Visitor Services


When you left, they told you to have a nice day. The “other” duties they did were minimal. They paid close attention to everyone coming and going.

These people are security officers. They are part of the loss prevention department. Their purpose is to provide access control, parcel control and to keep customer and employee alike from carrying merchandise out the door without a receipt. Walmart has opted for a “softer” form of security and as a result you will not see a uniformed security officer on the property in the vast majority of neighborhoods.

When a crime, fire or other adverse incident occurs, these trained individuals know what to do. They have a role to play and they know how to play it. Whether it is an alarm from the store’s electronic article surveillance system or physical assault, they have a specific function to perform from intervention to calling police and simply being a good witness.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s exactly the same role your museum security officers play. Walmart most certainly has some tough guys waiting in the wings. You won’t recognize them because they look like the typical Walmart shopper but they are there to back up the greeters if they need help. But the vast majority of the perimeter security duties at public entrances in Walmart stores is implemented by these visitor services people.

So can you protect your museum using visitor services people?  Yes, of course. At least in most neighborhoods and there are advantages in doing so.  But there are some disadvantages, too. And for this to work, your visitor services aides must be properly trained in security and understand when they are hired that they are applying for a security job. One children’s museum has effectively used visitor services people for decades. They consistently hire younger, physically pleasant looking individuals who one might describe as “cool”. They relate amazingly well to the young kids who visit the museum and treat it like their playground.  The visitor services aides are trained to deal with kids and to be role models and I’m convinced that they are far more effective than guards would be at both. Another museum also frequented by children doesn’t do such a good job.  They hire virtually anyone who applies because they pay less than they should and have trouble getting applications. And because they make no effort to hire clean cut aides who convey a clean cut image, some adults have complained that they are intimidated by the young, rather rough looking, security aides. One said he couldn’t tell them from the gang members.

Another difference between the successful first museum and the unsuccessful second museum is the level of supervision and training they provided. In the second museum the visitor services aides tend to “hang out” and this adds to their appearance as just another urban gang member in the dark corners of the large museum. No one assures that they do their job and I have serious doubts about their ability to get the job done in an incident or evacuation.

The bottom line on using visitor services aides instead of guards is that you can’t use them instead of guards.  You can use guards disguised as visitor services aids but not the other way around.

Another problem with using visitor services aides instead of guards is that guards in a uniform are easily recognizable as authority figures. Even a foreign visitor recognizes the uniform. This has advantages in an emergency where identification of the authority figure in charge of the situation is important.  A twenty year old in a ball cap and pullover shirt just doesn’t get the same respect.

In some states the insurance, including Workers’ Comp, is lower for a visitor services aide than for a guard and in most areas it is easier to recruit visitor services aides than security guards. But this can be a problem, too. People who don’t want to be guards won’t want to be visitor services aides responsible for security either. Some states have stringent licensing and training requirements for any guard in the state. But if someone is categorized as a greeter they may be able to avoid this government oversight. That can be good or it can be bad.

Protecting the Museum Without Guards

Have you visited a Walmart store recently? If you did, you were probably greeted by a mature man or woman who stood at the door and welcomed you and every other visitor, with a smile. They occasionally wrangled a few shopping carts and lined them up for customer use and they were ready to place a small security sticker on the items you were returning for a refund.

If your decision to use visitor services aides is based entirely on the cost savings you think you can achieve, then your experiment will not result in a protected museum. But if you want a softer, gentler security image and are not seeking savings, then visitor services may work fine. Museums in tougher urban locations might consider maintaining a skeleton uniformed security force that can respond to back up the visitor services people when a more hardened approach is needed or they may just consider a uniform change for their guards to achieve that image. A blazer, shirt and tie can do the same thing and no one really knows if that guard has a firearm, mace or Taser under his jacket. Quite frankly, a father or mother with the kids on a Saturday morning trip to the museum might just want the feeling of competent security.

If you choose to use visitor services aides, do it right. They ARE security people and they need training and supervision to do the job right. And above all, don’t make the serious mistake of transferring them out of the security department and assigning them under a manager who does not understand the security, safety and other needs of a museum.

Do you have a Visitor Services Department that functions in the Security role? We’d love to hear your experience and how you made it work. consider writing a brief article for this page.