Museums and Volunteers: A Balancing Act

This post is in response to this Museums Association article:


As a volunteer manager in a heritage institution, the issue of volunteering and museums is very important to me. In particular, having spent several years volunteering in museums and archives, I have experience of what it’s like on both sides – being a volunteer and managing them. This recent news from the Museums Association Cuts Survey 2013 is particularly worrying:

“47% of museums saw an increase in the number of volunteers and interns while 37%  saw staff cuts over the past year”

I’ll start with a very simple opinion of mine: volunteering is brilliant. People who volunteer gain and develop skills, a sense of doing something worthwhile and fulfilling, and ultimately build up their professional experience and profile. Institutions benefit from volunteers, they get important work done, they bring vibrancy, skills and fresh ideas to the table and they help raise the profile of an organisation. Society in general can benefit from volunteers, the Olympic games makers are one amazing example of how a dedicated group of volunteers can reflect the pride and passion of a whole country. However, whether it’s the individual, the institution or society who benefits from volunteering, it’s all about getting the balance and the attitude right.

At no point should volunteers replace staff members. Despite that being an easy sentence to write, in practice, the lines can be rather blurred. I have my own experience of this and through it, been shown the right way of going about filling a gap left by a staff member. I undertook a work placement through my Masters at the IWM North on a community and outreach project. The focus of the project was to re-vamp the community groups offer, put together a database of potential community contacts, and create an enewsletter to be sent to them. I learned whilst volunteering that there previously was a community officer who had left. However, because this project was marketed as a ‘work placement’ for a defined amount of time in addition to the fact I was fully supervised by the visitor and programmes manager the whole way meant that I was not replacing that staff member. I gained brilliant experience and an important reference and the IWM gained some new visitors and a streamlined group offer. Everyone benefited.

My problem is when volunteers do literally replace staff members. For example, not long ago the Museums Association advertised a vacancy for a volunteer curator, which caused significant condemnation from the wider museum sector. Clearly, curating should be a paid role. In my opinion, if an organisation needs a curator or could afford to have one then they should pay one, or apply for funding to get one. I have nothing against a voluntary curator helping with a community based project for example, because they are effectively ‘sponsoring’ it, much like a business might sponsor the costs of, say, exhibition panels.

Since the lines can quite easily be blurred, it’s important for organisations to define their own lines. They should treat volunteers differently to staff members. In this I mean recognising them in different ways (certificates or thank you events for example), having an informal recruitment process, ensuring volunteers are aware of volunteer and expenses policies, and most importantly ensuring staff members have a positive and welcoming attitude towards volunteers. By doing this, no volunteer would feel like they were replacing a staff member, and staff would know where the boundaries are.

One of the key issues which came out of the MA Cuts survey was this:

“loss of staff would impact negatively on standards, and in particular that care and interpretation of the collection would be affected due to a loss of curatorial knowledge and skills”.

At a time when more and more heritage institutions are facing difficult decisions, it’s important for them to remember what their own goals are and how they are going to achieve them. In this vein, organisations might keep the staff who are deemed most necessary for achieving those goals. For example, if a museum decides that preserving the collections is the most important part of their work then any staff cuts must reflect that and not paper over any staff gaps by using volunteers. In an ideal world, museums would be able to keep all of their staff members, but unfortunately institutions are going to have to be realistic in their decisions. It won’t be easy though and I feel for anyone having to make those decisions.

This quote from MA director Mark Taylor sums up the dangers of not using volunteers properly – you could apply this to any sector, not just heritage:

“Unpaid work can be exploitative and, even worse, it reduces the diversity of people who can enter the museum workforce: only wealthier young people can afford to work for nothing, especially in expensive cities like London.”

Herein lies my biggest bug bear: internships. In a job market where entry level jobs require experience it saddens me that so many unemployed graduates are being used by organisations. It is ludicrous to offer 6-month internships (for which you usually need a degree and, ironically, experience to even get on) with basic expenses paid for. Anyone who doesn’t have bank of mum and dad to pay their rent are completely excluded from taking up these opportunities. It begs the question: what can be done? This is also my issue – the lack of solution, the lack of people standing up and saying, actually, free labour for 6 months is wrong. So, my solution: much like volunteering, internships need much more grounding in law. There is very little out there on regulating hours or offering expenses. Don’t get me wrong, museums and heritage sites should of course be offering opportunities for people to gain experience and contribute to an organisation, but not to be priced out or excluded. It should be about inclusion, and in my experience lots of museums have excellent volunteering and internship programmes. There’s still work to be done though.


