Plan a series of meetings with as many of the staff and volunteers as possible throughout the year. Create an open environment where meaningful interaction can take place. Because you are asking everyone to participate and give honest feedback, be sure to set up ground rules for the interactions that will occur during the meetings. State that everyone will have the opportunity to discuss ideas, that the meetings are not a forum for criticizing other staff and volunteers, but they are a way to use visitor, volunteer, and staff feedback and suggestions to improve the institution. The training sessions should be conducted with the same type of respect you would show visitors to the site. In the end, the sessions will be worth any effort that is expended on them.
Think about the interactions from both museum and visitor perspectives. Ask for participants to share experiences they have had with visitors both inside and outside of the institution. Talk about what went well and what didn’t go so well. Encourage honesty without cruelty; talk about interactions, but don’t mock visitors. Everyone needs to vent; we have all had difficult and/or odd visitors and days when we don’t really want to answer any more questions. Assure your staff and volunteers that it is okay to share their frustrations and stressful situations. Venting can lead to new ideas and solutions, but what is said should be kept confidential and as respectful as possible.
Good training sessions can be lengthy and mentally exhausting, but they should also be opportunities for growth and social interaction. Emphasize that the things the staff and volunteers learn can be used outside of their jobs and in their personal lives. It is important for the training sessions to be in comfortable and relaxed settings. Your staff and volunteers should receive the same type of consideration as your visitors. They won’t be able to focus on learning if they feel uncomfortable or insecure.
Tamara Hemmerlein was the director of the Montgomery County Cultural Foundation for thirteen years and the Montgomery County Historical Society for eight years. She is now the Hoosier Heritage Alliance coordinator at the Indiana Historical Society. She serves on the American Association of Muse- ums Small Museum Administrators Committee and the American Association for State and Local History Professional Development Committee. She is a Museum Assessment Program peer reviewer and a graduate of the Seminar for Historical Administration.