Laura, a volunteer at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery

Case study: volunteers as advocates

Rebecca Atkinson, 15.11.2010
Volunteers can act as advocates and help museums connect with new audiences

Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery developed a volunteer strategy after taking part in the Museums Association’s Smarter Museum programme last year.

With just four full-time members of staff, Nuneaton’s challenge was to find more creative ways of working without additional resources. It also wanted to improve its capacity and diversity in order to develop a deeper connection with existing and new audiences.

Working with volunteers has been one way to achieve these aims, alongside establishing a museum advisory group to act as advocates for the community.

In the current climate of national and local funding cuts, engaging with the community through volunteers and the advisory group has also offered a political advantage.

Matt Johnson, Nuneaton’s outreach officer and diversity champion, who was given responsibility for managing the new volunteer programme, explains: “The more people we talk and engage with, the more people know about us. Making ourselves visible as a museum helps make case for why we need a museum in Nuneaton.”

In the past, Nuneaton used volunteers on an ad hoc basis. “People would ask to come in and we would match them up with jobs that needed doing on a rolling basis,” says Johnson. “We’re now recruiting volunteers in a more proactive and organised way.”

Volunteers are now assigned to specific tasks and, thanks to detailed role descriptions, know from the outset exactly how long a role will last, what it will involve and what benefits it will bring them and the museum.

“This approach is much more strategic and enables us to get the right volunteers for the right roles,” says Johnson.

There are currently three volunteers working at Nuneaton, undertaking tasks such as transcribing the diaries of 19th-century novelist George Eliot’s father, creating a database of the museum’s oral history collection and carrying out a storeroom review.

“If we didn’t have volunteers, then these tasks wouldn’t get done or would take ages,” says Johnson. The benefit to volunteers is that they gain new skills and learn about working in a museum, something they might not have considered before.

One of Nuneaton’s volunteers has a sight disability and has helped the museum work with blind and partially sighted audiences. Thanks to her advice and funding from Culture Link, Nuneaton has undertaken a review of its signage and accessibility, and developed sensory points that focus on touch, sounds and smells.

“This has helped us engage with new audiences and improve their experience of the museum,” says Johnson.

As well as developing the volunteer programme, Nuneaton has also looked to develop skills within its paid workforce. Johnson, for example, has taken on the role of diversity champion while the front-of-house team is now delivering activities for family visitors and getting involved in the museum advisory group too.

While the museum’s volunteer workforce will also be limited by resources (a lack of desk space, for example), Johnson says it provides a new way to undertake tasks and reach out to the community.

He adds: “Diversifying our workforce and our audience is essential to our survival.”