Phil Redmond is chairman of the trustees at National Museums Liverpool and the government’s local innovation champion

Volunteering and the Big Society

Felicity Heywood, 15.11.2010
What does the Big Society mean for museums?

When prime minister David Cameron launched his Big Society drive in July, he caused some consternation among museum professionals, many of whom felt the sector had for decades been at the forefront of encouraging and cultivating volunteers without help or persuasion from government.

The coalition government initiative – which aims to encourage community empowerment through volunteering and self-organisation – was launched in Liverpool, which is one of four areas pushing the Big Society agenda. One project in the city will see an extension of a National Museums Liverpool (NML) volunteering scheme to cover extended opening hours at the museums.

Speaking at the Big Society launch, Phil Redmond, chairman of the trustees at NML and the coalition government’s local innovation champion, said it was an opportunity to extend the museums’ reach and a chance to define what the Big Society means for Liverpool.

However, he now says this reach is on hold while “anxieties around the comprehensive spending review (CSR) settlements abate”.  

The 28% cuts placed on local authorities by the CSR over the next four years will see a number of council services scaled back, merged or completely abolished.

The point of the Big Society is that, if constituents want any of those services, then they can form a group as volunteers and run them themselves. So it is likely to be the case that we will see more people volunteering; that’s the government’s plan, anyway.

But what will the Big Society look like in museums? In the case of NML, Redmond says it will involve collaborative working with public and private organisations to determine what is best for the museums and the wider local community.

“The aim is to help the public gain better access to the public assets that their taxes actually maintain,” he adds. “It is not about cuts. This was being discussed by our trustees long before the Big Society came into being.”

NML expects to see many more volunteers coming forward and Redmond says it is considering how to respond to that. Currently, NML has 500 volunteers with about 280 active at any one time.

But while NML is embracing a future rise in the number of volunteers, some museums are having to scale back their programmes.

The first funded phase of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) North and the University of Manchester’s volunteering programme, called In Touch, came to an end in June 2010. The scheme, which saw volunteers taught professional skills (such as how to handle objects) as well as basic literacy and core skills, ran from 2007 and introduced 30 volunteers to the museum each year.

Charlotte Smith, the head of learning and access at IWM North, says that volunteer expenses and training could not be covered without funding, and the partnership is now assessing how to continue the programme in a sustainable way.

A bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (if successful) will see existing volunteers act as mentors to a new batch of volunteers who have confidence issues or feel socially isolated. IWM North says that all volunteers will receive training and support, while the existing volunteers will also gain additional continuing professional development opportunities.

Museums need to keep both staff and volunteers happy, no matter the size of a scheme. At Liverpool, paid staff will be reassured through “honest and transparent dialogue”, says Redmond.

He is equally confident that volunteer benefits – such as collections knowledge and a structured training programme focusing on customer service – will be easily transferred to paid work.

Ultimately, for NML, the Big Society and the extension of its volunteering scheme are not about offsetting cuts by replacing or reducing staff. Instead, they are about offering more than what its grant-in-aid currently allows.


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15.06.2012, 15:06
I was 'interested' in the anonymous comment about cutting learning posts, which said 'Visitors to a museum locally to me were outraged at the salary offered for what the general public see as an expensive Dressing-Up Box Monitor'.

How very sad that someone who clearly has more than a passing interest in museums, and is perhaps actively involved in museums, didn't take the time to help educate the general public in their area about what the museum professionals in those posts actually do.
07.01.2012, 16:50
This is defiantly a very narrow approach to the problem. I don’t deny that these are rough times, with lack of funding and rising unemployment. Yet I don’t think the solution rest on limiting resources and keeping to a tight staff group. I don’t think Volunteering is just a mechanism to increase public participation, this would point out a flaw in the education responsibilities of museums and galleries.
We most stop thinking of our self as simply the charity sector and look for an alternative economic model. The reality is that although most of the funding comes from aid and welfare, these Organizations still conduct large money transactions. So why not look at our-self as part of the cultural trade, that are supported by aid and that have social responsibilities. Today, it is undeniable to say that supporting the cultural sector is a futile and vain gesture, as we all know that it contributes largely to the general economy.
This BIG SOCIETY term, and aspiring ideology, I think *(??), is not just about institution getting free labor. As a Visitor Assistant, I sometimes wonder why the majority of the volunteers and staff in museums are white middle class??? Why is it so difficult to reach other ethnicities? *(apart from outreach programmes…) And what is the idealized identity of the museum staff for an, lets say, Pakistani or Nigerian student to doubt there work competences??
And lastly, I most rant some more about how easy it would be to support the so valuable volunteers with a symbolic pay. After all we what to guarantee that the future has qualified and experienced people working in this institutions and not just Masters in History or wannabe curators.
29.11.2010, 14:06
Neither a subject specialist qualification nor a qualification in museum studies is inherently the 'right' answer - the reality is that a balance of collections knowledge and museums skills gives the best results. My collections team has a mixture of PhDs, museum studies and AMAs, and first degrees, and widely varied previous experience, so each person brings a different knowledge and skill set to the team. While there are issues around retaining curatorial knowledge about collections, this knowledge has never existed solely with curators. Museums facilitate the research of others, and benefit from the knowledge that external experts (academics, enthusiasts and collectors) can bring about a collection. Regarding volunteering, this should always be additional to what a museum can do with its own resources: small museums could not function without it, while larger museums are able to extend their programmes with it. Used well, volunteering is a mechanism to increase participation with heritage by a broad spectrum of people, not just those seeking paid employment in the sector. The difficulty of finding paid employment is largely due to supply and demand: there is an oversupply of people wanting to work in museums (primarily because they are so fascinating) compared to the number of jobs available. Unfortunately in the near future this situation is only likely to become more pronounced.
MA Member
27.11.2010, 11:49
I think Charlotte has absolutely hit the nail on the head. Couldn't have put it better myself so I won't try again!

