People are motivated to volunteer in museums for all sorts of reasons. Some do it to add vital skills and experiences on to their CVs. Some do it because it allows them to work closely with collections they love. Some do it because they have a bit of free time which they would like to use constructively.
Whatever an individual volunteer’s motivation, all volunteer programmes need to have the same essential ingredients to be successful. Firstly, the relationship between the volunteer and the hosting organisation must be mutually beneficial. If the balance of power is skewed into making one party a ‘taker’ and the other a ‘giver’, then you can have some big problems. Secondly, the relationship should be supportive. The hosting organisation needs to invest the time and resources into adequately inducting, training and supervising its volunteers. Without this, you run the risk of wasting volunteers’ time and fostering bad relationships. Finally, the volunteering experience should be enjoyable – because fun things are always good.
In a previous post, I talked about using volunteering to fill vital skills gaps from the perspective of an emerging museum professional. If that is why you are volunteering, then it will be particular important that the experiences in which you invest your valuable time (and money) are good ones rather than bad ones.
My time volunteering at Guildford Museum is an example of a good experience. When I started, I was made to feel welcome, I was given full training, and had access to help throughout as I developed in the role. I was giving the Museum valuable help in a data entry project, and later (still as a volunteer) was given responsibilities for data cleaning and quality control. In return for this hard work, my supervisors supported my professional development through offering to look over job applications, running CV workshops, inviting me to external training opportunities and providing references. On top of all that, I enjoyed my time there. It offered me plenty of learning opportunities, bought me face-to-face with some great objects, and there were regular socials with other volunteers and staff members. The arrangement was mutually beneficial, my supervisors were supportive, and it was fun.
I have been subjected to one bad volunteering experience. It was an unpaid art digitisation ‘internship’ for a local government heritage service a few boroughs away from my home. The role essentially involved photographing artworks, with a bit of mounting, framing and photoshop thrown in. The supervisor was lovely, but hardly ever there. What training I did have was delivered mostly by other volunteers, or from me working things out for myself. The worst bit of all was the company of one of my fellow interns.
Working in a hot, windowless and cramped room with someone who won’t ever shut up is never easy. It wasn’t just his general garrulousness which ground me down, it was the fact that he just seemed incapable of being able to tell that I had no interest whatsoever in what he was saying. I would be sat, head in hands, staring at my desk, grinding my teeth, and silently praying to Jesus, Anubis and Thor from him to just stop. Yet still he went on, over the sound of BBC Radio 4 that played out in the distance like the plaintiff cries of a shepherd’s pipes. Sometimes the radio would give him inspiration. One day I had two hours on his opinion about House of Lords reform. Another day it was a three-hour retelling of the story of the Battle of Britain, with all the intricate details you never want to know.
Most of the time he was just a crushing bore, but there were times when he made me feel uncomfortable. A feature on the radio about Hong Kong prompted him to put his fingers to the outer corners of his eyes, stretch, and do his best impression of a Chinese person. On another occasion, he told me how he had once got affection for free from a sex worker through the sheer force of his charming personality. Of course, he didn’t actually use the term ‘sex worker’ – he used the term ‘whore’.
Needless to say, the arrangement was more parasitic than mutually beneficial. My supervisor, while not not supportive, was never there. And I hated every second of it. As soon as I felt I had gained as many skills and as much experience as I was going to get, I quit. It was cowardly for me not to tell my supervisor that part of my reason for leaving was having to work with the world’s worst man, but frankly I just wanted to run and hide.
Assess your current volunteer roles
If you are volunteering to emerge as museum professional, please do assess your experience within the critical framework of mutualism, supportiveness and enjoyability. If your role falls short on either of the three, you need to talk to your supervisor. If nothing changes, then quit. Your time is precious and is not to be squandered.