No doubt about it, volunteering is one of the best ways to get that first paid job in the museum sector. It is very important to remember, however, that volunteering is never, ever free. Ever.
Firstly, there are the costs to the hosting organisation. Recruitment, induction, training and continuing supervision will require serious investment in time by museum staff. Then there are the costs incurred by you, the volunteer, which can be a very big deal.
Most museum voluntary roles, like most paid jobs, occur within ‘office hours’, that magical window between 9.00 and 17.00 hrs on Mondays to Fridays. The logical conclusion is that by volunteering within that window, you are giving up time which otherwise could be spent in (non-heritage) paid employment.
Then you have to physically get to your hosting institution. Travel within the United Kingdom is not cheap. Duties on petrol are far higher than in the United States. Rail fares are amongst the highest in Europe, and train services are routinely crippled by disputes between unions and company bosses. Bus services in rural areas are increasingly irregular or non-existent.
The fact is that volunteering costs a lot of money. But there a few ways in which you can try to minimise your exposure to these costs as a volunteer.
When looking around for voluntary roles, you might be drawn by the ‘big name’ museums in your nearest city, especially if that should be somewhere like London or Edinburgh. But there can be some real benefits to looking at smaller museums closer to home.
Firstly, they’re nearer, which will cut down on your travel expenses. Secondly, because they are less well-known, volunteer openings will probably occur more frequently and be less competitive. Finally, they are likely to offer you a much richer and more diverse experience than in a larger museum – but more on that later.
My first voluntary role was in Guildford, 15 miles west of my home town of Reigate. An off-peak return train ticket cost around £8, whereas an off-peak London travelcard (20 miles north) cost around £16. By staying local, I was able to make some big savings on my travel.
Look for roles that pay expenses
When I felt that I needed to get a bit more voluntary experience beyond Guildford Museum, I turned to London. At £16 a pop for an off-peak travelcard (a return ticket to London, plus unlimited tube and bus travel for one day), it would be pricey. Some voluntary roles asked for 9am starts, which would mean a peak-time ticket. At around £28, I simply could not afford it.
Not all museums are able to offer to pay volunteers’ expenses. Neither the V&A not the British Museum do so. However, plenty of the London nationals do offer some kind of remuneration, as do some local authority and independent museums. When I volunteered at the National Army Museum, they paid for the whole shebang, and laid on a pretty decent free lunch. The Horniman Museum paid £12 towards my travel to London, and the National Maritime Museum £10 – both were vital subsidies without which I simply would have been priced out of volunteering.
Negotiate your start time
As mentioned above, there can be a big disparity in the price of train tickets depending on the time of day at which you travel. Divided into peak-time and off-peak, early morning departures are typically twice the price of their mid-morning cousins.
Travelling into London from Surrey, the first cheap train can get me to London Bridge or London Victoria stations for about 10 am. Negotiating a start time for a volunteer role to factor in peak and off-peak trains is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. Do it. Both the Horniman and the Maritime Museum initially wanted me to start for 10 am, and both let me start at 10.30am instead – saving me about £12 per journey.
Some volunteering can be done from home. Known as remote volunteering or e-volunteering, all you need is some spare time, a computer and an internet connection. Anna Jackson has compiled a handy list of current or recent remote volunteering opportunities here: https://thatannalass.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/remote-volunteering/
Do your (paid) work at evenings and on weekends
Finding any job can be difficult at the moment. After I finished at University, I was extremely lucky that I could keep my part-time job at supermarket chain Morrisons and go back to live with my parents. My job at Morrisons was only in the evenings and at weekends, which meant I had a whole lot of office hours freed-up for volunteering. At one point in 2013/4, my weekly schedule ran something like this.
Monday: 9.30 – 15.30 volunteering at the National Army Museum
Tuesday: 10.30 – 15.30 volunteering at Guildford Museum, 17.00 – 22.00 working at Morrisons
Thursday: 17.00 – 22.00 working at Morrisons
Friday: 10.30 – 17.00 volunteering at the National Maritime Museum
Saturday: 7.30 – 14.30 working at Morrisons
Of course, many of you will have to work the nine to five just to pay your rent and keep food on the table. Beyond remote volunteering, your options are limited – and that’s one of the most rotten and unfair things about the museum sector. But working in a supermarket, restaurant or bar – while maybe not having the best labour conditions – can afford you the freedom to grasp the best volunteering opportunities out there.