To Anonymous at 13:07: I agree there are problems when you have people without experience, in volunteer roles handling collections and curating but it isn't something I have often experienced. Generally volunteer roles tend to focus on visitor interaction with a small number of objects, not curatorial roles (or exhibition planning, learning and education etc)
MA Member
25.11.2010, 10:00
I think the ridiculousness of the first comment shows exactly why History Postgraduates are NOT the right people for the jobs. Did your history degrees tell you about object handling? Or visitor involvement? Or best practice for security? Or archiving? I seriously doubt it. And it is that sense of entitlement that holds the world back. I am a volunteer and I get training because I devote a lot of time for free (just as in your unpaid internships) to gaining experience. You are also gaining experience in your internships, the difference being I can learn about the objects I deal with by reading books and doing research. Your knowledge of history IN NO WAY means you are entitled to walk in to a curators job. I find that comment laughable. Maybe you should have spent a bit more time with the careers service while doing your "MA's, MPhils and PhDs" to see what qualifications you would actually need.
25.11.2010, 00:03
Whilst I sympathise with those looking to obtain employment in Museums, they have to be aware that not all museums are large and well funded. The majority of museums which make use of volunteers do so because they are small, with limited funds and because without volunteers they would be forced to close. In fact if they lose their SLAs - which may well happen as councils look for savings - they will close anyway, and their volunteers will be back home with time on thier hands. There are no paid jobs available in such places; they could not afford even the most modest of salaries. I also suspect that the larger museums would tend to use volunteers only for the cafe and the shop - although I am sure someone will correct me on that one <G>
24.11.2010, 17:29
I was right. By volunteering in order to gain the training needed to work in the sector you have completely undermined all university education. All postgraduates are self-funding, unless you are directly sponsored by an institution. You are playing into management hands by working for nothing, you must decline immediately. We must create a demand for our products and services. Force management to offer salaried training posts, say 2 years at 75% of qualified salary, followed by full salary. If we don't, then all our museums will be staffed by amateurs with Mickey-Mouse degrees from former Polytechnics.
24.11.2010, 13:53
I'm a volunteer. However I think it is wrong to encourage them to take over jobs where there are already qualified people available to do them. This is happening all over the country, and not just in museums....skilled people are now regularly sidelined in favour of cheaper or unpaid labour.

I can tell you now that volunteers are often very pressurised. We are expected to "train up" for so many things.....IN ADDITION to performing either our normal fulltime jobs or fulltime home-duties. It seems every day there is an offer of "training" coming through my email-box.
There was once a time when volunteering was pleasant; now it has become a glorified unpaid job.

Collections are watched over by volunteers already, in many small independent museums, BUT there is always one or more professionally-qualified persons available for help (or, there should be). The idea that volunteers can fill ALL roles is ludicrous; and what's this about volunteers' expenses? I thought volunteering was about doing something for nowt!
MA Member
24.11.2010, 13:07
I realise why people felt the first comment to be offensive, but fully understand the emotions behind it. I also saw people in curatorial posts having no idea about what they are curating, and going on expensive courses.
I think that museums are academic educational institutions, and their staff must be professionally trained and experienced, with the duties to be experts in their field, and great responsibilities for the collections entrusted to them. The responsibility cannot be undertaken on voluntary basis.

Regarding comments from Shanna and Stephany, I think that it is a disgrace for the museum sector to use time, knowledge and experience of people who want to enter the museum sector, or do not want to leave it, not paying them for their work.
MA Member
24.11.2010, 07:49
I personally find the first post from 'Anonymous' highly offensive! As a volunteer I have worked hard to learn about the history of the Museum I work for and the objects within it; my desire to work there stemmed from my love and knowledge of history.

Currently self-funding my MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, this experience is vital to my future career prospects. Have you tried gaining a paid position in the sector without it? It is nigh on impossible. I have no intention of stealing anyone's job - simply gaining the knowledge and skills to move forward and leave my current volunteer position open to the next person willing to put in the work required to succeed. It's not all about pieces of paper with a qualification - especially not one that doesn't include sector specific skills and knowledge. Finally, volunteers don't usually get paid either ... that would be a paid internship.
MA Member
19.11.2010, 15:30
I'm sorry, but the first post is completely inaccurate. The vast majority of Museum Studies students also hold degrees in related fields such as History and Archaeology, and have a great deal of unpaid experience under their belts. We don't get paid to train. My first degree was in History and I funded my MA in Museum Studies myself and had to do an awful lot of volunteering to get where I am today.
18.11.2010, 14:48
To save money, you could get rid of all those expensive education and outreach posts across the country. Visitors to a museum locally to me were outraged at the salary offered for what the general public see as an expensive Dressing-Up Box Monitor.
18.11.2010, 14:39
It's all well and good to involve volunteers in the museums, archives, galleries and heritage sectors to save money, but you are, in fact, stealing jobs from History Postgraduates. It is because of our interests in history and heritage that we studied for MAs, MPhils and PhDs with the view of working in the museum/archive/heritage sectors. - And then to find you prefer people with a Museum Studies degree who have not a clue about the objects they are curating! They can get paid to train when we are forced to do unpaid internships. The taxpayers want experts in charge, that means us!