Posts Tagged ‘Big Society network’

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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After reading this month’s Museum Journal (published by the British Museums Association) one may well wonder if today’s leaders really no longer value heritage.  Stories of funding cuts have dominated both British and international coverage for months and we now read about the consequences of budgets thus slashed.  Winter opening hours are shortened, as with museums in Bristol [1], while others are threatened with closure, like the Roman and West Gate Towers museums in Canterbury [2].

While the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport is responsible also for the historic environment, museums and galleries as well as tourism, their top five priorities published in their structural reform plan only mention tourism and heritage in passing – museums do not figure at all.  Tourism shall benefit from the legacy of the 2012 Olympics in London, and heritage shall receive more funding (together with the arts and sport) from the National Lottery as part of the Big Society network.  The latter, if viewed favourably, is an initiative to allow for greater involvement of locals, or, if the Liverpool museums pilot project for the Big Society is anything to go by, it is the endeavour to pass responsibility on to private persons, i.e. volunteers.

Any public money spent on heritage, it seems, is first and foremost viewed as a luxury, or indeed ‘a waste of money’.  That is what Britain’s communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles labelled roles such as museum audience development officers.  ‘Is a ‘cheerleading development officer’ what taxpayers want?’ he is reported to have asked [3].  In actuality, audience development is the effort to reach previously excluded or disassociated people in order to widen access and engagement.  Without that effort on the part of museum staff those volunteers that are meant to support museums (and thus help them save money) as part of the ‘Big Society’ will never come forward in the numbers required.

Is that because they don’t care?  No, as many audience development programmes like the YES programme at the St Louis Science Centre have shown.  Here, low-income, non-white teenagers needed that additional encouragement to come into the museum – and then reach out to other families from their communities to help them overcome barriers to visiting the museum in the same way.  Of course, even when volunteers truly care about, say, a museum, they still have a day job to do in order to pay their bills and donate the money the government wants them to donate.  Also, one reason why some museums may see their visitor numbers dwindle may be because they do not have the staff (or volunteers) qualified to provide a service that is up to standards.

Governments and funders will do well to remind themselves of the considerable importance that heritage has.  Recent research for the Heritage Lottery Fund and Visit Britain revealed that 30% of international visitors and 14% of domestic day visitors travel in Britain because they wish to visit heritage sites.  The heritage visitor economy contributes £7.4bn to the British GPD, that is more than the advertising industry, motor vehicle manufacture, or the film industry contribute.  Of course, the economic value of heritage is much greater even than its mere commercial value, as the recent body of literature on economic valuation of heritage has shown [4]. In the United States, for example, heritage preservation legislation very clearly acknowledges the ability of heritage to provide inspiration and orientation to people [5].  A case study in Croatia also noted the importance of a visible and accessible past to people’s identity [6].

So can governments really afford to underfund professional heritage management and delegate it to private initiatives?  Heritage may seem an easy target for savings but a progressive disappearance of professionally cared-for and interpreted heritage from public life will have its own disastrous and long-term consequences.


[1] ‘Loss of funding leads to shorter opening hours in Bristol’, p. 7, August 2010 Museums Journal

[2] ‘Three museums in Kent threatened by budget cuts’, p. 7, May 2010 Museums Journal

[3] ‘Audience development roles are a ‘waste of money”, p. 9, August 2010 Museums Journal

[4] see for example Provins, A et al (2008) ‘Valuation of the historic environment: The scope for using economic valuation evidence in the appraisal of heritage-related projects’. Progress in Planning 69, 131-175

[5] United States Congress (1966) National Historic Preservation Act of 1966
as amended through 200
6. Act of Congress. Washington

[6] Goulding, C., Domic, D. (2009) ‘Heritage, Identity and Ideological Manipulation: The case of Croatia.’  Annals of Tourism Research 36, (1) 85 – 102

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