This post is in response to this Museums Association article: http://www.museumsassociation.org/news/30092013-cuts-survey-2013-paid-jobs-in-museums-lost-to-volunteers
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.