against that,, and there are accounts and bits of evidence to suggest that people have been doing that. And even now, in teams that haven’t really embraced the definition of engagement alongside the practical elements of their role, people do it anyway, and people help visitors to engage with the content of museums and galleries and cultural sites when they’re not really supported to, or not really given the remit to do that, they do it anyway. And so i think in some ways that’s really nice because that gives that human quality to something that otherwise can feel just a little bit too content heavy.

But I think it’s also a challenge that museums and galleries and cultural organizations absolutely have to be taking those steps to support their visitor teams, find out what the future of engagement is for them, or at least get up to speed with what many really interesting organizations are now doing in developing engagement work and already supporting teams to do that as the core of their role in many cases.

Claire Bown: So if, if museums are not doing this, they might be missing a trick then.

Dickon Moore: Absolutely, I think that at one point visitor teams were seen as more of a sort of a service on the side, and even defined as visitor services in many places, and now increasingly we’re seen as an integral part of museum teams, and actually quite aligned with exhibition teams in that we are helping to deliver that content, helping people to engage with the themes that exhibitions bring up.

And I think that most visitors are going to benefit from that human element. And actually some visitors might require that from an access need perspective as well. So I think that it’s really seen as critical now.

Claire Bown: So can you talk a little bit about the types of engagement work that your visitor teams are doing now?

Dickon Moore: Yeah, sure. We do loads of really fun, creative engagement work at Wellcome Collection. We generally define it as informal engagement or, and that’s the spontaneous conversations that happen, or structured engagements which are our sort of daily engagements that we put up posters for and so forth. And within that we have such a variety of different engagement modes.

We have tours and talks and then we have object handling sessions and we have workshops of all different varieties. We have lots of different creative, often interactive, ways to engage. to bring themes up and explore them with visitors. We sometimes also have whole day takeovers of the building. We had a queer takeover of the building exploring queer narratives in the collection, queer histories in the collection.

We had a charmed event the other day that explored magic and we have workshops such as zine making workshops as well. And then we often have themed engagement days that look at particular engagement practices such as slow looking and slow art. We take part in slow art day every year.

Claire Bown: And your team have quite a lot of creative freedom to follow their curiosity and do their own research about their engagements as well, don’t they?

Dickon Moore: Absolutely, creative freedom is such a core part of our engagement work because it enables people to follow what interests them and what they’re passionate about. And that absolutely comes through to visitors during engagement. So I think we’ve moved really far away from a tour script situation.

and it leads to some really creative approaches to engagement where people explore themes that A new exhibition, for example, might be bringing up, but in a way that they find interesting. And I think also visitors really respond to that personal element where you might even explain why you’re interested as a facilitator in this topic and help other visitors to connect with those two.

Claire Bown: And does that mean in practice that team members have allotted time to research and develop their own engagements about a particular object.

Dickon Moore: Yeah, a lot of visitor teams really struggle with this because often there’s very little or even no provision for research time off the gallery floor. So we’re really lucky here that we have a good amount of time off the floor for the team where people are able to research engagements, develop engagements, particularly for new exhibitions they might want to deliver. And also for us to look at engagement practice and for example we have a creative kickoff for every new exhibition where we think about what we might be trying to achieve with the engagements that we are going to run as part of that exhibition and start to get the ideas flowing and explore what different people are interested in exploring, what collaborations there might be within the team or beyond for engagement for that exhibition.

Claire Bown: And because your team has such broad experience and have such diverse areas of interest as well, I can imagine that would mean that they’re all very interested in following their curiosity for different types of objects and different types of artworks based on their own personal interests and experiences?

Dickon Moore: Absolutely, and it comes out in really creative ways. For example, there’s a member of the team who creates a lot of jewellery and different items that they wear.

And we have so many objects in the collection that are charms and votives and tokens that people might have with them. And so this member of the team explores those things that we hold in the collection, through their own creativity and shares some of the things that they’ve made and sometimes makes those things with visitors or helps them to make their own.

So I think there are often really fun and interesting ways that people explore their interests and I think that’s one of the unique qualities that we’ve really taken hold of with engagement at Wellcome Collection, that sometimes you do see elsewhere, but I think that’s really something that makes us special.

I love it. I love the idea of following your curiosity and diving into your research passions as well.

Claire Bown: So what do visitor teams need to be able to do engagement work well?

Dickon Moore: So I think visitor teams have historically been quite overlooked and under supported and undervalued, and that includes in terms of Pay and conditions.

