Perfect Attendants

November 3, 2014
Michael Kirchner, the director of safety and security, leads new museum attendants through the new Harvard Art Museums galleries as part of a two-week orientation.

“If someone asked you right now for Van Gogh’s self-portrait, how would you tell them to find that?” asked Michael Kirchner, the director of safety and security for the Harvard Art Museums. He was standing in a second-floor gallery, surrounded by two dozen museum attendants-in-training.

Many voices eagerly chimed in at once, providing variations of the correct answer (in the Wertheim Collection, located on the first floor). One man gamely added, “It’s part of the Fogg Museum collection.” Kirchner chuckled. “Extra credit,” he said.

The pop quiz was part of an extensive two-week orientation for the 26 new attendants who began working at the museums in early October. These individuals, whose job entails protecting people and art and interacting with visitors (as well as fielding countless “How can I find . . . ?” questions), play a crucial role in the museums.

The briefings included extensive security and safety trainings (such as first-aid, fire, and emergency preparedness), and the attendants toured every floor and gallery of the museums, including areas closed to the public.

They also received an education in art conservation and appreciation, from individuals across nearly all of the museums’ curatorial, academic, and administrative divisions. These short meet-and-greets were vital, Kirchner said, because “the attendants will spend more time in the galleries and meet more visitors than any other group of employees. Every department told them, ‘You are our eyes and our ears.’”

Curators and conservators passed on both historical and practical information (such as certain fragilities) about objects on view. That knowledge reinforces the importance of the collections and the importance of the attendants’ job, Kirchner said.

For Patricia Daly, who is beginning her second career at the Harvard Art Museums after more than 25 years as a flight attendant, the orientation was enlightening. “To have the emphasis on how much we need to protect people and the art—with a smile—was important,” Daly said.

One of her peers, Marysara Naczi, said she hadn’t expected to experience so much interaction across so many divisions of the museums within the first few days. “A lot of places just give you the handbook and throw you into job,” she said.

Kirchner’s emphasis on customer service during the group training made an impression with attendant Kamal Salhi. “Every interaction that we have with a visitor is going to be negative or positive,” Salhi said. “We have to try the best we can to make the visitor experience a great one.”