This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.
By Mary Maher
On March 16, due to the rapidly spreading coronavirus, DISCOVERY Children’s Museum (DCM) in Las Vegas, Nevada, closed. Some staff, who had been tracking local response to the pandemic wave, were not surprised; others were caught off-guard by the museum’s swift decision. At first, most staff, like most people in the U.S., thought their regional shutdown would be short—two weeks. At the time, even that seemed drastic, but no one was prepared for the lengthy unknown that has followed.
When the announcement came, all staff felt supported by a “heartfelt email” from museum CEO Melissa Kaiser assuring them that their jobs were safe, and that those who were able to work from home would be able to do so. Many of front-line staff’s extended families fortunately were able to keep their jobs as well, and even though other aspects of the quarantine, including juggling work and family responsibilities at home, were challenging, financial hardships did not immediately emerge.
This article shares the stories of the many DCM staff who deal daily and directly with museum visitors. From interns to learning educators to visitor services staff, how did they handle the quarantine. What did they learn about themselves, both personally and professionally, in this mandatory timeout? And how will they take this new knowledge back to their work with visitors since the museum reopened on July 2?
Visitor Services Staff with No Visitors
Visitor services staff Ayesha Inayat: “Visitors make our job!” While most staff were grateful to able to work from home and regularly connect with coworkers through video team meetings and emails, all agreed it felt odd.
Lisa Esterkamp, assistant director of visitor services: “It was very weird. I deal primarily with the visitors, and I spend the majority of my time in very close physical contact with my team. It was a big adjustment to move to online/phone meetings and communication.”
Sales Coordinator Connor Tetter: “I didn’t realize how much I missed my coworkers until we were finally able to start returning to the building.”
But perhaps Marketing Content Specialist Jessica Duffin summed it up best: “The museum felt so lifeless without hundreds of kids running around. In a way, this has been a good reminder that, beyond exhibits and programs, kids give the museum its magic.”
Preparing for Reopening
Shortly after closing, however, museum staff began planning for the reopening, adhering to evolving state and local guidelines. Every aspect of the facility was cleaned and scrutinized for health and safety precautions related to COVID-19. Staff worked to close or adapt exhibits, make museum admissions reservation-only and establish capacity limits, and create new signage to (playfully) keep visitors informed about new rules.
Floor staff, key in ensuring returning visitors stay safe while enjoying a much-needed return to fun, were involved from the beginning in reopening plans. Discovery Children’s Museum’s floor staff, known as the Learning Education Team, and members of the museum’s internship program, YouthWorks, worked along with other staff to create a plan. Before determining how to best support returning visitors, all staff were asked to think about what situations might arise and what new mindsets they might encounter among once familiar audiences, many venturing out for the first time.
Staff at all levels agreed that many families need a break and are eager to get out of the house and enjoy a relaxing and fun museum visit. Kids especially, cooped up for months, might be ready to really cut loose. Staff thought they would be dealing with a range of mindsets—from anxious parents needing reassurance about their and their children’s safety to those who seem unconcerned or resistant to following safety guidelines. It was agreed that every visitor would be treated with the same patience and empathy to ensure a great experience.
To that end, the museum created an Empathy Policy, guidelines created to assist staff in engaging with visitors in today’s sensitive climate. During its creation, following the popular notion that people will support what they help to create, all staff were encouraged to think about putting themselves in the shoes of the person with whom they’re engaging, and trying to understand their situation. For example, prior to closure, most interactions with visitors were brief. Coming out of lockdown, people might be eager to start talking again—to anyone—which could lead to them to confide their quarantine trials and tribulations to staff unprepared to deal with that level of personal information.
Lisa Esterkamp: “The guidelines document is more of an addendum to our current visitor engagement training. It takes a deeper dive into four topics we felt were the most important for today’s ‘new normal’: Empathy, Active Listening, Transparency, and Patience. Not only will we be interacting with visitors, who will all have different thoughts and feelings about current events, but our employees are also going through this as well and may need additional support to help navigate their own experience. It was important to create a training that prepares them for both visitor and team member interactions.
“The new document shows the team how to slow down and spend time with the visitors. Pre-pandemic, we were high traffic, often with a line out the door. Quick, friendly, and efficient engagement was a focus, because visitors waiting in long lines can have a negative experience. Now, with physical distancing and attendance caps, wait times are inevitable. We hope to use them as opportunities to spend quality time with our visitors, getting to know them, seeing how they’re doing, and asking how we can help. The greater, more personalized engagement we can deliver today will keep them coming back in the future.”
YouthWorks intern Nayeli Lara: “… during their visit, I want them to have the best day of their life for however long they stay. I’ll refrain from heavy conversations or topics and let them immerse themselves in whatever gallery I am in that day. So at least they can rest easy that night knowing they had an awesome day at the museum.”
Learning Education Team member Kurt True: “I’ve been concerned since the beginning of the shutdown that children, especially the younger ones, will think that they are responsible for the sudden radical changes that they’ve experienced in their lives since the middle of March. It’s not unusual for small children to engage in this kind of self-blame when they experience an unexpected loss, for instance when parents divorce, or a pet dies, or a family moves to a new neighborhood.
