November 6, 2017
Name: Colleen Higginbotham
Job Title: Director of Visitor Services
Institution: Chrysler Museum
Location: Norfolk, VA
Interviewed by: David Duddy, DDO, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA
What does your position encompass at your institution? What is your favorite part of the job?
I oversee the Visitor Experience – which covers the Shop, Special Events, Visitor Research, and the Gallery Hosts. Also, I oversee the Restaurant and Catering Contract. Our entire VS team is meant to Welcome, Protect, and Engage – also in the Shop. We began our program of cross-training in 2007 – re-training our security officers as Gallery Hosts to protect the collection – but in a welcoming manner that explains why they should not be touching the art! We are ONE TEAM.
My favorite part of my job is that every day, every event is different – and I get to learn about art while directing my team.
Did you choose the non-profit world deliberately?
I have always loved museums, even though I did not study art or art history. I think I kind of found my natural home here.
What path brought you to your job? Were there any unusual steps?
I had been working in local government at a convention and visitor bureau. In a previous life I was a life guard in a water park. My current job gives me a lot fewer chlorine stains….
Did you have a mentor at your institution or in MSA? What was their best guidance?
The Gallery Host program was the idea of a previous director. He helped me to create this innovative program while I was thinking about the idea of Welcome, Protect, and Engage. When I started to construct my plan for the program I wasn’t aware that I was thinking unconventionally – I just thought about the visitor. And since I didn’t have previous museum experience, my planning was somewhat outside the usual practice.
His best advice was to place the visitor at the center of all decisions – and make sure to balance the needs of the visitor and the institution.
When did you get involved with MSA? Tell us about the experience, your first impressions. How has MSA contributed to your success?
I went to my first conference in Los Angeles. I was between Shop Managers so I decided to go to MSA and get more info about people in the field. I ran into Catherine Surratt from Cleveland and struck up a conversation (and a friendship!) She was so open and willing to help – so collaborative! I became hooked – because if you are talking with almost anyone in the MSA and something is working well for them, they SHARE that info and insight. I go to AAM as well – but I have not found as large of a peer group there.
If you could participate more actively in MSA’s future, in what direction would it be?
Currently, I am Vice President of my chapter. But I do think it is important to “go beyond the meeting.” We need more participation throughout the year. We are forming a Chapter Membership Committee – we would like to form it with 2 people from each state in our chapter to try and drum up members and get people to participate all year long.
Has MSA been instrumental in any award, achievement or promotion for you?
My biggest achievement recently does not have a direct tie to MSA – more to my future in museum work. I was able to attend the Getty Leadership Institute in California. You prepare with a lot of online course work in advance – and then attend a 2 week intensive residency in California with other participants. There were professionals from all over the country and some international students as well. We discussed larger issues of diversity and accessibility that I really think will have an impact on how I develop more programming at my job.
Will your institution recognize your achievement? How?
Actually, I think that the fact that they sent me to the Institute was a real recognition of the contribution I have made in developing my Host programming at the Chrysler; recognition of the contribution that the Visitor Experience division makes to connecting people with the art.
What other associations do you belong to? How have they contributed to your success? Have they enhanced your career and how?
I belong to AAM and to the Virginia Association of Museums. I have found some interesting networking at each one – and I try to collaborate with people in the field who are responsible for training programs. There are different aspects of my job that MSA is not focused on – and I find some helpful info at these other associations. I also have spoken at the AAM conference – which is great experience in public speaking and presentations.
Tell us a funny or eye opening experience with MSA. Is it relevant to what you want to achieve with MSA?
When I was at the conference in April, I had decided to stay up just a little bit later when I ran into Beth Shafer from the Museum of Flight. The Chrysler was about to host NASA: 100 years of Photography and I was in need of related products. Within minutes, Beth was able to share with me an entire LIST of products that would be perfect for my show! This is exactly the kind of thing MSA does so well and why we don’t get much sleep at the conference!!
What is your next step in your career? Where do you see yourself headed?
I love the kind of work that I am doing – but maybe would do that on a larger stage, perhaps a Deputy Director position? The training and information that I got at the Getty Leadership Institute will help to look at and assess a larger arena for the kind of work I wish to do. I wouldn’t really seek out things on the curatorial side – – I am more likely to look at an MBA.
Have you attended a recent conference or chapter meeting? What was the best take-away?
Last fall’s chapter meeting – there was a session with Nan Boyd from the VMFA about trunk shows. It made me think differently about events in the store. Better to join forces and collaborate with other events in the Museum rather than insist on your own date and time frame. You can build traffic to YOUR event by partnering with other events that are going on at the same time.
What sort of trends are you noticing in your own business? In the culture at large? What are your top sellers and why?
We are finding that items that are Norfolk-specific – especially involving local artists – are very compelling. People are buying the story of their visit, to the Chrysler and to the area. We have a strong glass collection, so that always does well for us.
If you could offer advice for new MSA members, what would it be?
Get involved! Like most scenarios, you get out what put in. I have always found that being active in a situation almost always pays off to your advantage.
Do you have a hobby? Collection? Unusual talent?
I have a group of friends that I run races with – usually about six miles. We dress in fairly ridiculous costumes – the last one was “flamingoes” – and they always involve a tutu of some kind. Does that count??
What is your dream vacation?
Certainly a Mediterranean cruise – something with history AND a beach. I would love to dive the Great Barrier Reef in Australia some day. That’s a real goal.
I was flying into Chicago and we hit some really bad weather. We were circling O’Hare forever and they finally sent us to land in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I arrived 12 hours later by bus – and they had, of course, lost my luggage! I now include trail mix, phone charger, and pajamas in my carry-on – always.
Colleen Higginbotham is the Director of Visitor Services at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, VA, where she oversees the Museum Shop, Special Events, Visitor Research, Gallery Hosts and the Restaurant and Catering Contract. She has been a member of MSA for five years.