Warm Welcomes to Go Along with the Art

November 8, 2018
Alyssa Collins, at far right, a Visitor Services and Group Visits Assistant, welcomes a group to the Harvard Art Museums. As part of her job, Collins helps ensure that guests’ visits go as smoothly as possible.

It was ten minutes before the museums opened to the public, and Alyssa Collins was gearing up for her day as a Visitor Services and Group Visits Assistant. She’d be welcoming a number of groups throughout the morning and early afternoon.

While she waited for the first group to arrive, she helped two colleagues in the shop by neatening and restocking displays of books, toys, jewelry, and other items.

Just after 10am, a woman at the admissions desk called out, “Hi! We’re the group!” Collins welcomed them from behind the desk and headed into the Calderwood Courtyard to hand them visitor tags and maps.

“Can I help anyone find anything?” she said as the visitors began to disperse. One woman approached to ask, “Where’s Gallery 1100?” Rather than showing her on the map, Collins walked the visitor straight into the gallery.

“Our staff tries to be accommodating and helpful to all visitors,” Collins said, as she returned to the courtyard. “We really want to help everyone, and we try to answer every question—from ‘Where do I go out to eat around here?’ to ‘Where can I find the Van Gogh self-portrait?’”

That level of customer service is essential to the work of the museums’ 12 Visitor Services staff members. Their duties are multifaceted: whether they’re stationed in the courtyard to answer questions, at the admissions desk to hand out visitor tags, or in the shop to sell gift books, they have an immediate impact on the visitor experience. They also support daily public programs, such as gallery talks, as well as evening events, such as lectures and film screenings. Some staff manage the relationship between the museums and Jenny’s Cafe.

Behind the admissions desk, Collins provides maps and visitor tags to the leaders of the day’s first group.

Back in the shop, Collins was helping her colleagues display small signs advertising a sale when the phone rang at the cashier’s desk. She answered it and took an order for a museums publication, Carl Grossberg: Works in the Merrill C. Berman Collection. She then rang up a customer who was buying gifts.

In the museums’ shop, Collins takes an order for a Harvard Art Museums publication.

Next, she welcomed a second group, 17 teenagers and their chaperones, who began their visit on the Lower Level. She helped split the group into two—gallery capacity is limited to 15 people or fewer.

Returning to the courtyard for the rest of the morning, Collins quickly spotted and collected a few discarded maps on empty cafe tables and a stray visitor tag on the floor.

Collins serves as a resource for visitors while she is stationed in the courtyard. She also keeps an eye out for dropped visitor tags, maps, and other misplaced or lost objects in the courtyard and galleries.

She perked up when she noticed one visitor enter the courtyard, a local resident who comes on the same day each week. Staff members have gotten to know him well, Collins said. As usual, she warmly greeted the visitor, then helped him store his walker and brought him a wheelchair to use in the building.

John Sheeran, Senior Visitor Services Assistant, greeted the man at the admissions desk. “Nice to see you again,” he said, smiling.

Sheeran said that interacting with patrons—particularly those with whom he and other staff have built a relationship—is the best part of the job. “You get to meet people from all walks of life,” he said. “It’s funny; we do similar things every day, but there’s always something different that happens or someone new you meet to keep it interesting.”

Collins added that the many strange questions they get asked also keep staff on their toes. “If we don’t know the answer, we’ll usually say ‘Let me look that up online for you.’” For questions about the Harvard campus and Harvard Square destinations, the staff pulls out a map.

“We also always get asked where people should start their visit. There’s no set answer to that, but I usually tell visitors that if they want to arrange their visit chronologically, they can start on Level 3, with the ancient art, and work their way down.”

Engaging visitors on such a range of topics and in a carefully managed setting can be challenging, Collins admitted. The arrival of unannounced groups, for instance, can complicate the day. “We try to be as accommodating as possible, but at the same time we have to follow security policies and guidelines,” she said. “It’s not always easy.”

Still standing in the courtyard, Collins suddenly shifted her focus to a visitor who had just left the admissions desk and was heading toward the cafe. “That person walked in with a cane and forgot it at the admissions desk,” Collins said. She rushed over to pick up the cane to reunite it with its owner. The visitor was surprised—and grateful. After a brief conversation, Collins returned to the courtyard and smiled. “It’s always nice being stationed out here,” she said.