Skip to content

Monday Musing: On the Front Lines

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Dear Seb*,

Thank you for tweeting me the link to this article

Art gallery ad makes clear wish for an educated staff

about the Art Gallery of New South Wales replacing volunteers at the front desk with paid staff. I see they are looking for applicants with “significant education and a capacity for languages.”

My first thought was–this is news?  Imagine that headline written the opposite way ’round. (Art gallery ad makes clear wish for an uneducated staff.) 

My second thought was–gah, maybe they are right, maybe it IS news, not only in Australia but in the US as well. Lots of museums use volunteers as front-of-house staff, and even when they are paid positions they are often poorly paid with modest prerequisites. 

Then all these other thoughts started pinging about inside my skull too:

  • Good! Using volunteers for necessary positions is yet another force driving down museum salaries.
  • Also, this recognizes the importance of front line staff. If a visitor has a bad experience when they walk in, they may never come back no matter how great the exhibits are.
  • What the heck is a “casual employee???” I  lobbed that Aussie:American lexicon question to Seb, who explained “casual” refers to an employee who doesn’t get any benefits like vacation or retirement contributions. Wikipedia helpfully added they don’t have guaranteed hours, either. On the other hand, the positions pay almost $30 US per hour–four times (Australian) minimum wage. 
  • Wait! Why was the volunteer program not working? Were the volunteers unqualified? Doing a bad job? If so, did the museum contribute to this situation by not providing clear expectations, training, and performance feedback? 
  • Ooooo. The volunteers are going to be ticked off. I wonder how many of them are (were) members and donors as well.
  • What if it were going the other way? What are the ethics of replacing paid staff with volunteers? (Here is one take on that.) 

So, thank you for sharing the link but honestly, I don’t know whether to cheer or to stress eat Peanut M&Ms.

Yours from the future,


Skip over related stories to continue reading article

*Seb Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging Media, Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. 

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.