Anger over voluntary curator role

Rebecca Atkinson, 20.08.2013
Unpaid position calls for experience and postgraduate qualification
A recruitment advert on Arts Council England’s (ACE) website for an experienced and qualified curator on a voluntary basis in Newham has prompted an angry reaction from the sector.

The role, which closed today, calls for a curator with appropriate postgraduate qualification and curatorial experience to “take forward and build [Newham’s] 2014 programme of exhibitions and related workshops and events”.

Click here to view the job advert (pdf)

The advert by Newham New Deal Partnership states: “The curator will also be part of a new team spearheading the development of its Curating Newham programme."

The successful candidate will work at least two days a week during the six-month appointment on a voluntary basis. As such, the position does not qualify for the national minimum wage.

Jessica Wanamaker, chief executive of Newham New Deal Partnership, which is a not-for-profit, said the job complied with ACE’s recruitment guidelines but declined to comment further.

The advert has caused concern in the sector. Maurice Davies, head of policy and communications at the Museums Association, warned it could be seen as exploitative by targeting recent museum studies graduates desperate to get a foot on the ladder.

“There’s a big difference between volunteering in museums for pleasure and doing it because you’re desperate for a job,” he added.

ACE’s internship guidelines state that the majority of interns – defined as taking on short term positions and fulfilling “worker status” through their responsibilities – should be paid the minimum wage.  

A spokesman for ACE said it allows charities to advertise voluntary positions on its website as long as they adhere to its terms and conditions.

Nick Poole, chief executive of the Collections Trust, which is running a campaign for good curatorship, said the museum sector needed to follow in the footsteps of libraries and agree a no-volunteer-substitute policy.

“It is not appropriate to offer this kind of role on a voluntary basis. It devalues curators and their skills, and is indicative of a short-term approach to curatorship that I find worrying considering the long-term nature of what museums do,” he added.

And Alan Leighton, national secretary at Prospect union, said the case highlighted the impact of funding cuts on arts and culture, with organisations unable to fund paid positions: “This role is exempt from the national minimum wage yet in every way it is a ‘job’. What’s to stop them bringing in another volunteer after six months?”  

On Twitter the job was described as "disgraceful" by @helena_bonett. "Only curators with disposable incomes need apply," she added.

And @lfcrossley said: “Asking for trained curator means it's a job.”

Meanwhile, a debate about unpaid internships has been taking place on Twitter under the hashtag #freearchaeology and in several blogs – including Doug’s Archaeology and History@Work. 

Organisations such as Museums Galleries Scotland offers a paid internship programme.

The September issue of Museums Journal includes a news story on museums offering zero-hours contracts.


