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There was no blueprint at the ready last June when the four Carnegie Museums were preparing to reopen their doors in the clutches of a worldwide pandemic, after being shuttered for nearly four months, with most staff either temporarily furloughed or working from home. Fortunately for the museums, they had an ace in the hole—a veteran leadership squad in visitor services who leaned on each other and their decades of combined experience to help steer the ship.
Steve Kovac, senior director of service and engagement at Carnegie Science Center, began his career at the North Shore museum 21 years ago as a program presenter. Amber Quick, director of visitor services at The Andy Warhol Museum, has the insight of working at three of the museums, splitting her nine-year tenure between the Oakland museums and The Warhol. And while Jason Segreti had only a few months under his belt as director of visitor and museum services at Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History when COVID-19 struck, he was a manager in the department for three years and spent 13 years in progressively senior roles within the museums’ security team.
Looking back over a dizzying and frightening year, the trio is quick to credit their staffs, which include many part-time employees, and other front-line colleagues such as custodians, for succeeding in making visitors feel safe and welcome at the museums during the once-in-a-century health crisis.
It’s early May, and the museums are still operating at 15% capacity. What’s the vibe like, and has it changed much since the museums first reopened in June 2020?
Steve: I would say the vibe among visitors is increasingly more eager. The first group of people who came out in June were less concerned about things, less cautious, and they seemed to just want to get out of the house. We now have some visitors where this is their first time going into a busier space, and they’re concerned. But overall, the vibe feels more like the museum used to feel, and it feels like visitors are happy and enjoying their day.
Amber: Early on, nobody knew what to expect or how to act. Visitors and staff, we were all learning. And now we’re starting to see more people coming out, more people feeling comfortable, and more people knowing what’s expected of them. It’s getting back to a point where it feels more normal, where it feels like it used to feel, even though there are these interventions that are very different, like the masks. And I would say that goes for staff as well.
Jason: Since our reopening in January [of 2021, after a three-week closure], we immediately saw attendance increase twice as much as when we opened last June. I think visitors are just more comfortable.
Do visitors ever verbalize what they missed most about the museums?
Jason: Oh, yeah, visitors constantly tell us they missed the culture, the collections. For some people, going to the museum was their weekly thing, their family day, and they missed that time.
Steve: When people first started coming back, it was about being out at a place they trusted. It wasn’t so much about exactly what they were going to do when they were here. Now it’s becoming more about, I’m not only going to a place I trust, but I’m going to a place where I have fun because of what’s there.
Over the past year, is there an experience with a visitor that sticks with you?
Amber: In early July, I just happened to be standing in the lobby talking with another staff member and a family of six walked in. None of them had masks on. I said, “Hey everybody! Welcome to The Warhol. We’re going to need you to put your masks on.” And who I presumed was the mom in the group asked, “Oh, is it required?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s absolutely required.” And in that moment, in my head I was thinking, it’s required everywhere in Pennsylvania. Their response was, “Oh, OK, never mind then,” and they turned around and walked out. That’s hard. I’m used to a situation where we never want to turn people away. But it was quick and succinct and the people who could have potentially been a threat to other visitors and to our staff left right away. So, it’s not the way I wish it would have went; I really wish they would have said, “OK, we’ll put them on” or “Oh, do you have some that we can have?” Which we do. But it stands out as a different way of operating.
Jason: I worked for 13 years in security, so we’re used to enforcing policy. I would just say the policies that we need to enforce are now different, they’re more for safety, and I think our staff have adapted well. When you work on the front line, no day is the same. We’re trained to expect the unexpected. And me, particularly, I love that aspect of it.
Steve: What sticks out for me happened when state regulations changed, and we started requiring that kids ages 2 and up wear face masks, and we eliminated any kind of medical exemption for wearing some kind of face covering. That first weekend, one of my staff had a heartbreaking interaction with a member who has a 2-year-old with autism, who was really trying to get his child to wear a mask. We had talked about how, for equity and fairness, we’ve got to enforce this uniformly. And so that dad was really trying to get his little one, as were other kids with him, to wear that mask. But we got to a point where it wasn’t going to work and with the sad puppy dog eyes, he asked the staff member, “Does this mean I’m going to have to leave?” He told him, “Yes, unfortunately it does.” The dad got it, and he told us, “I understand why you have the rule, I just can’t do it. And I’m just sad that we’re going to have to leave today.” That dad sticks out because the staff member wrote in his daily report, “If I ever have to do that again, you’ll have my two weeks’ notice.” And I get it. To have to look that dad in the face who is trying to do the right thing and say, “Yeah, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to go.”
