How will Covid-19 shape museums’ volunteer workforce?

Organisations concerned volunteers won’t be able to return
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Rebecca Atkinson
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Volunteers at the Imperial War Museum North
Volunteers at the Imperial War Museum North (c) Jason Lawton
Volunteers are expected to play a crucial role in supporting museums reopen to the public once lockdown restrictions allow them to. But concerns are mounting about whether many members of this workforce will be willing or able to return to frontline and back-office roles due to the ongoing risk of Covid-19.
A survey by the Heritage Volunteering Group into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic found that volunteers are critical to its members, with 45% of organisations saying they would be unable to operate without them.
But according the group, in 2019 47% of volunteers worked in front-of-house roles and 58% were over the age of 55. And with many volunteers potentially aged over 70 and therefore falling in the NHS’s “clinically vulnerable” Covid-19 risk group, it is feared that large parts of the volunteer workforce might not be able to return to physical sites when they reopen.
It is still unclear what social distancing measures museums may need to adopt to protect workers and visitors once lockdown restrictions are lifted, but respondents to the survey are concerned about what impact of “shielding” would have on the scale and capacity of the volunteer workforce – and the implications this will have on the operation of sites.
The Heritage Volunteering Group’s survey also revealed that 40% of organisation taking part do not have a volunteer strategy, and 23% do not have a dedicated volunteer manager.
Matthew Hick, head of volunteering at the Science Museum Group, and chair of the Heritage Volunteering Group, told Museums Journal that the sector has undervalued volunteer managers for a long time. In addition, many roles have been furloughed during the pandemic, meaning volunteers have been left with little contact from the organisations they support.
“The impact of that is many volunteers may feel abandoned and might not come back,” he says. “If we expect loyalty from our volunteers, they should expect it from us.”
Hick says that if museums want to increase their volunteering capacity then they need to develop new models of volunteering – including the creation the remote roles – and look to diversify this workforce.
“The impact of the pandemic on the sector is likely to be significant and volunteers’ contributions will be needed more than ever," he adds. "To maximise the impact they have, we should view volunteering as an important element of our wider workforce that supports institutions to deliver operational and strategic outcomes.”
The front-of-house team at Dr Jenner’s House, Museum and Garden in Gloucestershire is made up entirely of volunteers, who greet visitors, issue tickets and answer questions. Museum manager Owen Gower says the majority of its volunteers are older and therefore at a greater risk from Covid-19.
“Physical space is a real issue,” he says. “The museum is in Edward Jenner’s former home, a large family home but a family home nonetheless, and wasn’t designed with social distancing in mind.”
Other volunteers at the house have caring responsibilities, or other volunteer roles, and may not be able to return to their previous roles.
“Under normal circumstances, our volunteers give their time because they love sharing Edward Jenner’s story and they relish the chance to spend time with each other and with our visitors,” Gower says. “A socially-distant museum, where perhaps a single volunteer might be required to stand outside to scan pre-paid tickets at staggered intervals, does not allow them to fulfil those needs and I do worry that it will be a struggle to convince them otherwise.”
Historic England is currently preparing a paper for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the role volunteers will play in rebuilding the heritage sector.
It is expected that this paper will present a number of options that organisations will need to do in order to utilise the power of volunteers. These might include diversifying the volunteer workforce and helping to reskill individuals and support their wellbeing at a time of potentially high unemployment.
Hick says: "We need to learn from what the pandemic has taught us about volunteering. We need to make it easier for people to volunteer with us, we need to create more short-term opportunities and we need to work with other organisations to ensure people from diverse backgrounds can get involved in our organsations."
William Tregaskes, museum co-ordinator at Cynon Valley Museum Trust, and a member of the Heritage Volunteering Group’s steering committee, says it is looking at how it can reopen in a way that will protect its volunteers as well as visitors.
“All our volunteers want to come back but many may not be able to,” he adds. “We are looking at remote options such as researching collections.”
One of the silver linings of the pandemic might be attitudes towards volunteering. Since the lockdown began, thousands of people have volunteered for NHS schemes as well as local support networks.
Tregaskes says: “We are aware that people’s attitudes towards volunteering have changed as a result of Covid-19 and there is an opportunity to attract more people to volunteering roles in heritage organisations.”
This year’s Volunteers’ Week, an annual event celebrating volunteering across the UK, is taking place between 1-7 June. To join in with the celebration, the Heritage Volunteering Group is running an online event on 6 June, including the presentation of its Volunteer Leader of the Year Award.

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