Two Brothers, Ben Elton


Tempus Fugit. Firstly, an apology for my lack of posts over the summer months. Exciting things have been happening at work and unfortunately I have had no time to write, until now.

*SPOILER ALERT* I mention key moments in the book, so if you haven’t read it perhaps don’t read on…

I picked up Ben Elton’s new book Two Brothers for £2.99 with The Times. It’s always a good start to get a bargain. I was somewhat unsure of what to expect with Ben Elton given his usual comedy writings such as Blackadder but I was pleasantly surprised. In fact his ability to include moments of comedy into a novel on a typically challenging topic is to be commended. I laughed out loud (to the dismay of my fellow commuters) at Wolfgang’s witty comments during the attempted circumcision of the two brothers:

‘Herr Tauber began to stammer his apologies but the rabbi insisted sagely that he was perfectly happy to engage in theological debate.
“Azariah said”, the rabbi intoned sombrely while laying out his ancient collection of implements on an equally venerable stained and dusty old cloth, “that the foreskin is loathsome, since it is a term of opprobrium for the wicked, asit is written”.
“Ah yes, it’s all so much clearer now” Wolfgang smiled.
“The foreskin is loathsome?” Frieda asked.
“So it is written”, Rabbi Jakobovitz replied gravely.
“By Azariah”, Wolfgang added, “That well-known penis expert”.
“It is the Babylonian Talmud” the old man said with equal gravity, oblivious to Wolfgang’s sarcasm.’

It was this kind of encounter which featured readily in Elton’s novel and was extremely effective in creating an attachment with the characters. Upon reading Wolfgang’s suicide I literally did not want to keep reading so that he wouldn’t die! I also became very attached to Frieda, the matriarch with a noble and sensitive demeanour and hoped desperately that she would survive Elton’s pen. Her dramatic exit reflected Elton’s talents at writing screenplays; I felt as though I was watching a scene in a film due to his unparalleled ability to write descriptively.

Including key historical events of the time period worked as an excellent structure to the novel and, as someone who knows a lot about these historical events, made me think more about the individual people that these events had an impact on. By focusing on one family and one community, the pain and turmoil these people went through was made even more real and in some ways relatable. Usually it is impossible to relate to the unique and terrible experiences of the 1930’s, but we can relate to personal relationships, first loves, lost loves, sibling rivalry, bringing it home that the people who were persecuted by the Nazis were real people like you and me. Real people with hopes and dreams like Paulus wishing to succeed academically or Dagmar wishing to compete for her country in sport.

The inclusion of the 1950’s part of the story complemented the 1930’s part perfectly. Elton cleverly dropped in hints and cliff-hangers about the storyline which meant I wanted to turn the page quicker than I could actually read it. It was extremely clever to add the scrap in the pub over the manager banning Billie because she was black, adding another dimension and another possibility to think about the issue of racism and the age old question of ‘what would you do?’.

My only gripe with Elton’s book is the identity swapping escapades towards the end of the book. I don’t know if it was just me reading it too late at night but I found I had to keep going back to work out if Paul was Paulus who was actually Otto or at which point Dagmar took on Silke’s identity and so forth. This isn’t much of a gripe to be honest, it was very very clever and highlighted not only the ingenuity of people but also the selfishness and sacrifice people were brought to in order to survive.

To sum up, Two Brothers is a realistic, moving and entrancing novel. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a human story weaved through a well-known and documented history. Elton has succeeded in balancing drama, history and humour to create a gripping page turner.

House of Terror, Budapest


All photographs are taken from the House of Terror website.

On a recent trip to Budapest, the place top of my list to visit was the House of Terror. Ominous and intriguing from the outside, I wasn’t sure what to expect on the inside given that I’m only used to visiting British museums. From the moment you go into the exhibition (using the lift to get to the second floor) you are confronted by hundreds of black and white photographs of the victims of the occupations from floor to ceiling. It’s interesting that these faces form the centre-point of the whole building, reminding us of the human cost of war.


