Anger over voluntary curator role

Unpaid position calls for experience and postgraduate qualification
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Rebecca Atkinson
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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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