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Hans-Christian Andersen
MA Member
Senior Lecturer in Cultural Tourism, Newcastle Business School
28.08.2013, 11:50
Is it a co-incidence that the word "union" only appears in the original article, not in any of the comments that follow? How can these expressions of anger be moved forward to some kind of collective action, aiming to protect the professional status (and employment) of curators?
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
27.08.2013, 11:59
I've just had a look at the broadcasting industry's guidance that Glynis Powell helpfully metnioned. This suggests it's pretty likely that the 'voluntary' position being discussed here is in law actaully a 'worker' or 'employee' and so by law needs to be paid at least the national minumum wage. The guidance makes it look as if many so-called voluntary positions in museums are in fact jobs. It says that if there is 'a requirement on the individual to perform the work personally' and the organisation 'is relying on an individual's specific skills' then the courts may rule they are an employee. The guidance is well worth a quick read (it's quite long and the key bit is on p11!)
MA Member
23.08.2013, 13:21
When is the Arts Council, as the NGO now in charge of museums, going to make a stand on this? They seem to think it is OK for museums and libraries – two cultural areas they have recently taken over – as being fair game for ‘volunteer’ posts in a whole range of areas that they would fight against if they were in an art form specialism. You can guarantee they would not fund theatres who had ‘volunteer’ artistic directors or art galleries that had ‘volunteer’ artist in residence schemes. They would see this as amateur and so very low in priority in terms of funding. Yet somehow they turn a blind eye to the growing number of supposed ‘volunteer’ roles in museums – devaluing the sector. When are they going to come out and fight for the sector? Seven years ago or so, lots of arts organisations had huge uplifts in their grants to pay their staff professional salaries, which is of course valid. It is about time they started to champion professional wages in the museum sector – and not just for the very few ‘partner museums’. The sector is so much bigger than those privileged few who generally seem to be self-serving rather than real partners. Arts Council should come out and take a lead and not apply different rules to their favourite art forms whilst the museum sector seems to be more and more devalued.
22.08.2013, 18:37
I would like to address the part about MGS offering paid internships. When I saw these internships being advertised for people without postgrad degrees I thought this would be perfect. As a history/history of art graduate (degree paid for me by the Scottish government along with an income-assessed bursary) with volunteer experience I cannot afford to pay for a postgraduate degree at present. I was unsuccessful in even securing an interview, which is understandable given the ridiculous volume of applications the posts received (10,000?). I later discovered, however, that the very fact I had volunteer experience would have gone against me as MGS immediately discounted applicants who could afford to volunteer. They were looking for people with no experience or background in the sector, who may even not have considered a career in museums previously, and could bring different skills. It seems like there is no point in gaining qualifications in the field unless you are rich enough to be able to apply for these ridiculous kinds of voluntary posts. Otherwise you might as well not waste your time or (limited) money as the employers/organisations don't seem to want to pay people with relevant degrees or experience!
22.08.2013, 16:58
Volunteering in all kinds of roles is becoming more prevalent, some charities and organisations virtually run on volunteers, usually those who have worrked/retired and can afford to do this. Sadly this is depriving younger people who need to work of proper job opportunites but this is happening in all sectors as evidenced by the number of government training schemes where young people get 'jobs'/apprentiships or training for 6 months to take them off benefit and give them 'experience'.. yes a few may be lucky and get jobs as a result, maybe years down the line but the majority is cheap or unpiad labour.
22.08.2013, 15:50
I have just spent three years doing a History of Art and museums study degree gaining a 2:1 at the age of 48. I have trained as a teacher and have an advanced Cert.ed. After all this training which was extremely good and thorough it is perturbing to find that I still can not get a job unless I do voluntary work. Especially as I have done voluntary work as part of my degree supporting the curator 'Bill Longshaw' of an exhibition called the 'Liverpool Doors'. Friends have got positions who came from London but I have not been so lucky so far. It kind of undermines all the work the university has done in preparing us to find we still have to do voluntary work when we leave University. It is unthinkable that position of curator should be voluntary with the responsibility that goes with it. I have also found a certain taint of snobbery from those who work in museums, such as the British Museum, as to the type of candidate they are looking for, such as majoring in medieval church history from Oxford university as an example, though recruitment staff are keen to try to get candidates from all backgrounds.
22.08.2013, 17:06
I have volunteered at The British Museum after doing a degree at Nottingham and know staff working there who are not from Oxford.. I've found job specifications from all kinds of institutions asking for vast experience and local knowledge whilst paying fairly miserly amounts. Thats the sector we work in (or rather I am unemployed in too at present). There are so many people out there looking for jobs, companies can afford to be picky. I hope, unlike me you havent been told after retraining that you really should go back to your previous career because thats probably what you are good at... as I was at one interview.
22.08.2013, 11:01
Welcome to my world !
Front of house staff have been made redundant and their posts filled by volunteers or casual staff for years, if a job exists then it should paid.
22.08.2013, 10:25
Every time I look at the vacancy site I use to hunt for jobs, most of them are asking for volunteer collections officers or volunteer managers etc. These clearly aren't regular volunteer roles. As Helen says, a volunteer is not contractually obligated to turn up for work yet I suspect these roles expect just that. It's unethical and makes it tougher for those of us trying to land our foot in the door for paid work.
22.08.2013, 17:11
Yes and who gets the brunt when the volunteers don't turn up? The few staff who are poorly paid and who have to then explain to visitors why something is closed or as I experienced at one site 'run' by volunteers, why the cafe wasn't open. Still, their a charity so no-one minds do they when they've driven for 2 hours to go visit....
Helen Giles
MA Member
Museum Curator, Norris Museum
22.08.2013, 09:46
This is madness! Volunteers are the life blood of museum and galleries and offer tremendous support. Being a volunteer means that they are not contractually obliged to turn up for work, so what's to stop the person in this post not coming in to work on one of his or her allotted work days if they don't feel like it or have other commitments, or if they are ill (they wouldn't be entitled to sick pay of course!)? Or even if they decide that they don't want to do it anymore? They wouldn't have to give notice. Wouldn't this have a disastrous effect on the exhibition schedule at Newham. Have they considered that? Crazy!
22.08.2013, 14:04
Ive been working as a volunteer alongside two other jobs for three years. Recently I had to wait 6 months for clearance to work on an unpaid project with another volunteer which we ran together. Both of us treated the position as a job and were afraid to miss a day as it may affect any future employment opportunities. I think a lot of volunteers would feel the same way as we're all fighting to get the experience for a minute number of paid positions. I've managed to fund myself with other jobs so far but rarely have a day off so this isn't something that can be sustained long term.
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
22.08.2013, 10:10
It's also not clear what will happen after six months, in terms of the role and the work that has already taken place.
MA Member
21.08.2013, 22:26
Doesn't surprise me at all. When a two year Museum Manager contract that I had ended the role was offered (as a voluntary position) to one of the volunteers who was doing a post grad museum qualification who had no previous experience in the sector.
Omar Kholeif
Head of Residency and Media, SPACE
21.08.2013, 20:25
I am delighted to see that this issue has come to the fore. I work in the area where this advert was posted and when I read it I was outraged, but was unsure about what forum to bring this issue to.