The very first exhibition room I went in briefly explored the Nazi and Soviet occupations, putting the House of Terror itself into context – firstly as the headquarters of the Arrowcross (Hungarian Nazis) and post-war as the headquarters of the Soviet secret police. Sheets of paper in English and Hungarian were in a box at the entrance to every room explaining the historical context of each exhibition room. To begin with, this was extremely useful, however when I had entered the sixteenth room with a handful of paper it began to get a bit tedious. Luckily, I tagged on to an English speaking tour which was absolutely fascinating and much more engaging than sheets of paper. Having said that, people learn in many different ways so it was great that there was an alternative.

The part of the exhibition which I felt was most successful in design and content was the exploration and explanation of the Soviet gulags. A large room carpeted with a map of Eastern Europe featured waist-height pin points holding interesting objects and documents from the time including pots, water bottles, crucifixes and felt boots to name a few. On the walls of the room were large screens showing audio-visual testimony (with English subtitles) and documentary footage of the gulags. The overall experience was completely absorbing. I’m a big fan of “immersive learning spaces” where you can really engage with a topic.


I was also very impressed by the museum’s innovative installations elsewhere. In particular, the display of a car which was used to take away soviet suspects in the middle of the night was surrounded by a black curtain and was made visible when the lights in the room were turned off unexpectedly. Our tour guide explained the reason for this (and the Jaws-esque music) was to evoking a feeling of nervousness and uncertainty of fate – exactly what people at the time would have experienced.

There was a noticeable and purposeful transition when travelling from the main exhibition rooms down to the basement. In the pitch dark we entered a slow-moving lift (after having to queue for 15 minutes, which was only negative part of my visit) and watched a short film of a man describing the terror and reality of hangings – the context of which came clear when we exited the lift and entered the reconstruction of the prison cells, complete with torture equipment. The nonchalance of the tour guide describing heinous acts of torture was somewhat disturbing in itself but the effect on the audience was quite clear, there were constant gasps of horror and shaking of heads, but more readily just silence. It’s hard to know how to react when you’re in a place where people have experienced immense pain. One fact seemed particularly unsettling for myself and the rest of the tour group – that none of the torturers had been prosecuted following the end of Soviet occupation.
Juxtaposed alongside the torture rooms we had just been in was a room dedicated to Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The design of this part of the exhibit was particularly clever – by hanging clothing and a bicycle from the ceiling interesting shadows were cast on the walls, on which were covered with Hungarian graffiti as well as a Molotov cocktail. Additionally, the Hungarian flag with the centre cut out, a symbol of the revolution, was unfurled also from the ceiling, creating an engaging space. Again an immersive environment really captured the spirit of the uprising and one felt a feeling of admiration for those who resisted the Soviet occupiers.


In the penultimate room of the museum stood the ‘Hall of Tears’, a memorial to those who were executed between 1945 and 1967. The memorial itself was fascinating as you can see from the photograph below but it was interesting that there was no memorial for those who lost their lives under Nazi occupation. The end of the exhibition consisted of a small room with screens on the walls showing footage of the last Soviet soldier leaving Hungary in 1990, for many in the room bringing the history we had just explored into living memory.


The House of Terror is a fascinating, thought-provoking and well designed museum. It is not easy to confront such a difficult history, particularly the involvement of the Hungarian Nazis and admitting that some Hungarians were perpetrators. I am told by a colleague that this history is not easily digested by Hungarians themselves, so it was a brave move for the curators to tackle that issue. Having said that, it is clear that the main focus of the museum is to examine the Soviet occupation, which I’m also made aware by my colleague that some Hungarians believe was worse than the Nazi occupation – a contentious issue that I will leave to the historians to debate.

If you’re in Budapest I highly recommend visiting the House of Terror. The content is well written (despite the odd dodgy English translation) and the design is innovative and immersive. A brilliant museum experience.

Holocaust survivor holograms: technology too far?


Pinchas Gutter answers questions about his life on an ICT light stage surrounded by high-speed cameras and multiple LED lights positioned just so. (Click to enlarge.)

(Credit: Paul Debevec/USC Institute for Creative Technologies)

At face value, it seems completely bizarre to imagine a classroom of students interacting with someone who isn’t actually in the room. It seems as though this may be becoming a reality as reflected in this C-Net article. The University of South Carolina have created a hologram of Majdanek survivor Pinchas Gutter, which uses Siri-style technology to answer questions. The article states the value of this work – ‘the high-tech initiative to record survivors’ first-person accounts for interactive 3D exhibits that live on long after the storytellers have passed’. According to Paul Debevec of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, ‘it’s going to be considerably more engaging and immersive and moving than if they’re just up there on a video screen’.

