The gift that keeps on giving - Museums Association

The gift that keeps on giving

It is vitally important to protect one of the sector’s most prized assets – the army of volunteers helping bring museums to life
Caroline Parry
Ash Pryce volunteers at Lauriston Castle as part of Edinburgh Museums Portrait by Murdo Macleod

Volunteering is the lifeblood of many heritage organisations, but even before the pandemic wreaked havoc there was an increasing need for the sector to improve its approach to this vital asset.

Covid has accelerated and exacerbated many existing issues, with the various lockdowns highlighting the vast differences in strategies, resources and attitudes towards volunteers and their contribution. At the same time, the explosion of support for the Black Lives Matter movement has brought into sharp focus the need to address diversity and inclusion across all areas of museum recruitment, including volunteering.

“These challenges existed pre-pandemic and they were issues we were already talking about,” says Matthew Hick, chair of the Heritage Volunteering Group (HVG) and head of volunteering at Science Museum Group.

The HVG was originally formed in reaction to the austerity cuts of the past decade, but the group’s work has never been more crucial.  We need to think more strategically about volunteering engagement and how to make the most of volunteering opportunities,” Hick says.

Babs Brown Portrait by Murdo Macleod
Babs Brown, volunteer at the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

“I became a volunteer in 2019 by responding to an advertisement going round in Deaf Action asking for deaf people to become volunteers. I love the museum – it’s airy, lofty but homely grandeur and the way the treasures are laid out and displayed in a friendly meandering way. Deaf people are visually reliant on their immediate environment being accessible and easy to navigate and the museum is such a place for me. I really hope to expand on my role
as a British Sign Language (BSL) tour guide.

“I shadowed an experienced volunteer and received training on how to recount the facts, and which objects to focus on, while on a tour with them. I have some ideas of how I can develop my role, such as showcasing small exhibitions in BSL with appropriate add-ons from elsewhere in the museum. I am conscious that for a small community of deaf people there needs to be a fresh approach, a newness to their experience, on every tour and this will be a challenge. But it is an exciting challenge.”

From the top down

The lack of senior-level engagement with volunteers and volunteering strategy is a significant issue laid bare by Covid. It was emphasised by the number of volunteer managers furloughed or simply made redundant at the beginning of the first lockdown.

“It shows a complete lack of understanding about the importance of staying connected to volunteers, as well as a failure by senior leaders to see the closures as an opportunity to rethink their volunteering strategy, or to explore digital work,” Hick says.

With redundancies expected to increase when furlough ends for good, more dedicated volunteer management roles may be lost.

The HVG, supported by other volunteering organisations, wrote an open letter highlighting the need to invest in and communicate with their volunteer workforces.

According to Esther Lisk-Carew, volunteers coordinator at Manchester International Festival (MIF), a better understanding at senior level of the scope of volunteer manager roles would improve their ability to work confidently within their organisations.


“We need a better appreciation of the multitude of skills that we hold and the diversity we bring to organisations,” Lisk-Carew says. “We do a large amount of people management.”

Tamsin Russell, the workforce development officer at the Museums Association, says the long-term loss of volunteer managers, either through redundancy or redeployment, will make it more difficult to attract and retain the volunteers themselves.

“Volunteering is not resource neutral,” she comments. “Museums have a duty of pastoral care towards volunteers. Stripping out the dedicated managers will reduce capacity to recruit and maintain them.

“For a sector that survives on a volunteer workforce, it is not always seen as important. There have been a lot of reactionary moves to just cut jobs now with a view to recruiting again later.”

Whether the sector will suffer a significant loss of volunteers when it fully reopens remains to be seen, but those that have returned so far have done so because they felt supported by their managers thanks to continued communication, often in the form of a regular newsletter and online meetings.

Where volunteers decide not to return to the sector, there will inevitably be gaps and a loss of skills across the board. But recruiting new volunteers, particularly when the sector is expected to see a rise in redundancies, will present many organisations with a tricky balancing act.


“It is a fine line,” says Russell. “Volunteers can be perceived as taking paid roles.”

These concerns may be reinforced by a general rise in unemployment increasing the pool of available volunteers. This will not only open up a wider, more diverse range of people to recruit as volunteers, but could also bring an injection of new skills and experience to the sector.

“As a sector, we must look closely at how to integrate volunteers more closely with the workforce,” Hicks says. “Effective volunteering supports jobs, it doesn’t threaten them.”

Lucie Fitton, the head of learning and participation at consultancy and research firm the Audience Agency, says museums need to look at an influx of volunteers from a different angle.

“If museums find out what volunteers want to get out of their roles and look at how they can support their ambitions it creates something really powerful,” she says. “Museums will see how volunteering can fit into their wider agenda, but also how they can fit into the wider community.”

Alan Smith Portrait by Murdo Macleod
Alan Smith, Volunteer at Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh

“In October I will have been volunteering at Surgeons’ Hall Museums for 21 years. When I retired from working in the pathology laboratories at the University of Edinburgh in 2000, I was invited to volunteer at the museum by the conservator, Dugald Gardner.

“Now, I come into the museum every Monday morning and undertake tasks including cataloguing, inventories and labelling. I have been a volunteer for so long because I enjoy the reward I get from it, the people I meet, and it helps stimulate the memory.

