Curtis Museum is run by teams of volunteers with advice from the Hampshire County Council's curators and educationalists

Cuts survey 2013: paid jobs lost to volunteers

Patrick Steel, 01.10.2013
Worry that loss of expertise could see fall in standards
A key finding of the Museums Association’s Cuts Survey 2013, published today, was that 47% of museums saw an increase in the number of volunteers and interns while 37% saw staff cuts over the past year.

Many respondents commented that volunteers were increasingly being used to replace paid front-of-house staff. And one local authority museum in the south of England reported: “We have gone over to a professional volunteer model with many of our front-of-house staff new volunteers.”

Respondents also worried that the loss of staff would impact negatively on standards, and in particular that care and interpretation of the collection would be affected due to a loss of curatorial knowledge and skills.

Mark Taylor, the MA’s director, said: “Interns and volunteers have plenty to offer, but can never replace skilled, experienced staff. We know museums’ public services are being hit and we are increasingly worried about the loss of specialist expertise and the long-term care of collections. It is outrageous that young people should be expected to work for nothing.”

“Unpaid work can be exploitative and, even worse, it reduces the diversity of people who can enter the museum workforce: only wealthier young people can afford to work for nothing, especially in expensive cities like London.”

The survey’s other key findings included a decrease in school visits at 31% of museums, a reduction in temporary exhibitions at 23% of museums, and a reduction of free events on offer at 28% of museums.

Contrary to the government’s plan that museums will attract increased philanthropy, only 28% of museums managed to increase income from individual giving – and 17% experienced a fall in individual giving.

Click here for full details of the Cuts Survey 2013


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08.10.2013, 20:52 a conservator or in order to become a professional conservator I did un-paid internships and volunteered in order to get the much requested (and necessary) experience.
It was a good way to work in the role of a conservator but with the supervision of a senior (or experienced) conservator who could mentor.

I feel while I invested (a lot of time and money) into my career development to get the required degrees (or academic expertise), when applying for jobs I would quite often loose out to individuals that did not have any qualifications in conservation, but maybe some basic experience in handling objects and a 'passion for DIY' and most definately could be paid less than a trained conservator.

It is these individuals that would also very quickly climb the career ladder and become managers of entire departments. In recent years my experience in job applications seemed to indicate that any technical, practical or subject specific specialist knowledge and practical skills, seem to immediately eliminate you from any manager post.
Indeed I had interviews that are called competency based- turned out you do not need to know anything about the technicalities, tools, practices, ethos of the position you applied for- rather than being good at talking, or selling yourself (the competencies of interest reminded me of marketing talk with buzz words such as 'customer service', 'influencing', etc...).

I also feel that there is no room to challenge any processes or work practices that aren't working well, as coming from a traditional museum profession (conservator or curator) there is often an air of being somehow 'elitist and antiquated' in others views and concerns are just dismissed.

So if money is tight, why not look at all jobs (including management) get a museum body that is aware of the associated ethics and philosophies to ensure the internationally and nationally agreed definitions of museums (see ICOM, Museums Association) and carry out an assessment as to what it is the organisation is trying to do what it should do and identify the roles and how many of these are required to get this done?

At the moment with every restructuring, spending cuts there doesn't seem to be any thought or attempts to first define what the museum is actually trying to achieve- and so saving money as an immediate measure seems to be always spread over cutting front of house (and behind the scenes) jobs, leaving less and less people to carry out the required specialist work (and here I include everyone from visitor assistants, cleaners, technicians, learning and education staff, logistics, documentation, curators, outreach staff, collection services, admin, etc... to actively (meaning actually doing the physical work that is required) care, study and make accessible it's own collections.

For the average pay of a manager you can employ two conservators or one curator and 2 assistant (curator/conservator). If volunteering is seen so beneficial even in jobs that require very specific training, knowledge and skills- how about introducing this to management level?

I work regularly with volunteers and I agree that they are absolutely essential to any modern museum organisation and service. They often have much more objective views than us lot 'stuck in a rut' and to some extent a better thinking outside the box.
Therefore it is not right to exploit this very special role of the volunteer as a cost effective measure to slowly replace an active museum profession with ambiguous and in active mass management- but to encourage and create opportunities for the skills, knowledge and enthusiasm of these people to contribute to the processes of work and to be properly acknowledged for it.

