By: Kate Williams
As I sit in my cozy Seattle apartment looking out over the fresh snowfall of the big winter storm they’ve been predicting for a week, my mind drifts back to . . . Hawaii. I was very fortunate to be chosen as one of the Wanda Chin Scholarship recipients in 2011. The award allowed me to attend the conference, something I definitely would not have been able to do on my own. I was excited to meet professionals from small museums like the one I work in, and people who were dealing with the same issues I am. It is always helpful to connect with museum educators with similar challenges. I was surprised to realize I came away with all that and something else I didn’t expect: how to be more welcoming to our museum guests. It starts with the word “guest.”
Other museums have transitioned to this word to describe museum visitors. After all, it worked for Disneyland. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Using the word “guest” sends a message to people who visit the museum that they are welcomed and appreciated and that their presence is valued. They will be taken care of as would a guest in one’s home. They are welcomed as they come in, oriented to their location in the building, shown where necessities like restrooms are, and, in the case of a museum, introduced to the latest exhibits they will see. You might do that with any visitor, but in Honolulu I learned that you can do it better. It is in the spirit in which you welcome them and the intention behind your actions that makes the difference.
At the conference, I attended the session Creating the Best Experience: Museums & Guest Service. One presenter’s words have stayed with me. She asked the group if we knew what the Hawaiian word “aloha” meant. I knew it meant both hello and goodbye. The presenter informed us that there are several other meanings to this word, but the meaning she conveyed was that in greeting, and especially when welcoming guests, it means that the person receiving the guests will take care of them during their stay. It’s almost a verbal contract: I welcome you, I will share what I have, and I will do my best to make sure your stay is peaceful. All conveyed in one word.
The presenter, Hi’ilani Shibata, encouraged us to welcome our museum guests, but also to go one step further and give a little of our spirit as well. The idea is to leave the guests with a sense of who we are and what we represent. It might take a little more effort and energy to receive museum guests this way, but you always get back what you give, sometimes tenfold. I have tried to take that lesson with me back to my museum and remember it during interactions with museum guests and potential guests. I can’t say for sure if I’ve noticed a big change yet, but I have noticed a change in the way I welcome them. I am more patient. I smile more. I do more than expected when I can.
Stephanie Weaver also presented at this session, and one example she used in the discussion on welcoming guests was Disneyland. No, it is not a museum and is a far cry from a non-profit, but darned if they know how to welcome people. The grounds are spotless, in part due to strategically placed trash cans an exact number of steps away from that ice cream stand. Yes, they do that. They have the visitor experience down to a science and it shows. People LOVE Disneyland. Even adults love Disneyland. Why would a 38-year-old man choose to go to Disneyland on his vacation rather than another location? Before you jump to conclusions, think about it. He knows exactly what he will see, what to expect, and, most importantly, that he will have a good time. That is a wise economic decision. Other adults I’ve spoken with talk about the cleanliness of the park or the new ride they want to try but, most of all, it’s just fun. It’s a totally created and protected environment. Nothing bad happens at Disneyland. Or at least you don’t expect it to. You can go with complete confidence that you will see your favorite Disney character in costume, enjoy your ice cream, and ride that new ride. We can learn a few lessons from Disneyland. Anticipate guests’ needs before they do, create a wonderful environment, and encourage people to enjoy themselves.
I came away with so many wonderful experiences in Honolulu. I connected with other colleagues in my city that I had never met and I was able to share successes and challenges with other professionals who climb the same mountain every day. I got what I wanted out of the meeting, and more that I didn’t expect. This particular session I attended, and also all the warm welcomes I received at each museum, allowed me to step outside the usual and remember the sincerity often lost in the day-to-day. Give a little more. It does not take that much more effort and it will be a better experience for all.
Kate Williams is the Museum Educator at the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) in Seattle, Washington, www.naamnw.org. She thoroughly enjoys working to initiate, develop, and produce educational activities and programs for students K-12, and being able to tell the stories that make up our collective history.