Building a Cohesive Visitor First Team During COVID

Herman Marigny, National Museum of African American History & Culture, USA


The reopening of the museum amidst the challenges posed by COVID-19 and national social justice protests created a sense of anxiety among the staff who engage with the public daily. Establishing a team culture that placed frontline staff safety and sanity at the forefront of decision making and created opportunities for collective learning around issues of race, equity, inclusion was critical to ensure the museum had a successful reopening.

Keywords: covid, self care, visitor services, frontline staff, reopening, social justice

On September 18th, 2020, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) carefully reopened its doors to a public that overwhelmingly reported feeling safe and satisfied with their visit to the museum. Survey results confirmed that a large part of the museum’s successful reopening could be attributed to the role frontline staff played in making visitors feel safe and welcomed. Providing such impactful service during this critical juncture in the reopening process is particularly noteworthy when we consider that Visitor Services team members and other essential frontline museum staff are some of the most vulnerable amongst the museum community. Establishing a team culture, amidst the challenges posed by COVID-19 and national social justice movements, that placed frontline staff’s safety and sanity at the forefront of decision making and creating opportunities for collective learning around issues of race, equity, inclusion was crucial to ensuring the museum had a successful reopening.

When it was announced last fall that the NMAAHC would be among a small group of Smithsonian museums on the National Mall slated to reopen, it created a sense of conflicting feelings amongst our frontline staff. Across the museum field, many frontline staff had been subject to indefinite lapses in pay or layoffs as a result of the pandemic, so having a firm reopening date provided some sense of economic security, despite the reduced operating hours . However, fears about the health risks of engaging with the public in an indoor facility created a sense of unease and uncertainty amongst the team. To address the concerns of the staff and the public, the museum’s Reopening Committee worked tirelessly for months to update and document safety procedures that aligned with national and local guidance.  

When the museum announced it’s reopening to the public, there was an reopening plan in place, but the risk and responsibility of implementing the plan fell squarely on the shoulder of the frontline team.

According to Elissa Frankle Olinsky’s Hierarchy of Visitor Needs, visitor accessibility and safety needs are the foundation upon which an exceptional visitor experience is built. Visitors need to feel safe in a museum before they’re ready to learn and explore the exhibitions. Even with a solid reopening plan in place, the risk and responsibility of implementing the plan fell squarely on the shoulders of the frontline team. In the Office of Visitor and Guest Services at NMAAHC, we adopted the mindset that our staff had to feel safe and secure at work before they could extend exceptional customer service to our visitors. This not only impacted how we trained our team on COVID-19 customer service expectations, but how we developed new protocols to manage visitor capacity, managed daily reporting and team check-ins, and approached implementing collective wellness practices.   

Prior to reopening, all frontline staff members had to participate in a standardized COVID-19 Customer Service training to review new health and safety requirements and provide a forum for staff to ask questions and voice their concerns. A key topic of the training explicitly outlined the importance of keeping frontline staff safe using social distancing, require face coverings, setting occupancy limits in staffing areas, and outlining contract tracing practices. The training sessions were scheduled for two hours which were broken down into one hour of policies and procedures training and one hour for Q&A to ensure everyone had an opportunity to be heard. The Q&A session always proved to be the most challenging because the staff felt understandably anxious and concerned about interacting with visitors. While facilitating the sessions, I knew it was important to make sure everyone felt acknowledged and respected, so I was mindful to maintain eye contact with each speaker no matter how passionate their response. Once I was sure they were done speaking, I started each response by restating what they shared with me to demonstrate that I was listening and to ensure my response is directly addressing their concern. 

One concern that was shared repeatedly during the training session was related to the maximum number of visitors we would allow in the building during reopening. Following national and local COVID-19 guidance, the NMAAHC visitation policy only allowed 25% of normal capacity to be used for daily visitation. Despite this drastic reduction in daily visitors, staffers were still anxious about managing larger crowds while adjusting to the new protocols. To address this concern, the Reopening Committee made the decision to gradually increase visitation up to the 25% threshold over a four-week period. This staggered approach allowed the frontline team to adjust to the new work environment and build their confidence in managing crowds. Beyond a staggered opening, we also leveraged visitor capacity management software to monitor visitor crowding inside the museum. As the weeks went by, the team learned to navigate the software and proactively manage visitor flow to prevent crowding in certain exhibits. As the team’s confidence grew, so did their trust in the idea that decisions were being made with their safety in mind.  

