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Reimagining the Frontline

Working in an institution that values innovation and is open to new ideas has been invigorating! Instead of dedicating time and energy fighting for common sense, I now have the freedom to advocate for my (yet-to-be-hired) team and think of new ways to improve both staff and guest experience.

We are coming to the end of an impressively bold strategic plan: The museum decided to essentially toss everything out and start over from scratch. All of the exhibits were taken out, walls were removed, and the entire space was redesigned to provide a better guest experience. They renamed and rebranded the museum. They brought in a consultant to help them better focus on guest experience and provide guest experience training for the ENTIRE museum team. A training that every single person in the museum will do on an annual basis.

Actual footage of a strategic planning meeting

Despite all of this excitement, the museum has been struggling to get applicants for a number of jobs we need to fill prior to our opening in May. While I don't know for sure why we're struggling, I can guess. The pay is low and, in the case of some roles, part-time work isn't desirable. Nothing about our job posts highlight the best part of working at this museum: the workplace culture and the aforementioned acceptance of new ideas. So I spent a fair amount of time this week wondering what could be done to fix this.

For now, I advocated for better pay and an extra full time position. Originally, the full-time Guest Experience Lead position was posted at $16 an hour and the part-time Guest Experience Associate was slated to get $12 an hour. Thanks to folks in leadership positions who listen to new perspectives and advocacy, the Lead is now at $18.40 an hour and the part-time associates will be at $15 per hour (living wage for New Castle County is $15.91 an hour). Hopefully, that will be enough to get a few folks in the door, get us staffed up for a grand reopening and a busy summer.

Maybe more of a grand re-re-re-opening after COVID

After we reopen and get through what I expect to be the museum's busiest summer in history, September will come and the crowds will disperse. When we get to that point, I want to start phasing out the Guest Experience Associate position and, along with it, the museum's reliance on part-time labor. We, along with other museums and workplaces, need to move away from the idea that staff is a commodity to serve the museum and view the working relationship as one that is mutually beneficial.

With that in mind, I tried to think of how the museum can better serve the people who are serving its mission every day. We're likely never going to be in a position to offer significantly more money, so what can we offer? In an impromptu meeting in which two directors, the store manager, and I were tossing out a variety of ideas to get people in the door, I suggested the idea of replacing the part-time Guest Experience Associate role with a full-time Museum Apprentice role.

What a magical idea

The idea of the Museum Apprentice would be to prepare emerging museum professionals with relevant, practical experience in a variety of museum roles. Being at a smaller institution (we have about 25 full timers on the staff), it would be easy enough to get organizational buy-in and almost everyone has some area of their department in which they need help, providing a benefit to the museum beyond my department. For the individuals in the role, we would be providing specialized training and ample opportunities to fill their resumes and portfolios with tangible experience to help them move up in their careers.

Ideally, several Museum Apprentices would be hired, working either a Tuesday-Saturday or Sunday-Thursday schedule. The Tue/Sat crew would be dedicated to Guest Experience frontline work on Fridays and Saturdays, and the Sun/Thu folks would be dedicated to frontline Guest Experience work on Thursdays and Sundays. The rest of the week, they will divide their time among other departments. The time in other departments won't just be grunt work either, there will be training and coaching and small projects with an express goal of pumping up their portfolios while also serving the museum's mission.

This would accomplish a few things. One, we move away from part-time work in favor of full-time which provides the team with more money and benefits while giving the museum a frontline staff who is given more opportunity to be further invested in the mission. Two, we offer assistance to other departments in the museum, many of which are only made up of one person. Three, we avoid some of the monotony that comes with frontline work by breaking up the week.

My hope is that this is an excellent entry-level experience for folks starting in their museum careers, preparing them for a future in the field by providing meaningful, hands-on experiences in a variety of museum roles. For the museum, I hope it enables us to avoid a lot of the uncertainty that comes with a reliance on part-time work. In the long run, I hope this program is an example followed by other institutions and can serve as either a supplement or an alternative to graduate degrees.

TL;DR - I want to offer full-time work to EMPs during which my colleagues and I train them in as many aspects of museum work as possible.

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Verb. 1) Pertaining to the behavior of being a Wittwer. 2) Doing odd things that only Wittwers would do. 3) Catchall phrase for the thoughts and actions of Patrick Wittwer.

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