The rise of the remote volunteer

Lockdown has transformed how we think about volunteering, and this has long-term implications for museums
Covid-19 Volunteers
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Rob Sharp
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A volunteer studies and item from the Science Museum Group collection
A volunteer studies and item from the Science Museum Group collection © Science Museum Group

During closure of museums during the Covid-19 pandemic, many volunteers were given new digital roles that allowed them to continue supporting organisations, and develop new skills, from the safety of their own homes.  

Many volunteers have been unable or unwilling to return to front-line duties due to concerns about the risks of contracting coronavirus, so the need to develop remote volunteering opportunities remains critical.  

“Remote volunteering offers a significant opportunity to expand,” says Tamsin Russell, the Museum Association’s professional development officer. “So groups with an underlying health condition, or those who couldn’t afford the fare to visit a museum, can participate, depending on the project.”  

Creating digital content  

One of the easiest ways volunteers can work from home is by editing, writing or logging digital content. In physical volunteering, participants might provide generalised support such as reception work. At home, volunteers can take on specific research tasks and this can be an opportunity to match volunteers’ aims to the institution’s need – but planning is paramount.  

The London Metropolitan Archive holds the archive dating to 1739 for the Coram and Foundling Hospital, the country’s first home for children whose mothers were unable to care for them. Some of these documents are fragile, so Coram, which is now a children’s charity, has used a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant to digitise 25% of the most at-risk documents.  

The programme, Voices Through Time: The Story of Care, seeks to make the stories held in the archive more accessible. The scanned documents will be transcribed by volunteers on Zooniverse and made available online.  

Coram is also running a series of engagement projects with young people who have been through the care system. These projects will be co-produced with a group of care-experienced volunteers aged 16 to 25, called the Story of Care Ambassadors, who are contacted via Zoom, allowing the project to recruit volunteers nationwide.  

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In setting up the project on Zooniverse during lockdown, Coram has invited some of its Beanstalk volunteers – those working on its literacy project with children in schools who have fallen behind on reading – to help beta-test the transcription process. These volunteers would normally be going into schools to help  children read but this activity has been temporarily suspended due to Covid-19. 

“The group have been transcribing previously digitised medical records from the Foundling Hospital infirmary and feeding back on their experiences so the system can be improved, before being launched publicly,” says Amy Cotterill, the programme manager at Coram. “Zooniverse doesn’t collect data on diversity, so surveys will need to be employed to measure how successfully the project has been in reaching out to broad audiences.”

Rebecca Benson, the volunteer manager at Birmingham Museum Trust, says its museums are using volunteers to help digitise accession registers – and are looking at areas of the collection that the trust hasn’t had the opportunity to research before, including artist biographies. Volunteers have been paired with each other to drive engagement.  

“We have a team that is remotely checking our collection for asbestos,” she says. “They are completing forms remotely. When we get back on site we’ll know details of the hazardous materials in our collection.”  

The Heritage Volunteering Group highlights case studies including the Council for British Archaeology, which uses volunteers to help remotely manage planning applications relating to listed buildings, logging and sharing relevant information for National Amenity Societies. The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford works with volunteers to help promote its schedule of exhihibitions and public events. 

“There’s been a big push for digital volunteering to enable more people to support charities and heritage organisations,” says Matthew Hick, the head of volunteering at the Science Museum Group.  

“But what role does digital volunteering play in your wider volunteering strategy? You often need to understand the implications of it in terms of diversity and inclusion – who can participate in digital activities and who can’t.” 

With the help of remote volunteers, Cynon Valley Museum Trust has produced blogs for a section of its website called Stories from the Collection.  

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“Being on a cloud system means we had access to a lot of imagery,” says William Tregaskes, the museum co-ordinator at Cynon Valley Museum Trust. “We had a good relationship with the heritage service to build a database from which people could build research. This kind of remote volunteering is going to become more important, especially for those who are shielding. Apprehensiveness will fade away as more museums go digital.”

Different skills 

Remote volunteering requires a different array of skills, such as experience using online databases or copyright law. There are implications for staff time, with public-facing work that might need to be double checked.  

For training, there should be a diversity of material suitable for different learning styles – video, text, digital materials are all useful, with clear language that is easy to understand.  

Museums might also need to think about the provision of equipment and infrastructure, including access to broadband. There is a duty of care around the workplace health and safety. “It’s more complex than people might think,” Russell says.  

If volunteers are being employed as a means of community engagement to address loneliness, this has different implications online. Russell points out the isolating effects of lockdown, especially on those shielding or living alone, and recommends museums think about how they might address that.  

Checking in  

Staff will need to be flexible. Time should be spent developing strong working relationships with volunteers. Group projects, such as transcribathon events, might attempt to bring volunteers together. If the volunteer base is global, for instance when employing Zooniverse, then synchronised check-ins might be difficult.  

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Keep in regular contact. Use weekly emails with news and updates on institution news and links, sharing best practice from other museums, regular phone calls, quizzes, telephone calls and surveys. Birmingham Museums Trust holds virtual coffee mornings and a regular Monday email to check in on safety and making sure people feel connected.   

Museums with a specific volunteering profile offline, whether that is age or gender, disability or race, might have specific needs in a digital context, and this needs to be weighed up against current guidelines around any individuals at risk.  

Those with particular mental-health needs might find physical situations more challenging than digital, but this will depend on individuals. However, if these people are recruited online, there may be implications for their ability to physically volunteer in future. Returning to volunteering, or volunteering for the first time, will throw up different issues for different people.  

Finally, don’t forget to check in with other organisations. Benson sits on the Birmingham Volunteers Coordinators Network, a peer support organisation which shares best practice. 

“As a sector, we can currently learn from other organisations that have volunteers,” she says.  

The Heritage Volunteering Group hosts advisory masterclasses on its YouTube and social media channels.  

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