The V Word

It’s Volunteers’ Week, and lots of UK museums are rightly celebrating volunteers and the contribution that they make. It’s also a week in which I discovered the US based ‘ongoing twitter chat’ #MuseumWorkersSpeak encouraging solidarity among museum workers, and in which jobs were the topic for @museumhour on twitter. Since volunteering and jobs are so enmeshed in the museum sector, I wanted to revisit some of my thoughts from my museum manifesto post which I wrote in May on how museums might find new approaches to these issues. I set out to write a very comprehensive post discussing various pathways to museum work but I soon realised that requires much more research and time than I have right now, so I will continue that discussion in a future post.

So, the V word…

Volunteering is a wonderful thing, I am not arguing with the positive impact it can have for individuals, organisations and communities. I am also not trying to do a disservice to those who have made a career in museums through starting out as volunteers, or minimise their efforts or contribution. But it cannot be ignored that there is a fine line in our museums between volunteering and exploitative work for no pay, and that this contributes to the lack of diversity in the museum workforce. Career guides for people wanting to enter the museum sector invariably say you have to volunteer, and there is no way around it. This ignores what should be the painfully obvious fact that most people (at least most people I know) have to work for a living. I don’t thinking working for free should ever be a prerequisite for getting a job in a particular field, although I recognise that the reality is unlikely to change.

I want to share my own limited experience of volunteering, because I think it would be helpful if there was a more open discussion within the sector about how people have got where they are and what challenges they have faced. My experience of volunteering is limited, simply because I could not afford to do very much of it.

I am not someone who felt passionately from an early age that I wanted to work in museums. I have always been interested in history and art, and I ended up doing a degree in Visual Culture. I did a project in my third year which involved researching a small collection of costume items which had been donated to a museum; I loved it. It didn’t occur to me to volunteer while I was studying though, since I needed the time I could have been volunteering to earn money, and I worked a lot of hours every week to cover my living expenses. When I graduated I got a job that had nothing to do with museums, or my degree, again because I needed to pay the bills. After some time I realised I needed to do something more creative, exciting and useful. I changed jobs and began temping in various departments of my local council. This was not creative or exciting but at least it felt useful. It was a first step, and give me more flexibility in my working hours. I began looking around for opportunities to gain experience in museums and galleries. I started volunteering for a few hours a week at Fabrica, a gallery and visual arts organisation in Brighton. I invigilated exhibitions, talking to visitors about the art works, and helped (on a very basic level!) with preparing the space for installation and decant of exhibitions. There were a few factors that made volunteering at Fabrica a good option for me:

  • They advertised their volunteering vacancies on their website. This seems so obvious, but with other organisations I was approaching at the time, there were no clearly defined volunteer roles, people just made speculative applications to volunteer, or more likely found places in a more haphazard way through their existing connections.
  • They were flexible in the time commitments they asked for, and there was the opportunity to volunteer at the weekend. This meant I could fit a bit of volunteering around my working week. This kind of flexibility is crucial if museums want to open opportunities up to people from more diverse backgrounds.
  • They had an established and well-organised volunteering programme, with a great induction session for new volunteers to get to know each other and learn more about the upcoming exhibition we would be working on. The two volunteer coordinators working at the time were welcoming, understanding and good at what they did.

These relatively simple factors made a difference for me and allowed me to gain my first taste of working in the arts. Perhaps this is why most people working in the arts in Brighton seem to have volunteered at Fabrica at some point! I hope this example illustrates some of the barriers which can prevent people from accessing volunteer opportunities, and how far a well planned and coordinated volunteering programme can go to remove them.