Thursday, July 22, 2010

NO, Prime Minister

NHM employee and London resident Jenna H-B sent us a link this morning about some major changes brewing thanks to P.M. Cameron's new policies. His "Big Society" initiative includes modifications... such as compensating for the 30% cut in museum funding with a push for more volunteers "to keep museums open." The pilot program will run out of the National Museum Liverpool and is already generating some (justified) criticism.
And this is what makes me especially angry. Volunteer programs are something that we in museums should be proud of. Now, because of their successes in this area, museums like NML are being targeted by this deeply cynical government program, that seeks to paper over the yawning cracks caused by spending cuts by dumping its responsibilities onto unpaid staff. And with minimal paid staff to supervise, you can forget any broader goals of education and training.
Chris also noted that a volunteer program is supposed to be a give and take. Museums are meant to offer their volunteers something--training, a sense of community--and not merely expect to take. Volunteers are a resource, just like paid employees. He provides a better summary:
Successful volunteer programs are a partnership, between professional museum staff and the wider community. We don't dump our workload on the volunteers; we like to think that we give them something of ourselves in return, transferring skills and knowledge that we've acquired through formal education and training. Nonetheless, it's not uncommon to encounter colleagues who look upon volunteer programs with deep suspicion. Unions, in particular, are not great fans of volunteers, claiming that they provide a way for employers to get work done without paying for it. Previously I'd always dismissed this as a knee-jerk reaction. But now, looking at Liverpool and wondering about other museums who may be offered the opportunity to participate in the "Big Society," I wonder if maybe I was wrong.

(I don't usually advocate reading internet comment sections--UNLESS YOU LIKE CAPS LOCK!!!!!!--but there are several literate and well-formulated responses below this article from The Independent. The article itself is also quite good.)

This is, of course, already happening in US, though perhaps less blatantly. We've never had a great deal of government support for museums, so museums have been struggling with reduced budgets since the current recession took hold. There haven't been any government initiatives to replace paid museum employees with volunteers, but many museums have taken these steps on their own. Anyone who follows a museum job board will have noticed the trends: more full-time positions became part-time or contract positions, and many museums began recruiting heavily for volunteers and interns.

What else are they supposed to do? In order to get money from funders you have to provide programming. To provide programming you have to have a staff. Most funders won't support salaries (though they will usually pay for employee time, but only as it relates to a project... hence the increase in part-time contract work) so this staff necessarily must be part-time, temporary, or volunteer. It's awful, but it's about keeping doors open. Because museum work is perceived to be "fun" rather than "work," people are expected to do it for free or nearly nothing. Fortunately in the U.S. this attitude--while ingrained--is not yet institutionalized. Something ere the end, some work of noble note may yet be done... but not if attitudes about museum salaries don't change dramatically.


  1. Thanks for a great post (and for the shout-out to PoH!) One comment that I have, for sake of clarification, is that we need to be careful that we don't damn all volunteer programs simply because the concept is being abused by some people; the important thing is to make a strong case to trustees, directors, etc, that volunteers complement professional staff - they are not a replacement for them.

  2. Hi Chris - I hope I didn't come off as condemning all volunteer programs. I'm the volunteer coordinator at my museum... I know how great and valuable museum volunteers can be! But yes, you are absolutely right; that is a very important distinction.