As a side note, apparently the DCMS has decided to move the job title 'Curator' under 'Retail' in terms of its points of categorisation.
MA Member
21.08.2013, 19:00

Thanks for the article. These employers should be named and shamed and it would be great if you can take it a bit further.

Did you ask Ms Wanamaker how much she earns? (Might be worth checking on the Charities Commission website and the group's annual accounts to see how much she and other people in the organisation earn?)

Has Newham New Deal Partnership applied for any grants to fund the post? If not, why not? Shows a lack of managerial nous if they can't raise the money somehow to pay a decent wage for two days a week?

Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
22.08.2013, 10:42
Unfortunately Newham NDP didn't want to comment on this issue.

I think it's worth pointing out that it is a small charity and works with a large number of volunteers from the local community (60% of whom could be classified as being on the margins of society).

Its volunteer programme aims to involve local people in the work it does and to provide support, training and opportunities for them. Which is all fine (in my opinion).

The problem is that this role appears to target a very specific type of individual (ie someone who wants to work in museums for a living) rather than someone local who wants to undertake a community projects.

Its accounts ending March 2012 can be found here -

It states: "In addition to the Chief Executive, Newham NDP employs three full time and six part time staff. At least half of our staff started their work with us as volunteers and most continue to undertake volunteering roles outside of their working hours."
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
22.08.2013, 10:52
Sorry, I pressed "send" a bit too soon.

Salaries during the year were £200,000. No member of staff received renumeration of more than £60,000.

Volunteer expenses were £6,000.
MA Member
21.08.2013, 23:56
The Newnham New Deal Partnership is a successor body to one of the last government's New Deal for Communities organisations, in this case the West Ham and Plaistow New Deal for Communities which spent some £54m trying to improve life and job opps for people in Newnham. The new organisation secures grants and trades goods and services from its venues to raise money to support its charitable activities. According to one website i checked it has five paid employees and 89 volunteers, and the organisation's website says it has a board of 12 Directors, a Chief Executive, two Community Development Workers, a Facilities Manager and Reception Staff.

More importantly its website says: Newham NDP is a dynamic young charity established to work with the communities of Newham with the ambition to impact across East London. Our vision is of proactive, can-do and creative communities without barriers where everyone is able to fulfil their potential and live in dignity.

Whether living in dignity extends to being paid a living wage is not mentioned. Perhaps they actually want to 'employ' a local for free to give them experience. It does depend on what they actually think a curator does and what a skilled and experienced person would bring to such a post. People bandy the name 'curator' around fairly freely these days!!
MA Member
22.08.2013, 00:06
The chief executive, Jessica Wanamaker (younger sister of the famous actress) will know what a curator does as she used to work for the Institute of Conservation. Would be interesting therefore to know her reasons for not paying for a curator.

