The Place of the Volunteer in the Modern Heritage Sector
Almost every individual employed in the heritage sector is likely to have some kind of volunteering experience on their CV; volunteering and heritage work seem to go hand-in-hand. But is volunteering fair? Ellen, one of our Heritage Assistants, explores the role of volunteering in modern heritage, and questions if it is still appropriate to expect new entrants to have this kind of experience.
One of the key issues facing me and fellow entrants into the heritage sector is that of experience. Even entry-level positions require some kind of familiarity and experience in the sector, be it voluntary or otherwise (even if this does seem to defeat the object of ‘entry-level’), and with a remarkably low number of internships or paid opportunities in the sector available outside London, many feel that there is one option left: volunteering.
Heritage organisations seem to rely on volunteers to keep themselves running – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a museum or gallery that doesn’t have an imploration for volunteers somewhere on its website. However, volunteering is problematic in its own way – it is exclusionary at best, and intrinsically elitist at worst.
I have been fortunate enough through my degree that I have been able to spend some of my free time volunteering at various institutions around Nottingham without feeling the financial pinch too badly. However, many of my friends don’t find themselves in the place to do this – with the scrapping of Maintenance Grants and the insufficiency of Maintenance Loans combined with the rising cost of living, some students have to work if they want to continue studying with food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads. Much of their free time is spent working, often in jobs they have no interest in continuing after graduation, and what little they have left is set aside for studying or socialising, neither of which they can be reasonably expected to give up.
Those already employed but looking to get into the heritage sector face similar issues – after working a 35 hour week, many people simply don’t have the energy or time to spend their evenings or weekends volunteering at the local museum, and it’s difficult to go part-time simply to volunteer. There’s a reason so many of the volunteers at National Trust properties and the like are older – they have the economic cushion and free-time that enables them to pursue what they love without expecting payment.
A recent article published in the Guardian exposed the concept of internships in the modern world;: many young professionals looking to get a foothold in the competitive world of journalism work for (next to) nothing, assured by both themselves and their superiors that they are being paid in experience and employability. The heritage sector is no different: there is still a mentality that in order to succeed you need voluntary experience under your belt in order to generate the connections and experience required to enter the sector as a paid employee.
While the current economic state of the heritage sector is an explanation for the lack of paid opportunities within the sector, it does not explain the perceived notion that in order to succeed, you must volunteer. No-one would expect an entry-level job in marketing to require a year or two of voluntary experience – why is the heritage sector any different?
So, what can be done to combat this issue? Thankfully, many organisations are realising that volunteering isn’t the way forwards, and as a result are starting to offer more opportunities for those interested in getting into the sector. For example, the National Trust recently oversaw the Volunteer Management Traineeship Project, which recruited 17 full-time, paid, trainees who spent 18 months working at National Trust properties, gaining an ILM Level 3 Certificate in Management of Volunteers at the same time. The project aimed to introduce a wider range of people to the sector, including Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic candidates or those under 25 – this shows a recognition of the issues surrounding diversity in the sector, and a willingness to combat them by creating positive talent pipelines that better reflect the diversity of contemporary Britain.
Another similar project is one spearheaded by Culture Syndicates themselves. Funded by the Arts Council, the Resilience Syndicate project funded six internships across the East Midlands, with the aim of employing the interns for twelve months, increasing their individual knowledge of working in the sector, developing an understanding of how to create resilient museums by building in best practice and empowering them through the use of co-production in their work. This allowed the interns to grow their knowledge of working in a museum context massively, and all six interns have since gone on to full-time employment in the wider sector. Several skipped years of under-recognition, gaining Officer level posts straight from their internships. These initiatives show that the heritage sector is becoming more aware of the problems facing it, and is rising to meet them head-on. Other projects, such as the Young People’s Skills Programme at the London Transport Museum, and the work done by Culture&, are also combatting these issues. Hopefully, more organisations will take up new ways of developing workforces and within the next few years we will see a re-definition of the term ‘volunteer,’ where people engage in volunteering because they want to, not because they feel they have to become employable.
By Ellen Smithies, Heritage Assistant, Culture Syndicates