Visitor teams are generally paid less than other back of house teams. Often 0R contracts are used quite heavily and people who hold zero hour contracts are often disproportionately marginalized and minoritized people. And front of house work is often that entry route, into the cultural sector.

It’s been historically underpaid and that needs to change, especially if we are properly making that shift towards facilitation and engagement and recognizing the challenges of that and how much of a specialism it is, then I think that people have to be better supported by their organizations, paid better, treated better.

So I think there’s a lot that’s quite structural that we need to see happen to, to really get the best engagement work that we can from those teams.

Claire Bown: Absolutely. You talked a little bit earlier about meaningful interactions and I know you’ve done quite a bit of work around this with the team and what it might mean.

So how do you, train and support staff to meaningfully interact with visitors?

Dickon Moore: It’s a really big question but one that I’m trying to think about a lot and we’re really at the early stages of working out exactly what is required to enable people to Have conversations with visitors, help people to engage with content and to do that in a way that is safe and effective.

And we’re looking at other areas at the moment. So we’re looking at what learning teams have been doing and trying to draw on those different areas, draw from coaching, draw from art therapy. I think there’s loads of different interesting stuff to bring in to support us to do that because at the moment there’s a lack of the kind of resources and supportive books on how to do that uniquely in a visitor context.

There’s some good stuff but the sector needs to catch up with what teams need and what visitors need. So we do a lot of internal sessions where we think about the impact we’re really trying to have. So at Wellcome Collection, we’ve been Rethinking what we’re here for and as an organization thinking about those meaningful interactions that we’re trying to create and what social impact we’re trying to have on our visitors.

And so I felt that’s really for my team, for visitor experience, to Get to the bottom of what that means. So we’ve been exploring the social impact that we’ve been trying to have on our visitors. And it’s really useful to think about it from a scale of one visitor that comes in. They attend an engagement or they have a spontaneous interaction with a team member.

What might we hope they leave that with? and so we started to think about it in three areas of what might that person think differentlyHow might they feel differently? Or how might they even act differently? And so we did an interesting session where we tried to think of lots of different examples and ambitions for what We might hope visitors will take away in those three areas. And the team came up with such an amazing plethora of responses, that ranged from hoping that a visitor might feel inspired or contented or hopeful about a particular area of their life.

or, right over to feeling quite challenged or even hoping people might feel uncomfortable about their privilege or wanting to make a change in their community as a result of that. We now have them as a starting point for engagement development, for what we hope we might achieve with that engagement, but I think there’s loads more to do in that area to further integrate that social impact into our work.

Claire Bown: I love the idea of really brainstorming how we might want visitors to think, feel and act after they’ve spent some time in our spaces or interacting with our staff. It’s a really nice model that I think other museums might want to think about as well. I’m also thinking about, you mentioned something about interacting with strangers as well, and

 could you perhaps give some examples about how you train or support people to interact with people they don’t know?

Dickon Moore: Think there’s a lot to it and a lot of it is quite intangible and we put a lot of trust in the skill that people have to to create those opportunities. I think sometimes there’s a hesitancy to try and avoid feeling like someone in a shop who’s coming up to you and asking for something but actually you’re perfectly happy browsing on your own.

And again, we have that skill to detect that, and I think sometimes there’s a sense that people have and a feeling that they can go with, and really learning from that feeling that we get. But I think there is also a lot that we do to practically prepare us for that.

So we’re lucky that we have quite a lot of time off of managing the gallery floor to reflect on the way that we do that and to build the skills to be able to do that. To give an example, one member of the team is a fantastic facilitator and runs sessions outside of their work here on active listening and mindful listening.

They led a session last year to support the whole team to develop their listening skills and think about what active listening is and how to really do that skillfully and in a way that is sensitive to visitor needs. I think things like that really helped to Bring the level of skill and awareness and sensitivity to those needs up in the team.

Yeah, we do it in lots of ways, but we’re needing to continuously find new areas to develop that skill. But I think that’s a really good example of how we do it.

Claire Bown: Yeah, And thinking about the interactions with visitors in the museum space that might be more challenging, how do you support team members during and after moments like these, which seem to be on the increase at the moment?

Dickon Moore: Yeah, it’s another really important question and something that’s particularly come up for us a lot in the last year or so, particularly around the closure of a space that a lot of people were, you Quite unhappy with. So we literally had people coming into the building to have an argument with us. So I think we were already looking at this area, but that kind of increased the importance of it.

