Let's not call them vigilantes. Here's who visitation assistants are and what they do

They are not just vigilantes: the visitor assistants we find in all museums do much more. An interesting perspective on the topic.

Janitor, vigilante, overseer. The Cinderella of Culture has many names, little recognition, but delicate duties. The face of the museum, he or she who greets the hundreds of thousands of visitors who pass through our museums each day. The first and perhaps the only person a visitor knows of the diverse staff that is supposed to operate within a cultural institution.

Italian museums now seem to be composed only of directors and vigilantes. An antiquated and perhaps short-sighted vision for those who should be transforming culture into the driving force of the economy. In the pyramid of Italy’s museum professions, intermediate figures between management and public workers simply do not exist, or hardly exist at all. The exceptions are foundations and private entities that often boast within them professional figures such as experts in marketing, communication, education, fundraising, exhibit design and curatorship. This is not the case for most cultural institutions, which apart from the director, or a few scattered second- or third-tier managers, do not have in their staff figures who are responsible for enhancing the value, increasing the public, and developing projects. Those who are not lacking are janitors or supervisors, reduced to living cameras, disheartened by a very unrewarding routine.

A task the latter that is often undervalued, underpaid and subcontracted to the myriad of cooperatives that crowd the labor market. A virtuous case, if it can be considered so, is the recent call for the Mibac competition (more than 1,000 units) that finally calls them no longer custodians but assistants to fruition, reception and supervision. A generic diploma and knowledge of a foreign language are required to enter the competition. Let’s leave out the fact that for old recruits the requirements are reduced to an eighth grade. However, it seems to emerge from the announcement that the cultural background of museum workers is an optional extra replaced by memory or readiness to answer a logic quiz included in the pre-selection test of the said competition. However, no one calls them by the epithet proposed by Mibac. Even in the competition preparation manuals the adjective vigilante or the timeless custodian, now so ingrained in our vocabulary, persists.

Non chiamiamoli vigilanti. Ecco chi sono e cosa fanno gli assistenti alla visita
Let’s not call them vigilantes. Here’s who visiting assistants are and what they do.

When we think of custodians we think (and sometimes see) them glued to a chair, tired and bored with a book in their hand, now replaced by the inseparable smartphone. Mute and invisible figures who interact with users only to give generic directions (where the exit is, the bathroom, what time the museum closes). This is the common limmaginary that has become established in Italy about our museum employees. A view that persists as much among non-experts (i.e., visitors) as among those who run our institutions. Custom sometimes becomes practice for a staff that is not valued, motivated and, above all, trained. I would like to bring as an example the professional counterpart of our supervisory assistants i.e. in museums across the Channel who are here called visitor assistants. Already the definition sums up a more inclusive conception. No longer someone who guards, supervises and sometimes punishes, but who welcomes, directs, suggests, communicates and perhaps smiles. Figures in whom the museum invests with frequent professional development courses (mandatory) to improve performance in dealing with the public and in dealing with colleagues, maintaining safety in the halls, and motivating them with economic and professional incentives. When I was a visitor assistant at the Royal Museums of Greenwich (which houses about 400 employees) I was encouraged to create ad hoc guided tours for the public based on my interests and the galleries’ collections. I was also invited to participate in team-building tours with other colleagues, attend conferences inside and outside the museum, and interact, even if only as a volunteer, in other departments (exhibitions department, press office, curatorship, registrar, museum conservation, etc.). Sometimes it may happen that one may be able to make a career within the same museum as a result of the above volunteer work. This still happens in the United Kingdom, which has created a model in museum management.

However, it is not true that in Italy there is a lack of initiatives to enhance this profession. On the contrary, there are so many exceptions that overturn this apparent sense of inertia. Receptionists in many cases are also in charge of ticketing, the bookshop, sometimes even the educational offer. There are also many initiatives that start from the employees themselves to improve the places where they work and especially the perception of those who visit them. For reasons of privacy I prefer not to mention the numerous cases of supervisory staff who by vocation or explicit request of superiors work as social media managers or guides of the institutions in which they work, often without a proper contract that rewards them for this important (and delicate) activity. These in order to do something more rewarding perform the extra tasks during duty hours or in their spare time.

It is necessary to consider that most graduates, doctorates or specialists in cultural heritage do not find employment appropriate to their course of study. It is precisely among custodians that one finds (and will find) multi-skilled people who at best will feel cramped in this role, and at worst will feel frustrated with major psychological consequences. Give me a dream to live in because reality is killing me, Jim Morrison would say.

My appeal is this. Why don’t we invest more in these figures and try to enhance them with diversified tasks (see the British example)? Why do we continue to call them vigilantes or custodians if they are the primary representatives of the museum? Why don’t we consider them as people with aspirations that perhaps can be realized within the limits of available resources? Visiting assistants, let’s call them that, should accompany visitors in the interpretation and enjoyment of cultural heritage. They should raise awareness and inspire the many publics who visit heritage. They should know the basics of first aid as well as the necessary fire and safety regulations. They should represent and convey the value of the museum and not its authority. They should be custodians, yes, but in a cultural sense, not a literal one. Like the plants that need to be watered from below so the new museum institutions will have to invest in the training and enhancement of the staff that most represents them: the vigilantes, pardon, the visitor assistants.