“I have a long history with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh as my father was a college officer there and I grew up on Hill Square behind the museum. Sadly, the pandemic has prevented me from volunteering, however I am determined to get back to the museum once the team are vaccinated.”

Ending the monoculture

Covid has exposed the over-reliance of museums and galleries on older volunteers that tend to be white, middle class and predominantly female. Then along came the BLM movement, emphasising that even further.

“Covid has helped us to understand why it’s an issue,” says Hick. “Any monoculture is subject to the effects of the pandemic. All of a sudden, there were no volunteers.”

Diversity and inclusion is certainly not a new discussion for museums and galleries, but the need to review recruitment processes to make them fairer and more open, and appealing to a far wider section of society, has never been more urgent.

MIF’s Lisk-Carew says the HVG was already engaged in discussions around intersectionality and volunteering before the BLM protests last summer, but these discussions are being taken much more seriously now.

“It is the organisations that are more resistant to addressing the challenges of diversity and inclusion, rather than staff,” says Lisk-Carew, who also works as a cultural consultant and podcaster.

“It is time we, as a sector, asked ourselves how we make it easier for people to access volunteering. There is too much paperwork involved, too many delays. We need a change in mindset.”

Becky Benson, volunteering officer at Shropshire Museums, agrees. “How we on-board people is key, but we also need to be more flexible, with short-term opportunities and a wider variety of roles.”

Rethinking the volunteering roles and opportunities that museums offer will be key to attracting a more diverse range of applicants, says Benson, who took on her current role in March after six years at Birmingham Museums Trust, latterly as volunteering manager.

“This is an opportunity to change,” Benson says. “Museums should start this process by going out into their communities and asking what they want from volunteering instead of institutions generating roles and job descriptions.”

The pivot to remote and digital volunteering, which began for many but by no means all organisations during Covid, will be a positive legacy of the pandemic.

Museums Worcestershire launched its Volunteers at Home scheme during the first lockdown after securing funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, which is managed by the Museums Association. It aimed to offer its existing team of volunteers “access not isolation”.

It allowed volunteers to take collection objects into their homes to work on cataloguing, researching, condition checking and conservation tasks. The project also provided training and online support, while weekly Zoom meetings coordinated the process and dealt with any issues.

The scheme, which is being extended to new volunteers, has allowed the service to gain a better understanding of the needs and motivations of its volunteers, while also allowing an under-utilised collection to be used in a meaningful way.

David Nash, the curator for social history at Museums Worcestershire, says: “We have found new ways of working that have changed our perspective on what we can and should offer as a museum service. We have become more flexible, both in assessing and challenging our internal procedures, and in expanding our outreach in new and exciting ways, breaking traditional patterns, widening our participation and better representing our local community.”

For Claire Sully, programme director at volunteer management consultants organisation Volunteer Makers, this flexible approach towards participation holds the key to the future of volunteering. She says that people are seeking different types of opportunities to get involved.

Engage in Gloucester, a volunteering organisation that covers 62 heritage, arts and cultural organisations, worked with Volunteer Makers to create a website that aims to meet this need. It brings together all of the local volunteering opportunities, segmented by the amount of time needed.

“Its aim is to open up volunteering through participation,” Sully says. “It means your volunteers are your visitors, your community and your audience.”

Ash Pryce Portrait by Murdo Macleod
Ash Pryce, volunteer at Lauriston Castle as part of Edinburgh Museums

“Volunteering wasn’t something I set out to do. I had offered to help with Edinburgh Living History’s move to digital production by editing their videos and advising on the best ways to do it, so I knew some of the people involved.

“During the conversation, they offered me a place in their group and having spent most of lockdown doing little in the way of performing I jumped at the chance and found myself really enjoying it.

“I hope when the pandemic eases up I can continue my involvement in real life. Something I always remember from my am-dram days is volunteer performers doing it for the pure love of it. Working with people who genuinely do it for the love is really exciting, and engaging with new ways of working has given everyone a chance to grow in their work. It’s nice to be nice.”

Bringing everyone along

Smaller, volunteer-led organisations have had to weather the pandemic with far less support, both in skills and funding, than their bigger counterparts. Rachel Mackay, manager at Historic Royal Palaces, Kew, has been helping heritage charities to recover from Covid while on part-time furlough. She is concerned for the future of smaller organisations.

“When you look at the progress that some places have made digitally, we should be asking ourselves if we are doing enough to make sure volunteer-led organisations are not being left behind,” she says.

Her website, the Recovery Room, shares resources on recovery planning, while she has worked with several organisations to help them connect with the wider sector.

According to Mackay, many smaller heritage organisations are worried about losing volunteers, their valuable skills and experience, as well as how they will attract diversity to their trustee boards. “Going forward it will be especially important that trustees do not have to be in these locations,” she says.

As restrictions lift and with the vaccination programme bringing a renewed sense of confidence, Hick says it is important that the sector starts to think long-term about what volunteering looks and feels like.

Senior leaders need to understand that volunteering strategies must be about more than “bums on seats”, he says. “It will remain challenging to recruit volunteers if all we do is stay the same. We need to get out and engage the people we want in the places they live and work.”

Caroline Parry is a freelance journalist

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