When do we stop this talk about museums as businesses? And assess everything on cost effectiveness? How can heritage, arts and the free thinking be encouraged if we debilitate the creative thinking and practices with targets, statistics, right and wrong, profit, loss,feasibility studies, surveys, etc...

I am greatly concerned that we have lost sight of what it is we are trying to do-preserving and making accessible the past for the present and future empowering the individual to learn through caring. If we sell out on our heritage and culture at this rate what will be left to market?
04.10.2013, 08:56
I agree with the previous comment. Sounds as if there are 'good' volunteers (those wanting to put something back into society) and 'scraping around volunteers' (those who want to get a job). At the end of the day, a volunteer is someone who does not get paid for their services, whatever their motivation. The organisation 'profits' from the cost savings obtained.
04.10.2013, 10:47
Addendum: And if it's okay to 'profit' from the help of volunteers in front of house roles, why is it not okay to 'profit' from the help of volunteers in positions where specialist expertise is required. The issue is that the experienced people in the industry who are losing their jobs are willing to 'volunteer' in more senior jobs and are hence effectively undercutting those in paid roles. This drives down pay for everyone, just as volunteering does in general. If you think it's okay to rely heavily on volunteers in positions where less experise is required, you cannot argue against having 'volunteers' in more experienced positions.
MA Member
03.10.2013, 23:34
I would like to reply to the comment made by Maurice Davies having made an earlier contribution to this discussion. Firstly I find his tone derisory and do not understand how wanting to gain experience to make one more employable and volunteering for the sake of contributing to society should be poles apart. I volunteered at the Paralympic Games, worked as a classroom assistant in a local school whilst reading for my degree, worked as a volunteer at a London museum, an intern at a different museum and a volunteer at my local collections. Why? Yes because I wanted to contribute to society, yes because I wanted experience of working in different sectors and yes because I hoped it would make me more employable. Is this not a good ambition to have? I joined the Museums Association because I enjoy visiting museums, reading about the sector and not unsurprisingly studying humankind's cultural and social history intrigue me. I have never viewed my actions as "scraping around" and I am sorry that there are senior individuals in the sector that take this view. I appreciate that the museums sector is challenged for cash, that there is considerable dissatisfaction with the direction the industry has taken since the cut backs and although I may never have the opportunity for paid employment in the sector ( if I choose my career to take this route), I do worry how such a negative outlook will affect my museum experience in the longer term as a member of the visiting public.
03.10.2013, 14:03
Your article states that "paid jobs (are) lost to volunteers" so you are equating 37% of organisations cutting staff with 47% of organisations that have seen an increase in volunteer numbers, as a cause and effect, while only giving one anecdotal example. In my experience cuts mean that post isn't filled by anyone. Any museum that replaces paid staff with volunteers like for like will find themselves in hot water. I am getting increasingly concerned about an anti volunteering backlash that seems to be happening at the moment. Volunteers are the life blood of this sector. They are our links to our communities. They have a special relationship with our organisations and our visitors. Not to mention the many volunteer run museums or those museums with only two members of staff. Volunteers come from all walks of life and volunteer for a whole range of reasons they are not only people trying to find employment. I agree that we have a serious issue with entry routes into this sector. We are learning organisations and should do better in providing paid work based entry routes and developing the staff we have. All internships should be paid and lumping them with volunteering in this survey is unhelpful. We have been hand wringing for long enough and it's about time that anyone in a position of power who can make decisions on workforce structures and recruitment policy should be asking themselves can we do better or are we adding to the problems. Volunteering is NOT the issue here it is how we are managing our workforce. Unfortunately it seems we can do little about the cuts but perhaps we can think more creatively about our staffing
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
03.10.2013, 16:26
Just to clarify, the Museums Association hugely supports the work volunteers do with museums. In the press release we sent out with the survey, MA director Mark Taylor said 'Interns and volunteers have plenty to offer.' As the comment says there are many excellent volunteer-run museums.