The question of how to engage and teach people, especially young people about the Holocaust is on going and somewhat of a sore topic amongst educators. Evidently, the idea of holographic Holocaust survivors will provide an interesting admission to the argument. Significantly, the main point in favour of these holograms is that they preserve testimonies long after the survivor has passed away, as well as allowing for a large amount of interaction. One could argue that they take audio-visual testimonies to a new level because of their interactive aspect. It’s clear that interaction is hugely important in wider education and especially so in history and learning about the Holocaust. The question of how to educate about the Holocaust when survivors are gone is of huge importance; many people will remember listening to a survivor talk at school. In my opinion, these holograms can offer a valuable alternative.

One might argue that it is disrespectful or strange to use a hologram of someone who is deceased. I have a feeling it might start to become the norm as technology develops. Additionally, audio-visual testimonies of those who have passed away are still used widely in classrooms and museums. However, it may be the case that because holograms can seem so real, it could be distressing for relatives or friends to see their loved one as a hologram – and to be able to interact with them through the voice recognition technology. Clearly then there are drawbacks to using this kind of technology.

A serious point is made in one of the comments on this article
“The artificiality and interactivity may actually be a detriment if it works too well. At some point someone is going to suggest that the Holocaust never happened and we are just watching CGI.”
It is an unfortunate reality that those who view this technology in the future may take this opinion. However, I believe that this is when a rounded education is absolutely essential. I would hope that in the future educators would use a combination of evidence, not just holograms, to teach about the Holocaust. Teachers are already aware of the different types of learners they have in their classes, so it is necessary to use all avenues available such as written testimony, photographs, maps, documents, film, documentary etc, to really capture someone’s mind. It works in a similar way for adults; you’ll hardly ever go into a museum nowadays and just see writing on walls and objects behind glass. You’ll find documentary footage projected onto walls, object handling sessions, flaps to lift up that reveal photographs and other inventive ways to make the subject matter engaging.

Arguably, holograms in all areas of life may become a reality in the future as technology is continually developing. We might have to accept that this kind of interaction will become the norm, whether it’s a holographic newsreader in your living room, a hologram of Beyoncé doing her thing, or a hologram of a Holocaust survivor. If it proves to be a successful way of educating people then why not have holograms of Holocaust survivors? My only request is that educators combine them with books, documents, oral and written testimonies to ensure a rounded understanding is achieved.

Original C-NET article

The future face of aid


Image from BBC website at link below

‘A time to stop giving?’

I’m very glad the BBC have showcased this brilliant article by charity founder Georgie Feinberg. At last, an article which echoes the points I made in my Master’s thesis about the representation of suffering people through a 1980’s aid lens – that of graphic, tragic images of pain, the power of change in our hands and the overused logo of the helpless African child. This technique is outdated, humiliating and arguably unsuccessful, as Georgie Feinburg states in this article: ‘guilt, shock and pity are the motivating impulses. But you have been donating to images like this since the 1980s. So why has nothing changed? And where did all the money go?’.

I couldn’t agree more with her statement of wanting ‘to see poverty shock advertising consigned to the history books, right alongside the 80s perm. Only then can we start to engage in a dialogue that answers those big questions about the real efficacy of charity’.

There have been many articles written about donor fatigue and photographs of suffering creating an analgesic effect on the viewer (see Susan Sontag). I argued in my thesis that whilst techniques within photography have developed, there is still a ‘pornography of pain’ (Karen Haltunnen) which remains within aid imagery. In addition, photographers and photojournalists seek out these kinds of images, which contribute to a stark misrepresentation of those in the images and the power which resides in the donor’s hands. Take a step back and ask, how do these people feel about being photographed in pain? My conversations with a minister in Uganda confirmed my suspicions – these people have very low self esteem and usually rely on hand outs. This is something that Dambisa Moyo has discussed in her fantastic book Dead Aid, arguing that the only way for development to happen in poorer countries is to turn off the aid taps and ‘replace it with business investment’. Although Moyo’s thoughts are drastic, one can’t help thinking that she might be right given the continued reliance on aid in the world currently.

I agree fervently with Feinburgs plan to really make a difference – ‘From the start, I wanted to empower local people to make the changes they know they need themselves. No one is better placed to identify causes and deliver programmes to support than people who live and work in affected communities. Adopting a partnership approach combines external technical expertise and assistance with local know-how and delivery’.

