A visitor at the William Morris Gallery

Volunteers and front-of-house

Rebecca Atkinson, 15.03.2012
Volunteers can bring passion to front-of-house roles but they need to be well managed
Many smaller museums use volunteers to run their front-of-house, while others use a mix of volunteers and paid staff with different roles and responsibilities.  

Volunteers can bring enthusiasm and passion to front-of-house, but they need to be properly managed to ensure standards are maintained and visitors receive a high level of service.

As with any volunteering role, regular training and good management are crucial, as is offering volunteers personal support. Some museums use volunteers as volunteer coordinators, and this peer-to-peer relationship can be valuable to the individuals and the organisation.

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London, is expanding its pool of volunteers as part of a wider audience development programme (see case study). Rebecca Jacobs, the gallery’s activities and events officer, says it is crucial to recognise and cater to people's different motivations for volunteering.

“If you can be flexible and allow people to move around the programme, you’ll give volunteers a richer experience,” she says. “A volunteer programme can also grow and develop as you realise what works.”

Front-of-house teams made up of volunteers as well as paid staff can work, as long as they are managed well.

Jacobs says: “Museum need to be sensible about how they approach this and make sure that the lines of communication are open, and that they foster understanding and mutual respect across the team.”

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has a pool of about 70 volunteers who staff the information desk. Hugo Penning, front-of-house manager at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, says that one of the challenges when he joined the museum in 2007 was to professionalise this team and bring the standard of service in-line with the paid front-of-house visitor service assistants.

“Volunteers have to do certain things, like sell tickets, but they’re not always convinced,” he says. “You have to know why people volunteer so you can find a way to reward them.”

The museum has three volunteers on front-of-house at one time, with one meeting and greeting visitors on the entrance alongside a paid visitor service assistant.

Penning says it’s important to distinguish between volunteers and paid front-of-house staff. A uniform, for example, gives staff authority and reflects the security-aspect of their role.

VOLUNTEER HUBS

A volunteering programme at the Polar Museum in Cambridge has proved so successful that it is being used as a possible model for other University of Cambridge Museums as part of Connecting Collections, which was recently awarded Renaissance major grant funding by the Arts Council England.

As well as unlocking the university’s collections and research activities for a more diverse audience, Connecting Collections aims to foster closer working between the eight university museums while still recognising their different identities, remits and audiences.

One area of work is volunteering, and an intern has been funded to research the opportunities a more coherent approach might offer. This is on-going, but Liz Hide, the University of Cambridge Museums development officer, says that a gradual approach is likely to have the most success.

“This will mean identifying areas of good practice and working on extending and developing them in ways that fit comfortably with each museum's resources and ethos,” she says.

“Aside from the better-known Fitzwilliam Museum and Kettle's Yard, the other university museums have arisen out of research and teaching collections, with university resourcing necessarily focusing on this important role. As a result, their front-of-house provision is less well-resourced and varies from museum-to-museum.”

The Polar Museum has a pool of more than 50 volunteers who work in pairs to staff the reception desk of the museum, which Hide says creates a welcoming and “mutually supportive atmosphere”.

Many of them have specialist knowledge about the collection, and regular training and social events ensure a level of commitment to the organisation.

Hide believes that using volunteers in front-of-house helps to demystify museums, especially academic ones.  

“We want to create opportunities for volunteers and make people feel that they can come and be part of us,” she adds. “People have different reasons for volunteering and if we recognise those reasons we can enhance the visitor experience.”

The University of Cambridge Museums also wants to recruit a more diverse range of volunteers in order to reflect different audiences. How it does this is still being discussed but Hide believes that imposing a centralised volunteering hub would not work.

“It’s really important to preserve each museum’s individuality and not try to create a homogenous museum,” she says.

“Each museum has its own loyal visitors, which we wouldn’t want to lose, but we want to work out how we can create enough centralisation to maintain standards and good practice, and increase accessibility to our museums.”

Links

William Morris Gallery

The Ashmolean Museum

University of Cambridge Museums & Collections

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