Amber: I used to joke with my team that our jobs were not life and death. And then, all of a sudden, we’re in our 15-week closure and nobody knows how this virus works across the globe. And we’re all trying to learn, and we’re trying to figure out how we can go about operating as safely as possible. All of a sudden it possibly could be life and death, and it means we’ve had to approach things so much differently than how we used to.
Do you think there’s a new appreciation for the work of your staff?
Steve: I think there’s a new understanding of how complicated and challenging our front-line jobs can be, and how essential these staff are. And our staff have had to adapt to new expectations of them over the last year. There have been some studies and surveys done of guests from visitor-serving institutions that said that visitors viewed museum workers’ most important job during the pandemic as keeping them safe. It used to be, “Oh, I want someone to be courteous to me, and I want to have a great experience.”
Amber: I appreciate the support from The Warhol team and colleagues across the museums, and I certainly hear a lot more thank yous now than I did in the past. But, I’m still not sure if there is a full understanding of the emotional strain and stress that front-line teams dealt with this year. I don’t know if there is that introspection with everybody about the additional risks they’ve taken on.
Jason: We got a nice surprise the other day when staff from the anthropology department put handwritten cards of appreciation in all 30 [visitor-services] staff mailboxes. They expressed their gratitude for all the work this group put in. I think little things like that go a long way in building morale and letting people know: Your position is important.
The three of you became a team. Do you think it’s a win for post-pandemic life?
Steve: We realize how much we benefit from getting insight from one another, and that will continue. There’s also an acknowledgment and an understanding from the leadership group that the perspective we bring—from visitors and front-line staff— is a critical perspective to have when making big decisions. We’re now in conversations where we’re able to help with amending policies before they go out to staff. I feel that’s absolutely a positive change that is going to benefit this organization—and visitors—in the long run.
Jason: We all work more closely with our central departments now, too, like our custodial team. It’s because of them that visitors feel comfortable in the facility, that they feel like it’s clean. We have a fantastic facilities team who go above and beyond to make sure every space in this building is thoroughly cleaned constantly. It’s been a nice surprise to work more closely with them and understand this time from their perspective, too.
Each of you brings a wealth of experience to your roles. How did, or didn’t it, prepare you for the challenges of COVID-19?
Amber: Our collective longevity was incredibly helpful. Going back to something Jason said, working on the front lines, all of our days are different. I think that’s the experience that helped me the most with this, is that we’ve always worked on the fly and improvised. And that’s what we needed to do with this, just at the macro level, instead of individual visitor interactions.
Jason: When we tried to imagine what it looks like to reopen, we were able to look at it through the lens of each front-line staff role, not just our position where we have this bird’s-eye-view of everything. We’ve done those jobs. We actually envisioned: If I was doing this, what would make me feel safe? I think that was a huge benefit for us—three directors who have literally worked their way up through those levels.
Steve: Being as humble as possible, I think we know we’re valuable to the organization. But, as we’ve all said, we’re successful because of the people who work with us, front-line staff and managers. We were relying on the people who we trust the most to help us figure it out. Having diverse perspectives and people from different backgrounds always plays a big role.
Amber: During our 15-week closure, I was the only person from my team who wasn’t furloughed. So, as we prepared to reopen, what I fell asleep thinking, what I woke up thinking is, “What am I missing? We’re going to open our doors and what is going to be the hole in our operations plan?” And being able to bring our team back a few weeks before we opened our doors, and to run through things with them, to talk through what our days might look like, was essential. I did miss things that they thought of. Leading into the reopening and immediately following, and it continues to this day, this iterative process of, what are we missing?
Jason: We have teams who truly love working with people, that’s why they took these front-line jobs. They enjoy talking to visitors. It’s been all hands on deck during this entire process. I am so impressed by our team, how they persevered, and I think their agility and collaboration got us through all the uncertainty.
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