And so we ran more skills development sessions in the team. And so. We spoke through different scenarios and imagined how would we respond if a visitor said a really problematic statement, for example, or they behaved in a way that was not acceptable. We do get that a fair amount here and we try and support the team to manage those discussions as best they can.

We also have a system where we have a duty manager on shift at all times and they will often step in and take a conversation over. We do a lot of de escalation work, how to stop a conversation, how to stop an engagement if it’s serious enough, how to listen to an appropriate extent as part of that because that’s such a naturally de escalating technique, but then actually just call it if you need to.

And then, so I think there’s a lot of in the moment stuff that we do, including debriefing just after something’s happened, but then Something really significant in a longer term way that we’ve started to do recently is look at reflective practice as an area of work where the team who work directly with visitors, have a space away from the gallery floor with an external facilitator who can explore the emotional impact of engagement work in particular and working directly with visitors and holding those spaces and handling those difficult responses. Because it’s quite a lot to take on in some cases.

For example, we have sessions called Conversations on Death which is a program of engagements where we open up conversations with visitors to talk about what death means to them, talk about, loss and We do a lot of signposting as well as part of that, but ultimately we do take on so much emotion as part of those sessions.

So there’s a lot that’s required after that to support the team, to continue to do that effectively, but also then look after themselves, and be able to take those on.

Claire Bown: So important supporting people through policy, procedure. training, as you mentioned, but also that having that reflective space so that they can actually process some of the things that have been said or heard, some of the things that were happening, and particularly in some sessions, really having time to debrief and lighten the load, I think must be super helpful to have.

I’d love to look to the future. what does the future of engagement work for visitor teams look like?

Dickon Moore: I think it’s really exciting to think about what the future of that work is, particularly if you look at the change that’s happened in the last 20 years. I think that we’ll see greater definition of engagement work within visitor teams.

Many teams are still taking that step, and, even for teams such as here at Wellcome we’ve already defined that as our main function, I think that We will have greater definition of it as well. I think we’re going to see better provision for engagement work. I think that should look like different training opportunities, but also different resources.

Like I mentioned, I think that’s really critical that comes.

I think more inclusive practice is absolutely key. because for so long museums have not been inclusive spaces and there’s still so many barriers to visitors. We do a lot of work already to try and work out different ways to support the needs of our visitors. we do a lot of training on audio description. We started to do training on deaf awareness, but I think we need to move further towards BSL provision.

I really hope that we’ll see a kind of increasing focus on personal response as a core mode for engagement. I think that for a long time, we focused very much on talking at people, and when I say ‘we’ there, I mean as a sector, focused on providing information in a way that was just not participatory. And really struggled to prove its relevance to visitors because it didn’t make that personal connection.

I think we’ve moved really far away from that, but I hope that continues to change because I think that still in the art world particularly there’s a bit of an imbalance, there’s such a heavy weighting on the facts and the figures and the eras and the isms

And also, I think it’s important to acknowledge that’s a perfectly valid way of experiencing art and that might be what a lot of visitors are looking for, so sometimes we need to detect that. But I think that generally in the art world, there’s been an imbalance in that there hasn’t been so much focus on personal response or what an artwork might really mean to you, and we’re not, as visitors, given the tools to be able to unlock that, so That’s what I would hope to see us doing more of in the future.

Claire Bown: I’d like to finish with perhaps you sharing some ways that listeners can find out more about Welcome and also get in touch with you.

Dickon Moore: Great, we’re always open to collaboration at Welcome. And also, personally, I’d love to talk to you if you’re interested in engagement work, particularly for visitor teams. You can email me or find me on linkedIn, my name is Dickon Moore.

Claire Bown: Brilliant. Thank you so much for chatting with me today and for working with me all week.

It’s been an absolute pleasure being here. I’ve loved my time at Wellcome, so thank you.

Dickon Moore: Thanks so much.

Claire Bown: So a huge thank you to Dickon for joining me on the podcast today. Go to the show notes to find all the links for Welcome Collection and for getting in touch with Dickon too. That just about wraps up this episode. Thank you for tuning in. Until next time. Bye. Thank you for listening to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown.

You can find more art engagement resources by visiting my website, thinkingmuseum. com. And you can also find me on Instagram, at Thinking Museum, where I regularly share tips and tools on how to bring art to life and engage your audience. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share with others and subscribe to the show on your podcast player of choice.

Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time.