Think a voluntary role in the British Museum or Louvre will add more clout to your CV than one in a small, local museum? You might want to reconsider.

As I mentioned earlier, volunteering in a smaller, local museum can save you a lot of money if you live far away from a major city. There is also the fact that volunteer openings at these smaller museums might be less competitive than those at more prestigious institutions. However, the one area in which small museum volunteering can trump big museum volunteering is in the diversity of experience on offer.

Big museums usually recruit volunteers for specific projects or for specific roles confined to specific departments. That can make them great if that role is one you have identified as a key skills gap. If you have any particular interests too, it can put you in contact with globally-renowned experts in that particular field. Having a big, prestigious name on your CV can never do any harm. Big museums are also more likely to pay volunteer expenses, and your volunteer ID can get you a whole host of discounts and freebies at other museums. There are all sorts of benefits to volunteering in a big museum.

Yet if big museums lack one thing, it is the sort of ill-defined, general dogsbody position that makes up perhaps the majority of voluntary roles in the smallest of our museums. What such a position might lack in structure and formal learning objectives, it can more than make up for in its capacity to give you experience of absolutely everything.

This reflects the differences in staffing levels and working cultures that exists between smaller and larger museums. The type of work carried out by a single collections officer in a smaller museum could, in a larger museum, be divided between documentation, curatorial, registration and conservation staff. The staff in smaller museums are forced by their circumstances to be generalists, with a wide range of skills and expertise. Conversely, staff in larger museums are generally more specialised within a much narrower field.

My voluntary role at the National Army Museum was fantastic. It gave me first-hand experience of collections work, with a good amount of documentation, as we sorted, packed, inventoried and located material prior to a major decant. But it was just that, all of the time, with very little variation. Similarly, a role I had at the National Maritime Museum as a ship portrait cataloguing volunteer was extremely interesting, and allowed me to work with one of the World’s best collections of its type. But it was still just cataloguing.

My voluntary role at (the much smaller) Guildford Museum had started out as being tied to a specific project, but that changed very quickly. Over the two and a half years I spent there, I got up to the following activities:

  1. Data entry
    2. Data cleaning and quality control
    3. Database development
    4. Collections audits
    5. Exhibition installation, including the use of power tools and lots and lots of paint
    6. Helping with exhibition research
    7. Object packing and transportation
    8. Assisting with environmental monitoring and integrated pest management
    9. Sifting through dust recovered from 17th century floorboards
    10. Condition reporting
    11. General carrying of heavy things
    12. Chasing a squirrel out of the Museum
    13. Filing and general administrative support
    14. Sitting on acquisition and disposals committees
    15. Indexing and cataloguing archaeological archives
    16. Coming across my first unexpected human skull
    17. Auditing Mayoral regalia
Blind arcading in the antechapel of the Norman keep which towers over Guildford Museum

As a general dogsbody in a smaller museum, I got to do an awful lot – and from what I have heard from other emerging museum professionals, my experience in this was far from unique. Of course, I still felt that I had to turn to the nationals in London to hone some very particular skills. But if I had limited my volunteering experience to London alone, there was a real danger I would be siloed – trapped in a specialist bubble and unable to get an overview of the bigger picture.

When looking around for voluntary roles to boost your CV, do think local. It could do you the world of good.

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