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Do volunteers still have a place in museums and cultural organisations?

23 April 2019

The Art Fund has announced it is disbanding its regional networks of volunteers and choosing to concentrate on the training of museum curators. Is the culture sector becoming too professional?

Piotr Bienkowski

Not only do volunteers still have a place in museums and cultural organisations, but their role is changing and becoming even more important, as those organisations increasingly acknowledge their responsibility to demonstrate a social impact.

Firstly, though, let us not forget that some cultural organisations, especially museums and libraries, are largely or even entirely volunteer-run (something that helps to account for the huge surge in new museums in the UK in the 1980s). These institutions depend on volunteers for their survival. Volunteer-run does not mean they are any less good – many of them are professionally accredited and have won awards, such as the delightful Tudor House Museum in Worcester. In recent years, some have lost their funding and staff (like the Museum of Cambridge), but continue to be run by volunteers. In the UK there are more and more community libraries, in which local volunteers take on ownership and management, with or without financial support from the local authority.

Museums and galleries have always worked within what might be called a ‘traditional’ volunteer model, which prioritises the needs of the organisation. Volunteers are recruited to perform specific tasks such as computer data entry or working as guides. In many organisations, this has led to a narrow volunteer demographic: predominantly white, middle-class, educated to a high level, and often retired. Typically, there is no induction or training, no proper management of the volunteer, and no opportunity for progression or wider experience of different roles across the organisation. It is no surprise, then, that volunteers often report that they feel taken for granted, that they get little support from the organisation. The Art Fund’s recent announcement that it will disband its volunteer committees, without consultation, sits squarely within this traditional model.

In recent years many museums and other cultural organisations have introduced a more rigorous approach to volunteer recruitment, induction and management. It is no longer unusual to have a specific volunteer coordinator role. But some museums, galleries and theatres are now taking this further. They recognise that they have a responsibility to respond to what their communities need, especially in terms of new skills and knowledge, providing roles and experiences that have real value. Essentially, they are focusing more on the volunteer’s needs, not just the organisation’s. Many of these organisations work in partnership with voluntary and charitable agencies to find volunteers from parts of the population that have been under-represented – the homeless, the unemployed, the disabled, young people and ethnic minorities. The cultural organisation can help the volunteer with reskilling across a bewilderingly wide range of tasks, adaptation to re-employment, increasing confidence and socialisation.

This work builds the skills of both volunteers and staff. Staff in these organisations are now being specifically trained to work with diverse volunteers. Partners from third-sector agencies often run training workshops on awareness of mental-health issues, substance misuse, disability and working with non-English speakers. There is also recognition that diverse volunteers bring useful knowledge, skills and experience to the organisation.

A leading exemplar of this work is National Museum Wales. Some years ago, it felt it was very bad at dealing with volunteering; since then, its volunteer programme has been a catalyst for wider organisational change. It has focused on involving volunteers from more diverse backgrounds. At one of its venues, St Fagans National Museum of History, it had 11 volunteers in just one area of the museum in 2011; by 2014, it had 120 active and diverse volunteers across all departments, 43 per cent of whom were unemployed. These volunteers play an active role in making decisions within the museum, alongside paid staff. Group volunteering is also offered, enabling people to work with those they already know, creating a safe space for participants until they feel ready to consider individual volunteer opportunities. This can be tailored to meet any one group’s needs and aspirations.

In this way, museums, galleries and theatres are connecting with civil society and acknowledging their responsibility to have an impact on people’s lives through structured and supported volunteering. They recognise that it’s not just about the collections, resources and talents in your organisation, but how you use them to make a real difference to those around you.

Piotr Bienkowski is emeritus professor of archaeology and museology at the University of Manchester, and was project director of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation programme Our Museum: Communities and Museums as Active Partners.

Simon Jenkins

They are culture’s fifth column. They are the territorial reserve, the back-up troops, the sometimes barmy always devoted army, lurking behind the front line. Indeed they are more than that. Volunteers are the foundation on which most arts organisations depend, though some don’t know it.

I am not privy to the Art Fund’s reasons for abandoning its fund-raising volunteers, some 500 of them spread over 57 groups. They may not yield much revenue – the Fund says just £100,000 net a year. They may require an undue amount of organising. But it reminds me of the National Trust property manager who once told me, ‘I could run this place like a dream, if it weren’t for the volunteers.’

I sometimes wonder for whom a modern arts organisation is run. Is it for their staff, their specialists, their donors, their sponsors and grant-giving bodies? Is it for their paying – or non-paying – public, whose satisfaction is measured by ticket sales or daily attendance figures? Is it for their ‘friends’, students or cafeteria hangers-on?

Almost every cultural activity – theatres, museums, concert halls, study centres, historic buildings – has a constituency of people who work for them for nothing. They do so quite simply because they love it. The word amateur was invented in their honour. They have chosen to give freely of their time and commitment to keep the show on the road. They are an organisation’s ambassadors and champions in the community, its publicists, interpreters and, usually, staffing reserve. Like American docents, they deepen and enliven any visit because they understand the pleasures that it hopes to convey.

The National Trust, by far the biggest user of volunteers, relies on more than 61,000 of them to keep its properties open to the public, up and running. It calculates they give more than 4.6 million hours of free labour. The organisation would cease to function without it. Another charitable activity dependent on volunteers is the heritage railway, now embracing some 120 private lines, with more opening every year. This is now a substantial industry with a wages bill close to zero. When I ask one line how much it paid its licensed engine drivers, the answer was ‘minus fifty pounds a trip – and a two-year waiting list’.

Volunteers can be irritating, and a nuisance to organise. They are hard to discipline and keep to rotas. They are often an organisation within an organisation. I recall one who was notoriously rude to visitors, yet regarded by all and sundry as ‘a personality’ and not worth disciplining. Another, aged 95 and barely able to speak, was more like a statue in Madame Tussauds, but she was an exhibit in her own right. Yet another admitted she adored sitting quietly for hours in a sunny Jacobean room. She was never asked a question ‘but the Scrabble evenings are such fun’.

For many people, volunteering is a social activity with adult education thrown in. For the young – and not so young – its outdoor branch of rural conservation is also serious exercise. It is a way of contributing to the countryside, learning skills and even finding a job. In the National Trust, volunteering is the first step on the ladder to employment. Such engagement is an occupation, training and hobby in one.

Volunteering occupies an ill-defined but fertile territory between an arts institution and its audience. The Art Fund’s local groups may have been lethargic and poor value for money to the Fund. But they formed a network of active groups, involved not just in fund-raising but in visits, lectures and cultural activity of all sorts. They were ‘art funds’ in miniature. That they were composed largely of older people seems to have been a strength rather than, as rumoured, their weakness.

If anything is to characterise the so-called post-digital age it will be the urge to escape the home and the screen, to meet other people, congregate and associate. The affinity group is booming, witness support for literary and arts festivals, talks, lectures and reading groups. To take only the most prominent example, National Trust membership is now approaching five and a half million. How this sector is staffed will be the challenge of this age. Volunteering marries willing resource to urgent need. It is culture’s golden goose.

Simon Jenkins is a columnist for the Guardian and Evening Standard. He was the chair of the National Trust from 2008–14.

From the May 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.