Another tactic that helped grow the team’s confidence in decision making was asking them for feedback on operations daily during team debriefs. From the beginning, we emphasized that the museum’s new operations plan was a living document that would need to be updated and that this would be a collective learning process. Hosting daily morning and evening debrief sessions allowed us to receive the team’s buy-in as they constantly saw their recommendations be put into action.  The evening sessions took place at the end of the day and were facilitated by team leads who captured the feedback on forms.  The bulk of the iterative learning took place during this period as we made frequent adjustments to operations based on the direct feedback from the team. New changes were communicated every morning  during the team round up. We relied on the lived experience of the frontline staff members to inform our best practices for managing visitor safety and satisfaction at NMAAHC. 

As the museum’s daily visitation grew to the 25% threshold, it was important to implement practices that would help us maintain a safe and healthy work environment for our frontline staff. Visitation data showed that even with our reduced capacity Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were still the busiest days and unfortunately, these were also the days the staff felt most anxious at work.  We attempted to address this issue on an individual and collective team level. Individually, we encourage the team members to visit NMAAHC’s Talking About Race Portal and complete the Self Care Wheel exercise to help them reflect on their self care practice. Participants are asked to identify areas of their practice that can use some work and create a plan to improve those areas over time. Collectively, we instituted the weekly practice of socially distant team yoga that takes place in the main lobby on Friday mornings before the museum opens to the public. During the session, we acknowledged the additional stress that comes when managing the weekend museum crowd and intentionally used the session to increase the team’s collective resilience.  

That resilience was put to the test as the team was called to work amidst growing white supremacist demonstrations taking place on the National Mall as we got closer to election season.  During a time when the nation is reflecting on the role of race in our society, reopening museums like NMAAHC that deliberately strive to explore how these topics relate in both a historical and cultural context is extremely important. To prepare the team, we held a town hall meeting to again provide a safe space for staff to speak freely. From the feedback we received, we understood that the team felt safe inside the museum while the demonstrations took place outside, but they were concerned about engaging with the crowd during their commute to and from work and during their lunch break. To address these concerns, senior leadership made the call to extend staff arrival and departure time frame so team members could arrive as early as 7am and leave as late as 7pm to avoid the crowds. Anyone who chose to arrive early or leave late would be paid for the additional time they were on the clock. Additionally, lunch was provided for the entire team to not only ensure that no one had to leave, but to also provide an opportunity for the team to connect and find comfort over a shared meal.  We held an emergency team yoga session that morning to acknowledge the increased anxiety resulting from the demonstrations. Most importantly, the OVGS leadership team spent the entire day on the museum floor with the frontline staff. Visitation that day was at a record low, but the team’s appreciation of our commitment to staff safety was at an all time high. 

Taking an approach that centered staff safety allowed us to create an environment that places people and community care at the center of decision making.  By leveraging online resources such as the Smithsonian’s COVID Customer Service training, Olinsky’s Hierarchy of Visitor Needs, and NMAAHC’s Talking About Race Portal, the museum was able to ensure frontline staff had remote access to the content they needed in order feel safe and prepared to address their own needs and the needs of our visitors during reopening.


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Olinsky, Elissa. “Maslow in Museums.” Elissa Olinsky, 2017,

“Self-Care.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 20 July 2020,

Stokoe, Reggie Lynch and Meriel. “Seeking Self-Care Solutions, for COVID-19 and Beyond.” American Alliance of Museums, 24 Apr. 2020,

Cite as:
Marigny, Herman. "Building a Cohesive Visitor First Team During COVID." MW21: MW 2021. Published March 11, 2021. Consulted .