We have two concerns: firstly, the replacement of experienced, paid staff with less skilled and knowledgeable volunteers and secondly the exploitation (sometimes self-exploitation) of people desperate for a career in museums. There's a world of difference between volunteering because you love what you're doing or want to put something back into society and desperately scraping around to try to get work experience and make yourself more employable.
MA Member
03.10.2013, 13:47
The ability to volunteer might not make things easy for other graduates who have to work (at least part time) to support themselves. I don't think volunteers are threatening jobs but I do think the necessity of needing several months volunteer experience before getting a post is affecting economic diversity in the sector. Coming from a working class background myself, I lived at home after Uni and took a 9-5 factory job and volunteered on evenings and weekends (and holidays!) in order to gain experience. I was volunteering alongside people who didn't need to work and who had family financial support so they could get in more variety and more volunteering time. If you imagine this as a competition (as job applications essentially are!) I might not have looked as favourable as other candidates with financial freedom.

Now I work in the sector, I see that this has increased, there is a very clear distinction from those who can and those who can't. It saddens me that people coming into the sector might not have the diversity that is needed in order to provide a service for everyone to access museums.
I have a great view of volunteers and of volunteering, I just worry that the very standards of how the service works can be seen as off-putting and elitist as well as unattainable to some candidates who might have a lot to offer the sector.
Sally Munday
Volunteer Coordinator, Science Museum Group
03.10.2013, 13:26
Surely an increase in volunteer numbers should be celebrated? They may not have been recruited to replace paid staff. A good volunteering model uses the skills and expertise (they're not all non-skilled & unemployed) of volunteers to support staff and our orgnaisations to reach it's goal. It's commonly known that it is bad practice to replace paid staff with volunteers and I am pretty confident that as a sector, heritage are pretty good at upholding this.
On the other hand, if it's the difference between keeping a museum open or losing it forever and there are voluneters willing to take the lead then what really is the best option?
It's a tough one, definitely, but we can't just blanket blame decreasing jobs or expertise on an increase in volunteer numbers. It's always more complicated.
03.10.2013, 10:03
The fact that volunteering has been for years been presented as the way into the profession has now come back to bite everyone! A major rethink is required. [deleted by moderator]. Abolishing volunteering roles would put pressure on the staff that are left behind but that may be the price people will have to pay if they want to keep their (paid) jobs.
03.10.2013, 09:43
As a Front of House person, I feel that the use of volunteers to supplement hard pressed paid staff to be a positive step.
In reality, over the years due to financial pressures Front of House staff have suffered most from volunteers replacing paid staff. Are we not part of Museums too ? We have financial pressures also, yet it seems that this issue of volunteers has only raised its head because of the threat to Curatorial positions.
Museums are not just about collections, without numbers through the doors and the support of the public they wont survive, especially so in these challenging times and the focus of museums on income generation.
Unpaid volunteers will never give the quality of service and support that an efficient, trained and life experienced Front of House person will provide.
02.10.2013, 22:55
I run a temporary exhibitions company and work for a large city museum, so I have seen first hand the erosion of staff and service from every department, including front of house, education and curatorial. In fact our flagship museum in the city was operating with just 2 education staff to cover over 1000 visitors a day! More and more we are seeing interns and in particular volunteers being used for events, workshops and day to day work in the museum. While curatorial posts remain vacant for years we continue to strategically place volunteers into positions to cover gaps in research and cataloguing to name but two areas that have suffered badly due to staff cuts in recent years.

From an exhibitions point of view, I have noticed a drop off in bookings for temporary exhibitions in 2013/14 with some local authorities dropping their temporary programmes altogether! These are the exhibitions that bring people back to museums and keep museum profiles high. Smaller museums in particular will suffer without regular temporary exhibition programmes.
MA Member
02.10.2013, 17:51
As a new graduate I worked as an unpaid intern at a museum in London and collections volunteer in my home county. I view that I made a valid contribution to both institutions which was reflected in general public and supervisor feedback. Why did I work 5 days a week unpaid when I could have been earning this summer? It was as you have indicated to gain a plethora of experience and to decide if this is a sector I would like to enter when I have completed my Masters. Whilst financial recompense would have been gratefully received, I come from a generation that has had to fund their university education and I have taken the view that work experience is part of that education. I consider that only individuals able to demonstrate commitment irrespective of capital can take up these roles. My role did not replace that of a salaried workforce to my knowledge and I was very grateful for the opportunity and training which was given to me.
03.10.2013, 10:03
Barriers to entry to jobs in the museum world are indeed very high. For years volunteering has been presented as the entry route into the profession, and now it is in fact considerably more likely to get in if you come with skills gained outside the museum sector, for instance in retail, fundraising, teaching, document management, general admin, secretarial and even acting.
02.10.2013, 17:33
I have worked as a volunteer and with volunteers for many years now in the Cultural Services of Local Authorities in England and Scotland. I have two questions for your readers:
- How do you pay a mortgage (or even buy food or electricity) if you are working as a a volunteer?
- What (therefore) is the social profile of your voluteers?

