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Today’s thought experiment: what if, in the future, museums asked not “how many volunteers do we need” but rather “how can we structure our operations to engage as many volunteers as possible in meaningful work?”
Volunteers are already essential to the work of museums. Typically, volunteers outnumber paid staff 6:1. In history museums that ratio climbs to 9:1, and in museums with budgets under a quarter million it soars to 18:1*.
Historically this arrangement has been driven mostly by utility: museums don’t have enough money to hire all the staff they need. As it is, salaries constitute about half of the typical operating budget.
Volunteers aren’t free, mind you. A good volunteer program needs policies, procedures, background checks, training and supervision (often provided by a paid staff member dedicated to volunteers). And the more volunteers a museum has, the greater the costs. This is one reason that museums tend towards efficiency in volunteer recruitment—using just enough free help to get the job done.
But the spin-off value of volunteers, over and above just getting the work done, can be extraordinary. Here are three compelling reasons the museum of the future might structure its work around volunteers:
1) “MyCulture”—the increasing desire of people to do as well as view, to be actively engaged with the museum rather than just being passive consumers of content. The more meaningful this participation is, the more “real” the engagement, the more compelling the experience. Thirty years ago an edgy “interactive” experience at a museum meant lifting a flap to read a label. Now it might mean providing the content for an exhibit. Volunteering is the ultimate participatory experience.
2) The education revolution. Reformers envisioning the future of education emphasize that the new educational paradigm will provide self-directed learners with the opportunity to do real work and supplement or replace standardized tests with portfolios of meaningful accomplishments. The Institute for the Future’s Jamais Cascio acts out this scenario here, demonstrating that one crucial role of learning agents (educators of the future) will be matching learners up with real-world projects that support their educational goals. Projects like ArtLab+ at the Hirshhorn Museum already support students creating exhibit content—can such integrated learning-work be a normal aspect of every museum? Volunteering can be the ultimate educational experience.
3) Hearts and minds. Museums are threatened by the perception that they serve primarily “the 1%” (to use OWS jargon)—the wealthy, educated elite who frankly are the ones best able, right now, to fund museums. This, in turn, could create a spiral in which museums, by serving the interests of the few, become disconnected from the many and are increasingly seen as private, rather than public, goods and unworthy of public tax support. Can we counterbalance this by fostering stronger practical and emotional ties with large numbers of people, making them see museums as “their place?” Nina Simon has written about the power of museums creating the feeling that people have access to a secret, exclusive place. Volunteering is the ultimate “insider” experience.
How would museums have to change to radically increase their use of volunteers? Technology is vastly expanding the ways that museums can provide volunteer opportunities as people can contribute over the Web, tagging, organizing, transcribing and researching digital data. However, nothing will ever replace the thrill of working in a physical (often beautiful) space with real objects.
Unfortunately, museums often aren’t structured to accommodate the diversity of people who would like to volunteer in physical museum. People with nine-to-five jobs might jump at the chance to do free work if only the museum could accommodate them in the evening (which some, but far from all, museums do.) As it happens, many museums are experimenting with alternate hours anyway, as they discover that visitors might like to come at 6 or 9 p.m., or 1 a.m., rather than during banker’s hours.
A recent paper from the Arts Consulting Group points out the vast potential for recruiting more volunteers to the work of museums. But they also note that the volunteers of the present (much less the future) have high expectations. They want support, rather than supervision, and they want a large degree of autonomy. Staff positions would have to be re-tooled to meet these expectations, with training, supporting and coordinating the work of volunteers playing a greater role in every staff member’s work.
Volunteerism is not without negative side effects. The huge number of people eager to work in museums in a paid or unpaid capacity probably contributes to the relatively low pay of the profession. Museum studies graduates already bitterly resent the fact that the entry path to paid professional positions has become the unpaid internship—they leave school with significant educational debt only to find they are expected to volunteer to be competitive. But really, aren’t there worse things in the world than having lots of people so interested in what your museum does that they are eager to donate their time, attention and skills?
So maybe in the future the ratio of volunteers to paid staff will be more like 25:1, 50:1, even 100:1. Do you think that future lies somewhere in the Cone of Plausibility? Is it a desirable future and, if so, how do museums need to shift course to get there? Please weigh in.