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In recent years, public museums have become increasingly dependent on volunteers, who act as an adhesive bandage over the gaping wounds inflicted by government cuts. The care with which museums differentiate between paid and unpaid roles cannot hide the vagueness within the heritage sector of traditional “leisure” volunteerism and the use of a large unpaid workforce motivated by the hope of a possible entry into the sector.

In 2013, the Museums Association’s Cuts Survey found that 37% of museums had been forced to reduce their staff, while 47% had increased their number of volunteers in the same year. It was noted that the storefront roles in particular are now assigned to volunteers. During my own time volunteering for two London museums, it was evident that behind-the-scenes volunteer work has also become a vital cog in the heritage machine.

At a museum where I interned, volunteer responsibilities included offsite research, cleaning, a variety of administrative and public relations roles, teaching specialized skills to paid staff, and carrying out a skilled work for which the staff were too busy. Interactions with the public depended entirely on volunteers.

Following recent campaigns against unpaid internships, the distinction between volunteers and interns has become paramount for organizations wishing to avoid retroactive compensation claims. Most museums use only part-time volunteers and carefully distinguish their roles from those of paid workers. These distinctions, however, can be dishonest: although under government regulations a volunteer, as opposed to a worker, must work without pay or future employment, this is not quite the case when volunteers know that ‘they need to take on these roles in order to have any chance of finding employment in the heritage sector. Given the army of people desperate to do so, it is not difficult for museums to source highly skilled and motivated pre-career ladder climbers.

This was exemplified by my experience as one of three administrative volunteers, each of them covering one or two non-overlapping days a week, occupying the same office and (barring unusual incompetence) acting as a anonymous person. I remember once someone started talking to me at a staff lunch, only to be told not to disturb; it was only the volunteer.

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If the role was abusive by dividing an entry-level position so that no salary had to be paid, it wasn’t much easier for the staff. My supervisor was forced to balance his work with ongoing training, and therefore had difficulty remembering who had learned what. A high level of professional competence was expected from the volunteers, despite the constant emphasis on the non-professional status of the work. After I left, I received an icy note scolding me for accepting the position when I clearly lacked long-term interest in this area of ​​administration – when it was explicitly without any job prospects. future that I had obtained the placement.

It is difficult to codify the nature of volunteer work, as it takes many forms. Tourism expert Dr Kirsten Holmes identified the “leisure” volunteer as a retired, educated and well-to-do person, essentially a very involved visitor. These exotic beasts lurk alongside the aspiring worker, especially since, absurdly, the latter may need to start with more basic volunteer roles and “hobby” in order to then obtain higher-status unpaid work. . The two types of volunteers are not officially differentiated, but the type of role played, and whether it resembles an entry-level job or an unpaid internship of yesteryear, tends to be a clear indicator of intent.

Museums’ reliance on unpaid labor is unlikely to be resolved without increased government funding, and the problem is usually met with a refusal to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Asked about the sustainability of using volunteers instead of employees, the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport responded with the following statement

The vast majority of museums across the country use volunteers to some degree, which can bring a number of benefits to both the volunteer and the museum, including work experience and transferable skills for those seeking to pursue a paid career in the sector. The Museums Association is the professional membership organization for the museum sector and offers advice and support to museums working with volunteers. »

The use of volunteers to replace professional staff has a ripple effect on another long-standing issue in the heritage sector: diversity. It is accepted practice for museums to use volunteers to achieve general diversity goals, counting unpaid members of ethnic minorities alongside staff to mask the whiteness of their workforce. In the long term, however, the use of volunteers as entry-level workers can only inhibit diversity. Free time for volunteering is a luxury that not everyone can afford; the fact that a dwindling number of museums can save money to pay for volunteer expenses further restricts access to the middle class and predominantly white demographics that have long dominated the sector.

Lack of diversity in volunteers leads to lack of diversity in staff, which tends to mean lack of diversity in visitors. As noted in the Museum Association’s final report on its Workforce Diversity Program (which ended in 2011), museums that can represent a range of social perspectives are better able to serve their communities and to attract a wider audience. Without encouraging employee diversity, public museums will remain a middle-class good: free, for those who can afford it.