After answering these questions, do we see a pattern emerging as to the equality/universality - or otherwise - of access to Cultural Services?
MA Member
02.10.2013, 17:17
I agree with Linda Ross. Without volunteers a lot of museums wouldn't even exist and some would not be able to open as often without them.

I do not believe use of volunteers reduces diversity, in fact if anything I think that it can in fact increase the diversity of ideas and experience being brought into the museum. Curators/conservators etc.can get very "bogged down" with process and sometimes an outside view can bring something into real life focus. However, this relies on museums listening to their workforce, voluntary or otherwise and this is where it can sometimes go awry.
MA Member
02.10.2013, 17:12
I am currently undertaking a full time, unpaid internship with the National Trust after 3 years of volunteering at various museums, archives and National Trust properties. In that time I have also gained an MA in Museum & Heritage Management. and done freelance museum consultancy work. I have been unable to find any sort of regular work in that time, in the sector despite my qualifications, volunteer hours and determination. I have now given up with the idea/ dream of having a career in this sector. I will complete my internship and then try and get any job which will, for once, pay me.

I appreciate that the sector is going through a tough time but I am a person, with skills, giving my time and efforts, for free, and I am receiving absolutely nothing in return.

I know I am not the only person feeling this way and would like to add that I currently have two other part time jobs that enable me to continue with my unpaid internship, I am not a 'wealthy young person'. I am willing to work hard and I have done, but enough is enough! There will be a loss of curatorial knowledge and skills in the future because no-one is willing to pay younger, trained professionals and let new blood into the sector now.
Linda Ross
MA Member
Curator, Scottish Maritime Museum
02.10.2013, 16:14
Although the evidence gathered speaks for itself, this is a very negative view of the place of volunteers within museums. We need to be careful with something like this - it was picked up by the BBC yesterday, suggesting to the public that museums' use of volunteers is a bad we 'use' them. As we all know, not all volunteers replace paid jobs. People actively seek to volunteer to expand their experience and put their own skills to use for their own reasons, whether they are looking to start a career in the sector or they are retired and want to use their time usefully to help themselves or others. This is certainly (and fortunately) the experience of volunteers I have from my workplace, where we supplement rather than replace staff.

It can be confusing for the sector. On one hand, we read evidence-based articles like this which can make us feel guilty for over-use use of volunteers. On the other, we read something like the Museums Change Lives vision, which highlights the fact that through volunteering, people "connect with others and give something back". We can't dispute the fact that volunteers in some cases do replace paid staff, but need to keep things in perspective and ensure that we continue to bear in mind the mutual benefits of volunteering. In light of a news report like this we need to remember the positive impact that volunteers have on us, but essentially, the role that we can and do play in their lives.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
03.10.2013, 16:27
I agree with you Linda. there are many types of volunteers and peoplem volunteer for many reasons. There's a world of difference between volunteering because you love what you're doing or want to put something back into society and desperately scraping around to try to get work experience and make yourself more employable.
02.10.2013, 16:11
I have seen my hours cut and being replaced by untrained, unpaid volunteers. They are keen and friendly but front-of-house standards have steadily fallen. Increasingly, volunteers are being used as paid staff substitutes with little or no training given to volunteers - there's no one left to train them.
MA Member
03.10.2013, 12:42
In the current round of financial cuts, it seems to me that the question is a choice between no staff at all or volunteers.
Rather than expressing unhappiness at volunteers, surely the way ahead is to get funding for professionals.
The sad thing is that using museum professionals to attract funding is not a great use of their time. (indeed volunteers here could well be useful)
For comparison, In the academic world, a depressing reality is that the research staff spend too much of their time looking for funding.
In the absence of alternatives, attracting funding is a more productive way ahead than griping about volunteers, when in today's reality, there is simply not enough money in the system.