This spring, Brendon Perry, Omar Russ, Jayla Legare, Phil Medford, Dave Masonheimer, Zach Yetter, Brie Bittenheimer Butler, Collin Potter, Jada Stephens, Maria Franey, Sonya Donawa, Steven Waldorf, and Star White joined the staff of the Delaware Art Museum as Museum Ambassadors. Their friendly faces appear in our galleries daily, providing warm guest experiences, protecting the art, and sharing knowledge.
We sat down with Heather Morrissey, Director of Operations, and Brendon Perry, Lead Museum Ambassador, to learn more about this new team and their work.
Heather Morrissey, Director of Operations (HM): We know that the interactions between frontline staff and visitors are a powerful tool for building a positive Museum experience. But an ongoing barrier to success was our security staffing. We were contracting security guards via a third-party vendor. We had guards coming in who were not trained in DelArt’s customer service policies, nor in the art collection, and they were often not familiar with our building.
Last year, our third-party vendor was unable to supply the number of security guards needed. This was during a popular exhibition, at a popular time of year. Museum staff stepped in to fill that need. It was taxing on staff, but it also opened our eyes to learning more about our visitors. We observed that our guests want to engage with people inside the museum, and they ask so many intelligent questions. Our visitors expect a high quality of interaction with staff. That understanding drove home the need for a change. We decided to hire a team of Museum Ambassadors to protect art and engage our visitors. And we’re already observing positive results.
We want our team to reflect the rich diversity of our Wilmington community and be a vibrant part of our community. We want to fully train them in all aspects of the Museum so they are comfortable interacting with all our guests. The Museum Ambassadors will serve as a congenial link between the collection, artwork and guest safety, and audience engagement. Brendon Perry exemplifies these values, and he is the perfect person to lead this team.
Brendon Perry, Lead Museum Ambassador (BP): I started here five years ago, on a whim, contracted by the third-party vendor. I was only at the Museum for 16 hours a week as a guard during school tours, and I worked at different sites as well. I was given the opportunity to cover the console shift at the Museum, then I became a permanent floor monitor, and then I was promoted to site supervisor. The Director of Operations approached me about working directly for the Museum as part of the operations department at the end of 2018, and I said, “Absolutely!” The job at the Museum was a no-brainer for me. It was a growth opportunity. I learned more about the Museum’s day-to-day operations and took on more responsibilities.
I fully support this change, creating a new Museum Ambassador team in-house. Because they are employed by the Museum directly, everybody really cares and shows up to help each other out – it’s not just another site for them. I have a great team around me that I can rely on.
Most people new to museums don’t know what they can and can’t do inside an art gallery. It’s a learning experience for both parties. A new visitor might be thrown off by coming into the museum, getting too close to art, and being told they are breaking a rule. But Museum Ambassadors can engage them. For example, the sculpture Tunnel tends to be touched because it’s an optical illusion. A Museum Ambassador can say to a visitor, “Hey, you can look at it, but please don’t sit on it. Let me share with you how this work of art was created.”
Some people are naturally good at dealing with confrontation, but I learned by fire. This group will be trained from the start on de-escalation techniques. Right now we’re training, training, training, to get everyone up to speed and make sure they are comfortable in the situations required of their role. And when they don’t feel comfortable, my colleagues and I will be there.
Heather – Yes, we now have a team of people who can respond. They won’t need to be on their own. They are working together now during training, shadowing the more experienced staff. It is my hope that we retain this strong team of Museum Ambassadors. We have created an environment our team can enjoy, continue to learn in, and where they can grow.
When we started this process, we looked at competitive rates for security guards. We also considered Delaware’s commitment to increasing its minimum wage by 2025. Based on those factors, we raised our starting wage to meet both of those expectations. In the Museum Ambassador job description, we highlighted the Museum’s vision and commitment to inclusion. We shared that we are diversifying the collections to include more artists of color and women artists. The Museum Ambassadors themselves are critical to making the Museum welcoming and inclusive.
We made employment offers to the guards at our former security company with whom we had long-standing relationships, and all those offers were accepted. Concurrently, we initiated a search to fill the remaining positions. We were very happy with the quality of candidates recruited, and we value the team we’ve brought onboard. We are taking great care in the training process to instill that they are part of the Museum, and their voices matter. We structured the role so that they interact with staff throughout the Museum, and we will be giving them opportunities to grow within the Museum.
Brendon: I hope the team will gain knowledge of both Museum security and the collections. If they learn about 50 or 100 works of art, that would be great. And I hope they’ll jump in to help their colleagues out. I hope they continue to grow here; that’s what I wish for most.
Heather: Another change we made was to do away with uniforms. Museum Ambassadors come to work in their own clothes, in clothes they feel good in. That was important to us. We also want our visitors to recognize the Ambassadors as staff members they can direct questions to. The Ambassadors wear simple name badges and carry a radio. We’ve already heard positive feedback from Museum guests on these changes.
Brendon: When you can show up as your authentic self at work – when you can identify as who you are and wear what you like to wear – you do feel like that’s a place for you. The Museum is a place for all of us.
When you visit the Museum next, please introduce yourself to a Museum Ambassador, and join us in welcoming these new staff to the Delaware Art Museum.