I did spot they had a position going for an experienced office manager, two days a week, similarly unpaid, so it's not just curators who can be acquired on the cheap.
Laura Humphreys
MA Member
CDA PhD Candidate, Geffrye Museum & Queen Mary, University of London
21.08.2013, 16:38
Agree wholeheartedly with Nick Poole that this "devalues curators and their skills," as if that weren't happening enough with horrendous cuts and terrible wages for highly-specialised roles.

I'd put this up alongside the Ben Uri Gallery routinely recruiting half a dozen unpaid interns to work in Central London every year, for 3-4 days a week, on posts that look in every way to be jobs. Voluntary roles should never replace jobs; if you can't afford to recruit people, then an advert for a volunteer shouldn't be the short cut around a much bigger problem.

It's a disgrace, but as Maurice Davies also points out, as long as there are young graduates desperate for experience, these horrendously exploitative placements will always be filled.
21.08.2013, 15:55
I have had a concern for several years now that the places that had previously advertised museum jobs are now being filled with adverts for short contracts or voluntary roles. We all know that in the past museum professionals had to have some voluntary museum experience but today it is clear voluntary positions are being offered only as a way for a museum/gallery to save money or replace people who have been made redundant. Please can the MA find a way to encourage the job sites to separate the paid and voluntary job adverts.

Also, it is clear at the moment that there is a large number of museum trained people who are either under employed or unemployed. Museums know this and are relying on the fact that these people are desperate to add to their CVs and in truth are willing to do most things asked. Is there any other sector in the economy that operates like this? And if museums are taking on voluntary staff, who is training/supporting these volunteers to make their placements a valuable time for them as well as the museum?
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
21.08.2013, 16:34
Yes - journalism!

It's very common (and valuable) for trainee journalist to do internships; as with museum professionals, it's a good way to get experience in a tough market.

But during my placement on a national newspaper I met an intern who had been there for six months on an on-going basis.

She was lucky - her parents lived in London and didn't mind supporting her. She couldn't understand why I was only there a month.

I remember she said: “I’m hoping they’ll give me a job eventually.”
Glynis Powell
MA Member
MDO Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull, Warwickshire Museum & Museum Service
21.08.2013, 21:00
when I worked in broadcasting there was a work experience/volunteer agreement in place - not always complied with , but at least it was an agreement between main stakeholders of the industry (find it here It made clear distinctions between work experience , volunteers and 'doing a job' and what the conditions and expectations should be. Also legally, (it points out in Appendix A) if a volunteer is relied upon by the 'employer' to use their own specific, special skills (eg established curatorial skills) then they become an 'employee' and therefore entitled to at least minimum wage . This is surely such an instance ...
Rob Walker
Professor, Univ of East Anglia
21.08.2013, 15:10
This is a trend that has been evident for the last several years and it is a slippery slope. No-one wants to deny qualified people the opportunity to gain good experience but in the end this kind of job is divisive (who can afford to work unpaid in London?) and devalues the skills and qualifications of those who have worked very hard for many years on very low incomes to get an entry level job. It is good to see the MA encouraging discussion and taking a stand.
MA Member
21.08.2013, 14:15
This was also advertised via Guardian Jobs. I, and others, had a discussion with them about their policy for advertising voluntary roles. Their line was that 'charities depend on volunteers so we will continue to advertise voluntary positions'. It's interesting to note that they respect the role as a professional role that requires knowledge and experience, yet do not want to pay for it. Interesting to note that this is also a charity that seems to have a substantial amount of funding from the local authority. I wonder if this is a new project or if there had previously been a paid incumbent in the authority or elsewhere?
MA Member
26.08.2013, 12:12
I once moved about 150 miles from my parents house to volunteer at a museum to get the experience I needed as there were no opportunities nearby. I paid my rent by doing a near National Min Wage job. But that was not London and just one day per week. Are there really suitably qualified strivers out there who would take on such a responsibility?