A friend indeed

Felicity Heywood, Issue 105/10, p18-21, October 2005
Felicity Heywood meets Elizabeth Mackenzie, a passionate supporter of Friends of museums who is busier than ever in the Year of the Volunteer
Elizabeth Mackenzie has turned sitting on boards and committees into an art form. You could say that in semi-retirement she has become a serial volunteer.

And not only in retirement; she has played a supporting role in museums for almost 30 years. From initiating the Bristol Magpies, which has been supporting Bristol City Museums and Art Gallery since 1977, she became the chairwoman of the British Association of Friends of Museums (BAFM), the UK group representing the interests of Friends and volunteers, in 1998. She held this post for six years and is now its vice-chairwoman.

While she combines this with sitting on museum-related judging panels and working groups, the beneficiary of most of Mackenzie's time these days is the ss Great Britain Trust in Bristol, where she is a member of the board and the executive committee.

In this, the Year of the Volunteer, with the government pushing for people to spend 29 October giving some of their spare time to helping others, Mackenzie deserves a day off.

I meet the over-active volunteer in the flowery garden of her quayside home in the centre of Bristol on a beautiful hot, sunny day. Mackenzie has a soft spot for the south west, which she got to know well during her time as the BAFM's regional representative, and made Bristol her base while bringing up her four children and travelling for work.

It would be easy to assume that Mackenzie took up volunteering as a break from raising a large family. But no, she was a full-time doctor - a cytopathologist studying cancers and viruses.

This was a choice that fitted well with Mackenzie's life, as her husband Campbell, also a doctor, had taken the family to Glasgow and it was there that a call for a survey of cervical cancers was put out. Mackenzie quickly realised this was something that would be needed around the country and there would be a guarantee of a job.

'We couldn't have two physicians in the family up at night time all the time,' she says. There was also the fact that Mackenzie is a people person and sitting in a lab all day was not for her: 'To look down a microscope is something I did not contemplate at all.'

She had studied medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, specialising in public health medicine; she later trained at the London School of Tropical Medicine.

To the job and the museum volunteering, add sitting on medical committees at local, national and international levels, organising symposia, and being the secretary and president of the British Society for Clinical Cytology; all while rising to the heights of consultant in Bristol NHS, manager of the Avon cervical screening programme, and the list goes on.

Now no longer working full-time, she assesses cytopathology at all Bupa hospitals and is an inspector of standards in laboratories throughout the UK.

It begs the question how she still finds the time for her museum volunteering. It is less that Mackenzie feels it is the right thing to do, more a passion that she has no choice but to fulfil.

Mackenzie says it stems from being 'dragged around' museums as a child by her mother when they arrived in London in 1942 after escaping Malaya as the threat of war loomed over the Far East. In Malaya, the family had a life where servants took care of their every need.

But in London, without a husband (he was interned in a Singapore camp, where he died), Mackenzie's mother had to do everything for the family, and anything that was free, such as a trip to a museum, was depended on.

Mackenzie was familiar with all the main London museums at a young age, and she says it is a 'thrill' that she wants to communicate. By championing museums through the Friends, she has stayed one-step removed from the hands-on work in museums.

Underlying Mackenzie's passion is her need for a voice. 'I want to make my voice heard. Not what the museum or funders say. I'm a punter and I feel it is really important that punters are listened to.'

Friends groups made up of enthusiastic punters who believe in the ethos of their local museums, and organise themselves to support them in the best way they can, have often complained about not being heard. There are about 300,000 members of BAFM in the UK. Without any paid staff, the organisation relies on membership subs entirely.

Mackenzie says BAFM, formed in 1973, was an organisation of the middle classes who thought the world should move around them. 'Friends got a bit of a dirty name in the past for being an elitist group who were a pain in the neck and caused a lot of disruption with professionals.'

The fight between the curators and the Friends is one that hasn't entirely gone away. It often comes down to a question of the balance of power. Who should do what in museums? It's about how it affects the traditional role of the curator but also how far the Friends should represent the museum.

Mackenzie believes the lines are clear. She says curatorial staff should offer expertise, scholarship, research and leadership. If there are not enough curators to offer guided tours, then the curators should train volunteers to do them.

It's not a matter of taking over their patch, she says. 'In the old days volunteers used to only turn up on wet Wednesdays. That's gone.' And she continues: 'If you're giving time to a museum it's got to be given properly. I'm so provocative - I think you should have a contract but that goes down like a lead Zeppelin.'

There are few museums that employ someone to manage volunteers. Mackenzie believes this is going to be a focus for future debate. 'Everyone needs volunteers. The government seems to be running the country on volunteers - the NHS, the prison service, anything you can think of.'

Mackenzie is upset that Friends are often tolerated at museums because of the income they generate for the museum. She says that many museums fail to understand that the real strengths that Friends have are as 'good ambassadors' and 'good lobbyists' and should be seen in that way.

They are an important tool to influence the thinking at local government level: 'If the money dries up, you've got to have someone who can stamp their feet and say, "Now look here, this just isn't good enough".'

She is disappointed that the National Gallery doesn't have an army of Friends and is concerned that larger organisations such as the Tate and Historic Royal Palaces have taken their Friends in-house - which means, says Mackenzie, that they no longer have an independent voice.

She says that voice is of the community and is there to represent and support the museum rather than go against its policy. But flicking through the BAFM newsletter, the majority of faces don't seem that representative of the community. Most striking is that they are in their senior years.

Mackenzie doesn't beat about the bush: 'I embrace anybody under the age of 90, quite honestly, as a junior member of the team.' For Mackenzie, age is not an important issue. She questions whether people in their 20s-40s with a family have the time or interest to volunteer, which is rich coming from a trouper like her. She says it is more important that retired volunteers should continue to be enthusiastic.

It has been a slow process of change in the way Friends are perceived. Mackenzie says 25 years of organising themselves, setting up regional outposts and spending time explaining to colleagues that 'We are not against you we are for you, for God's sake' has gone a long way.

But how many museums would automatically turn to BAFM for advice and information on volunteers rather than Volunteering England or the government backed resource CSV? She says most would come if they have trouble with their Friends group.

'They still have hiccups, but that's what BAFM is there for, to try and sort them out before they become at loggerheads and at war with the professional organisations.'

There's a tempered forcefulness about Mackenzie. At times, she says, she has taken on the job of sorting out tense situations where Friends and volunteers are perhaps not as committed as they should be (some wet Wednesday believers still lurking). 'I don't mind opening my mouth and letting my belly rumble.'

While Mackenzie is not a woman you would want to cross, she also has sufficient amounts of ease and charm for her not to make enemies along the way. Although there are some who disagree with her view on volunteers, she is warmly spoken about by those who know her.

Mackenzie's volunteering has put her in a most knowledgeable position about museums and the way they are run. But she says it was being a judge for this year's Gulbenkian Prize that opened her eyes. She describes it as the 'best experience I ever had' - visiting diverse museums and finding it extremely difficult to make a choice on the winner.

Mackenzie realises that there is an issue about how long people should remain on boards and committees and the need for fresh blood. She was grateful to stand down as the chairwoman of BAFM, but observes that she is often called on to speak for the organisation, possibly, I suggest, because of her outspokenness.

She says she takes a back seat when she can: 'It's not all about Elizabeth Mackenzie.' After three years on the board of ss Great Britain, she is happy to remain another three and review then. 'I'm still up for it,' she says.

Museum Practice 31, published this autumn, features an article on how to get the best from volunteer guides