A Reflection on Volunteering in the Museum Sector

In this post Jess Hill reflects on her experience of volunteering in the museum sector; outlining its purpose, the mutual benefits, and some of its issues. 

After the popularity and success of the ‘Games Makers’ in the London 2012 Olympics, volunteering was showcased to the world as an essential part of cultural event. I am going to explore the main issues that I as a volunteer have experienced, and consider how volunteers have the same, if not more, importance in the museum sector – in both national museums like the British Museum and small independently run museums and heritage sites.

Increased cuts to budgets has meant that museums and galleries rely on volunteers even more to help out with visitor services, PR, learning and other skilled tasks that employed staff are simply too busy to do. However, the foundation of volunteering is based upon the idea of reciprocity, with both the volunteer and institution gaining mutual benefits. The volunteer placements with the best opportunities are those where this exchange is clear from the outset. In my view, the benefits for the volunteer cannot just be the ‘experience’.

In smaller museums volunteers often form a large percentage of the staff. As a result, volunteers are essential in the day to day running of the museum, and a volunteer’s role can be varied and form a wide breadth of knowledge about a single museum. In my experience at the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, I support the Learning Officer who looks after all things ‘learning’ in the museum. My role can range from leading student workshops, to making resources, or researching schools in the area. I almost definitely would not have the same variety of experience in a national museum that is swamped with volunteer offers.

That’s not to say larger museums do not need volunteers as much. In a museum with more staff, a volunteer would mostly focus on one specific role, such as digitising a particular collection, and be mentored by an employee. Whilst this means the role for the volunteer is not as varied, volunteers can specialise and gain in-depth knowledge about one aspect of the institution. For the larger museums themselves, without volunteers they would not have the time or money to facilitate the most exciting projects, run tours of the museum, or simply create the best experience for their visitors. For example, I volunteer purely in the Museum of London’s Development Office helping to co-ordinate the training sessions they run for museum professionals. Meeting and greeting the delegates and being on hand to solve any problems means that my mentors can focus entirely on running a successful workshop.

So, even without the cuts to budgets, volunteers are essential within a museum environment. This growing importance in the sector can be seen in apps like ‘Volunteer Maker’, sponsored by Arts Council England, where institutions can recruit volunteers on a digital platform according to their skills and create a volunteer community.

However, I have to say that as a student with a loan I am part of a small minority that have the time and money to volunteer. Unfortunately, there is really no other way to get the right sort of experience for even an entry level job in a museum or gallery without volunteering (let’s just say my waitressing job could only get me so far!). I am sure that there are many people who would love to work in museums, or simply give back to their local community by volunteering, but don’t have the time around a job to accommodate it. What’s more, London in particular can be incredibly expensive, and giving up time to work for free is not feasible for many. This is a problem when all museums aim to have a diverse volunteer community made up of a wide demographic, in which to create a team with contrasting ideas that reflects London’s population.

To me, this highlights the importance of getting volunteering experience early at school or university, which is something that is being promoted by campaigns such as the ‘Student Volunteering Week’. Not only can it give students an overview of the sector and the range of roles it takes to make a museum function, but also allows you to test areas of the institution to see what suits you. For example, I volunteered in a range of roles in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, making easier to see which area I enjoyed most. These varied from monitoring the main gallery during the Henry Moore exhibition, walking through the grounds and cleaning sculptures and, my favourite, helping the learning department to run sculpture and drawing workshops for small children.

Plus, through these experiences volunteers can gain transferrable skills for both jobs and for life within and outside of a museum setting. Whilst volunteering and giving tours in Aston Hall in Birmingham, and leading workshops in the Museum of Brands, I have gained much more confidence speaking to large groups of people, which has made it easier to feel confident in assessed presentations at University. Furthermore, when I arrived in London last year I had no contacts within the museum sector apart from my new lecturers and fellow students. Volunteering in two contrasting institutions has meant that I have been able to informally chat to employees of the museum who are more than willing to give me advice and share their experiences. It is encouraging to realise how many staff members have volunteered or done other jobs within museums before finding a position more suited to them. It has made me realise that I sadly won’t be able to walk straight into my ideal curatorial role, however it’s not going to stop me from trying!

Looking back and writing all of my volunteering down has really made me realise how varied my experiences have been, the skills I have gained as a result of volunteering, and how lucky I have been to have such great mentors in each institution that have helped me make the most of each role. Whilst studying is great, I really believe there are invaluable skills that I would only have been able to gain from volunteering with different organisations and alongside museum professionals.

Best of luck to all volunteers!

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