In response to the question in the title of this viewpoint piece: A time to stop giving? My answer is no. I agree with Feinburg in that a new era of aid coordination and advertising to donors needs to come into play to reflect a more bottom-up approach to international development. These initiatives still need money and motivated staff to carry out training and help develop small businesses and educational opportunities for those who have nothing. In my opinion though, this approach must be combined with top-down support from governments that have previously relied on aid hand outs to support their people.

More importantly, this constant barrage of images of people (specifically children) in crisis needs to stop. It’s clear that this kind of ‘marketing’ is not particularly successful and we shouldn’t be guilting people into donating. People should donate because they want to donate and can see the positive results of their giving.

Saving Lives @ IWM North

Image of medics carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher

Image from IWM website.

‘Saving Lives: Frontline Medicine in a Century of Conflict’

Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North, from 13 October 2012 to 1 September 2013.

In my opinion, the Imperial War Museum North is one of the most innovative and inspiring museums in the whole of the UK. I adore their permanent exhibition space which comprises the perfect balance of chronological history, interactive displays and ‘big kit’ such as the Harrier Jump Jet.  In addition, their exceptional learning facilitators use the exhibition space to engage young children and adults alike with interactive stories and object handling sessions. The beauty of the main exhibition is its’ capacity for change and development – most recently the addition of some wreckage from the World Trade Centre which sent shivers down my spine. Alongside the fresh and forward thinking main exhibition space is the temporary exhibition space, which sees changing exhibitions every 6 months.

As quoted from the IWM website, “Saving Lives uses personal stories to examine all aspects of medical care on the front line, from the trenches of the First World War to present-day Afghanistan… It looks at the physical and emotional impact on individuals in fighting wars and the wider consequences for society. Follow a casualty through the medical chain, from the battlefield to field hospitals and on to specialist care at home”.

Entering the exhibition through an excellent installation fuselage of a Chinook, surrounded by film, still images and sounds immediately brings to life the reality of being a medic on the front line. From this point on the exhibition effortlessly flows between stories of past and present relating to specific themes from medical equipment and techniques to trauma and psychology. The curators dealt with what could have been a gruesome and harrowing subject sensitively, even down to covering explicit images with flaps so the visitor can make their own choice about whether to look or not. In true IWM North style, the curators have cleverly selected many incredible personal stories to tell the narrative of medicine and war, especially highlighting important developments and personal contributions such as that of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. The use of space in the exhibition is to be commended.  The use of light and dark, sharp corners, height and sizing of images means that there is something to see in every nook and cranny.

My only real criticism would be that some of the text accompanying objects was a little bit too small and I sometimes struggled to match text with object. In terms of content, I would have perhaps liked a bit more context of medicine and war in the pre-1914 period – but I completely understand the remit of the exhibition was 1914 to present day, so I can’t really complain about that. And I have been inspired to find out more about medicine in the pre-1914 period, in which case the exhibition has done its job! I was a little surprised not to see Ludwig Guttmann, founder of the Paralympic movement, mentioned but perhaps his story of escaping Nazi persecution and helping rehabilitate injured soldiers through sport has been told already in this Olympic year.

One other minor issue – I found it slightly awkward when I was told to put my phone away whilst scanning a QR code next to one of the objects. Interestingly, there’s an article in the Museums Journal (December 2012) about photography in museums and whether it should be allowed. In my opinion, in short, yes (I’ll write another article at some point on that subject). On the point of the QR codes – fantastic. More and more museums and heritage sites are getting their visitors involved through social media such as Instagram, Twitter and Youtube, and why not! In my situation though, perhaps the solution is to just inform those patrolling the exhibition that people might have their mobile phones out for that purpose.

Overall, the exhibition narrative is well thought through, sensitively told and rightfully highlighted the incredible contribution of frontline medics to saving lives in war. The most important part for me though is highlighted by IWM North’s Director Graham Boxer, “war and medicine are contradictory. One damages and ends people’s lives; the other seeks to find ways to save lives.”

I’m glad the exhibition leaves visitors with a point to keep thinking about – the ethical implications that war has contributed to the developments of medicine, which have been used in civilian life like blood transfusions for example. Too often exhibitions tell the story and that’s it, but the story is not finished in the last panels of ‘Saving Lives’, the visitors leave thinking about this moral dilemma in the context of modern warfare that is still going on in the world today.