Reliance on unpaid volunteers is turning public museums into a middle class commodity

As funding is cut, museums are becoming more and more dependent on volunteers to keep services running, but in doing so, they risk entrenching a lack of diversity.

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Over recent years, public museums have become increasingly dependent on volunteers, who act as a sticking plaster over the gaping wounds inflicted by government cuts. The care with which museums differentiate between paid and unpaid roles cannot disguise the blurring within the heritage sector of traditional “leisure” volunteering and the use of a vast unpaid workforce driven by hopes of eventual entry into the sector.

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

At one museum where I took a placement, responsibilities given to volunteers included off-site research, cleaning, a variety of administrative and PR roles, teaching specialist skills to paid staff, and undertaking skilled work which staff were too busy to do. Interactions with the public were entirely dependent on volunteers.

Following recent campaigns against unpaid internships, the distinction between volunteers and interns has become of primary importance to organisations that wish to avoid retroactive claims for compensation. Most museums use only part-time volunteers, and distinguish carefully between their roles and those of paid workers. These distinctions, however, can be disingenuous: although under government regulations a volunteer, as opposed to a worker, must work for no remuneration or future employment, this is not quite the case when volunteers know that they have to take these roles in order to have any chance of finding work in the heritage sector. Given the army of people desperate to do so, it is not difficult for museums to equip themselves with highly-qualified and motivated climbers of the pre-career ladder.

This was illustrated by my experience as one of three administrative volunteers, each of whom covered one or two days per week without overlapping, occupying the same desk and (except when distinguished by unusual incompetence) acting as one nameless person. I remember someone once starting to speak to me at a staff lunch, only to be told not to bother; it was only the volunteer.

If the role was exploitative in dividing an entry-level position in such a way that no wage need be paid, it was not much easier on staff. My line manager was forced to balance his job with perpetual training, and consequently struggled to remember who had been taught what. A high level of professional competence was expected from volunteers, despite a constant emphasis on the unprofessional status of the work. After I left, I received a frosty note reproaching me for having taken the role when I evidently lacked long-term interest in that area of administration – though it was explicitly without any prospect of future employment that I had been given the placement.

It is difficult to codify the nature of volunteer work, since it comes in many forms. Tourism expert Dr Kirsten Holmes has identified the “leisure” volunteer, a retired, educated and affluent individual, essentially a very involved visitor. These exotic beasts roam alongside the aspirant worker, especially since, absurdly, the latter may need to begin with more basic, “leisurely” volunteering roles in order to then secure higher-status unpaid work. The two types of volunteer are not officially differentiated, but the sort of role taken, and whether it bears any resemblance to an entry-level job or yesteryear’s unpaid internship, tends to be a clear indicator of intent.

Museums’ dependence on unpaid labour is unlikely to be resolved without increased government funding, and the problem is generally met with a refusal to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Asked whether the use of volunteers in the place of employees is sustainable, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport responded with the following statement

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

The use of volunteers to replace professional staff has a knock-on effect on another long-standing issue in the heritage sector: diversity. It is an accepted practice for museums to use volunteers towards meeting general diversity targets, counting unpaid ethnic minority members alongside staff in order to disguise the whiteness of their workforces. In the long term, however, the use of volunteers as entry-level workers can only hold diversity back. Spare time for volunteering is a luxury not everyone can afford; the fact that decreasing numbers of museums can spare the money to pay expenses for volunteers further restricts access to the middle class and mainly white demographic that has long dominated the sector.

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