The friendly face of the Gallery

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Friday 30 November 2012
Amy Cooper

Last week I spent two days in Wellington at the National Digital Forum having my mind blown. Some of the most brilliant minds in the international galleries, libraries, archives and museums sector were there, talking about the wonderful ways we can reach our visitors and improve access to our collections online. 

Courtney Johnston, director of The Dowse and the Petone Settlers Museum (and who blogs over at Best of 3), gave an especially inspirational talk that reminded me of the importance of making emotional connections with our visitors.

At one point Courtney mentioned a friend who’d felt lost and confused while visiting a gallery. She compared these feelings to the online experience of getting a 404 (page not found) or 403 (access forbidden) message while browsing. The best way to prevent or counter them? Make your front of house staff the ‘fail whales’ of your organisation – the friendly reassuring face who explains what’s going on and gets you back on track.

As I sat in Te Papa’s lecture theatre listening to Courtney’s talk, I felt so proud of our guide team back home. We have 50 friendly gallery guides on staff, from many different backgrounds, but all with an astounding knowledge of the visual arts. If you do find yourself wandering in circles, they can help with that, but more importantly, they love to talk about the stuff on the walls. If you’re wondering what on earth you’re looking at or why it’s important, have a chat with one of them.

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The guide team don’t roam the galleries to keep you in line. They exist to enrich your experience.

Guides are easy to spot – they all have the same t-shirt or jacket (right now they’re sporting ‘CREW’ t-shirts in conjunction with our exhibition Who Shot Rock & Roll), and most have a handy bag with an ‘i’ on it that’s packed with useful things like maps and brochures.

If you’re adventuring in our galleries and realise you need some direction – be it physical, intellectual or emotional – look around you. There’ll be a guide nearby who can give you what you need.

I should also mention the stellar job done by the volunteer guides who give our free daily tours – another crucial part of the visitor experience we provide.

We’re constantly getting feedback from our visitors about the amazing work our guide team does:

  • ‘Thanks for being so helpful and informative about the gallery.’
  • Visitor commented on how much she enjoyed having guides to discuss art with, as she was travelling on her own, and said it was a great initiative, something she hadn’t come across elsewhere.
  • ‘The guides bring this space alive! It’s great to hear the stories.’
  • ‘You were wonderful – you really opened it up for us.’
  • ‘Thank you! Our guides and guards don’t talk much. What an absolute pleasure to talk with you – it has made our visit!’ (Couple from New York)
  • A visitor said she had been told at the entrance to ask guides about the art in each of the rooms, and she had found it very rewarding: ‘I’m very pleased I did!’
  • ‘It’s great how the guides have encouraged us, and facilitated us around the gallery.’
  • ‘Thank you for all your knowledgeable information. It makes it so much more enjoyable when people explain things.’
  • ‘The guides are an asset to the gallery, and all so lovely to talk to.’


I’m so proud to work in an organisation with such a friendly face. Hurrah for the guides!