5 tips for gallery staff

 16 October 2012

Working ‘front of house’ in a gallery covers everything visitors see. Louise Emberson, Visitor Services Manager at Woking's Lightbox gallery, shared five tips for creating great visitor experiences.

On a crowded day, the help front of house staff offer can be a key influence on visitors' experience. Image © Peter Cook.
On a crowded day, the help front of house staff offer can be a key influence on visitors' experience. Image © Peter Cook.

Getting started in gallery work

"I’d done a lot of work experience at college and university, and then I started at the Lightbox when it opened five years ago. I was a front of house assistant.

"It was originally a weekend job – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – but I always knew I wanted to do more, so I made sure I was soaking up as much information and experience as possible.

"I made sure I was soaking up as much information and experience as possible."

"After a while I became duty manager, which meant working with gallery events, venue hire and corporate events.

"I then went travelling for a year, but while I was away my manager left, so when I came back I applied for the vacancy."

Working in a gallery

"The Lightbox hosts a range of monthly exhibitions of contemporary art. It also receives loaned exhibits from major museums and galleries, and is home to an interactive museum about Woking's local history.

"I find that in my current role as Visitor Services Manager, it really helps that I’ve done pretty much every job within Visitor Services here at some point.

"It makes the management process much easier – I understand the stresses and strains of each job, and what you need from management to support it."

5 tips for a positive visitor experience

"At the Lightbox we always try to support and encourage people coming to work with us on front of house. There are a number of things we always tell them to bear in mind:

1. Stay friendly

"There’s an element of personality here: if you want to work font of house you have to be a real people person, and genuinely enjoy the company of others.

"You’re the first person the visitor sees, so you can’t have a moody day!"

"I think you’d struggle with gallery work if you didn’t, and that’s not something you can really teach.

"After all, on the desk you’re the first person the visitor sees, so you can’t have a bad day, or a moody day!

"You’ll be the person they remember from the day, and that’ll help form visitors’ impressions of what sort of place the gallery is."

2. Listen to people

"When you're working front of house, you get a unique insight into how people are really responding to the space.

"So it’s important to talk to people and listen to what they say: what are they enjoying? What would they like to see in the future?

"All too often, you can just assume you know what kind of exhibitions will be popular, or what sort of things people value in your gallery. You could be surprised!

"We’ve changed things in the past because of what visitors have said."

"There are really simple ‘housekeeping’ things to look out for, too, like the quality and amount of light in the gallery, or how well the objects are presented. 

"We’ve changed things like that in the past because of what visitors have said – but it’s not always the sort of thing you can predict in advance.

"And you can feed all this back up – while the Exhibitions and Curatorial teams will be the ones designing the exhibitions, front of house staff will often have their own perspective from their direct day-to-day experience. Other teams will want to hear that."

3. Know what goes where in your gallery

"It sounds really simple, but when people come into the gallery, they’re going to expect you to know everything. So you need to make sure you do – or as much as possible!

"You can’t be messing around with leaflets whenever you're asked a question."

"You can’t be messing around with maps and leaflets whenever you’re asked a question. 

"You need to have all the visitor information on the tip of your tongue, and give it to people in a fluent and friendly manner.

"It’s also important that visitors know who they can speak to if they need anything: simple things like that really enhance the overall visitor experience."  

4. Be sensitive to your gallery's audience

"At the Lightbox, a lot of our visitors don’t actually go to galleries all that much. So a lot of my front of house work is about making them feel really welcome here, whether it’s their first visit or their hundredth!

"If you’re working somewhere with really high security, where the gallery feels like this almost sacred space, welcoming people might be even more important.

"People can often feel overwhelmed if a space seems too intimidating. It’s your job to make them feel at home."

5. Build up work experience in museums and galleries

"If you want to work in gallery visitor services, volunteering can be a great way to build up your CV, even if you’re only doing it one evening a week, or every other Saturday. Get as much experience as you can. 

"If you’re working somewhere with high security, the gallery feels like a sacred space. Welcoming people is important."

"At the Lightbox, we’ve got over 100 regular volunteers (compared to 19 staff who are a mixture of full-time and part-time). They really are our lifeblood.

"I think that’s true of a lot of other organisations in the cultural heritage sector too, so there are loads of opportunities out there if you’ve got a couple of spare Saturdays.

"Once you’re actually in that industry environment, make sure you’re soaking up as much information as you can.

"It’s more about that process of learning on the job – and about having a positive attitude – than having bucketloads of qualifications.

"After all, people who come to visit a gallery really want to see a positive person with lots of confidence. They want someone who can support them on their visit, and make them feel really comfortable."

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