“Children experiencing that kind of self-blame can become socially withdrawn and often lose ground developmentally. All of us on the floor are going to have to give a lot of extra encouragement to children who’ve been emotionally impacted by enforced social distancing over the past few months, but also we need to remember that children who are having emotional or developmental difficulties are going to need time to find their way back to their respective baselines. We can’t force or coerce them back. The best we can do sometimes is be a calming presence.”
What We Learned about Ourselves
Prior to pandemic closure, most museum staff who dealt directly with visitors agreed that working with visitors—especially kids—was the most rewarding part of their jobs. They loved helping a child learn a new skill or work through a knotty problem. They enjoyed helping parents and caregivers feel comfortable in the museum, ready to engage in learning activities with their kids or just have a fun, relaxing time. Even the occasional hard-to-please visitors, though sometimes challenging, inspired professional growth. For a few intern staff, it was sometimes nerve-wracking but ultimately gratifying to successfully deal with “codes” (direct radio messages to staff about serious problems in the museum, such as a missing child).
So, what was it like for people staff to suddenly be disconnected from their people? Again, although everyone was grateful to still be employed, it varied. Some staff were surprised at how much they enjoyed working from home; some felt even more productive working alone. But through technology, they were able to stay connected with and supported by their team members and leadership staff.
Ania Lopez: “I am most surprised at how I am still able to interact with guests through the museum’s website and social media pages. Personally, I am surprised at how creative I’ve become with my work-from-home assignments.” Many staff were also grateful to have work assignments that helped focus their day.
Alondra Rocha: “Six people, including me and my two older sisters plus two dogs sharing a two-bedroom house has taken a toll. My weekly museum assignments were fun and kept me feeling it would all go back to normal soon.”
Ayesha Inayat: “Working from home isn’t as fun as it was in the beginning. Staying home every day has been trying. But our team has come together in an astounding way. Our CEO continued to boost morale, letting us know that she valued all of our work. It definitely helped me feel good about the work that I was doing even though at home.”
For some, especially YouthWorks interns—high school students used to busy, but structured schedules—the change caused them to suddenly dig deep for personal motivations. Some were surprised and buoyed by discovering a continued interest in pursuing their goals; others experienced a mix of motivational levels, but relied on friends and family (and pets!) to get them back on track. A few enjoyed the lack of structure and social engagement that freed them up to pursue dormant interests.
But the majority were eager for the museum to reopen, for visitors to return, and for them to get back to what they love.
Akira Tate: “Fourteen weeks working from home has made me realize how much I miss being at the museum.”
Some staff have learned that working from home is probably not a future option they would willingly choose.
Nicholas Coffey: “I have learned that I will never voluntarily work from home. Turns out I need to leave the house to feel fulfilled.”
Otila Prive: “I realized how much of a positive mental impact work has on me. Being out and interacting with other people is something I didn’t know I would need so much. Staying in my house all day—and every day in the beginning—started to take a toll on me.”
Everyone expressed complete trust in the museum’s new cleaning, safety, and operational procedures.
Marina Chavez: “The museum is taking lots of precautions to make sure staff and visitors are safe, following the guidelines like checking everyone’s temperatures and making sure visitors and staff are using hand sanitizers. The museum is probably the safest place to go compared to other places.”
Kurt True: “Who or what has been most helpful to me during the quarantine? That’s easy. The Facilities staff. Without them, I wouldn’t have a job to go back to tomorrow.”
All staff are looking forward to reconnecting with visitors and with their coworkers. The silver lining, if there is one, of this sudden and extended personal and professional retreat is that floor staff and all staff who deal daily with visitors are eager to return to what they feel they excel at: helping children and their families have fun learning experiences at the museum. They feel prepared to deal with the new museum environment and supported by their directors and managers. The future is still uncertain. We are not back to “normal,” but for this group of Discovery Children’s Museum floor staff the pause has given them time to think about their roles on their teams and what they can now bring back to the museum and its visitors.
Ashten Davis: “…having just been at the museum for five days before we closed, the quarantine has been difficult in some aspects but I am excited to go back, and I am leaving quarantine a better person.”
Jessica Duffin: “These past few months have opened my eyes to just how lucky I am to work for the museum. Our higher ups, especially our CEO, have handled this shutdown with more compassion and grace than any of us could have wished for. From the very beginning, they made us feel important and that they were going to do whatever it took to protect our jobs and our pay during these difficult times. I love my job and what I do, but even more, I love the people I work for.”
Mary Maher is the editor and designer of Hand to Hand.
Thanks to Jodi Gutstein, director of marketing and communications at Discovery Children’s Museum, for collecting thoughts from the following staff members included in this article:
Ayesha Inayat, assistant manager of sales and visitor services and data specialist; Conner Tetter, sales coordinator; Daniela Flores-Bello, visitor services coordinator; Jessica Duffin, marketing content specialist; and Lisa Esterkamp, assistant director of visitor services.
Learning Education Team members: Ania Lopez, Ashten Davis, Emma Agundez, Joselyn Gurrola, Kurt True, Lexi Keaton, Lidia Macario, Mahaleah Murdock, Marina Chavez, Nicholas Coffey, Otila Prive, Samantha Sleigher, Serio Lopez
YouthWorks Interns: Akira Tate, Alondra Rocha, Angela January, Christian Manriquez, Clarisa Del Toro, Kahleia Corpuz, Nayeli Lara, Nigel Simon.