Can volunteers sustain a successful museum?

Recently, Britain’s Prime Minister once again tried to enthuse people for his ‘Big Society’ idea.  In the words of the Big Society Network:

‘The Big Society is a society in which individual citizens feel big: big in terms of being supported and enabled; having real and regular influence; being capable of creating change in their neighbourhood.’

Or to put it simply, Mr Cameron wants people to volunteer.  His vision is indeed big: volunteers should run post offices, even transport services, and… museums.

Of course, at the same time as volunteers are called upon to take over what used to be the state’s responsibility, the British Government has introduced the most severe budget cuts in decades.  Especially museums, always vulnerable to decreasing funding streams, soon will no longer have a choice but replace paid staff with volunteers.  In the eyes of the Government, that seems to be a good thing.

But is it?  Are museums really best run by volunteers?  Is our heritage best looked after by volunteers?

Many museums already rely on volunteers to deliver their services.  The volunteers they get, of course, tend to be predominantly retired, professional white women, with the occasional retired, professional white man put into the mix – and this is after dedicated paid staff spent considerable time on recruiting volunteers.

The issue with this is obvious.  Unless these volunteers have the necessary training in interpretation, museum management and audience development, to name but a few, they are unlikely to present programmes that are relevant to other sectors of the community, or to attract other volunteers from different backgrounds.

This highlights the next point: getting volunteers with the right skills set can be a challenge.  Most museums are happy to train their volunteers, usually – because of budget constraints – through on the job training provided by paid staff who have years of knowledge and experience.  Imagine the kinds of highly skilled roles volunteers will be asked to fulfill if they have to run a museum or heritage site on their own: conservation, commercial management, interpretation… Mostly these are specialist roles that require specialist education.  The people that have these skills will want to get paid, not volunteer for the job they were trained for.

And then of course there is the challenge of retaining volunteers.  The above described average volunteer will not be around forever, and younger volunteers tend to move on as their lives change (for example by finding a paid job).  Commitment is also an issue, for the more crucial volunteers are to the running of a museum, the more time will be required of them.  People who work, and especially younger people who tend to have young families, are not able to give the amount of time needed for long-term planning and managing for success.

So where does this leave us?  Personally, I don’t think that volunteers are the best people to take on the responsibility for our heritage.  Our heritage is too precious – it requires people who know what they’re doing, people who have the education and the experience to ensure our heritage is protected and kept relevant to the widest possible audience.

We mustn’t confuse volunteering with best practice community and stakeholder engagement.  We, as heritage professionals and especially as interpreters, must absolutely do all in our power to work with communities.  Volunteering is just one way in which to do that, but it is us who need to manage the volunteers, for example, to enable them to contribute in a meaningful way.  By taking away the professional, paid staff, the Government takes away the enabling structure.  No one in their right mind would ever suggest that we replace Mr Cameron with a volunteer, who runs the country in their spare time after, say, having worked in a garage.  It’s just not possible.  The responsibility is too great, as are the consequences of failure.

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2 thoughts on “Can volunteers sustain a successful museum?

  1. Nicole, found this very interesting. Could i ask your permission to refer to this blog in my MA paper on the value of volunteers in heritage?

    1. Dear Andrea,

      By all means, please feel free to use what I’ve written in your paper. I’d put things somewhat differently now, but essentially this captures what I still believe.

      Good luck,
      Nicole

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