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Giving Back: Museums and Older Volunteers during COVID-19

Category: Alliance Blog
A small one-room cabin displayed with a historical placard
This Tubercular Cabin, built in 1920, is part of the collection of the Cave Creek Museum in Arizona. It is the last standing TB cabin in the state. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

As cases of COVID-19 spike across the country, resulting in more museums suspending operations, what are the implications for older docents and volunteers, especially in regard to ageism and creative aging? In part one of this two-part blog post, Marjorie Schwarzer explores the ethical and strategic issues at play with museum volunteer programs. Part two will explore how and why some museums are choosing to sustain their older volunteers. More resources for thinking about and engaging museum volunteers of all ages can be found here.

Every time they report for duty, volunteers at the Cave Creek Museum in Arizona’s desert foothills encounter a tangible reminder of how a public health crisis can transform a community. One of the museum’s extensive holdings is the state’s last remaining tubercular cabin. The cabin is a relic of the early-twentieth-century tuberculosis epidemic, when Arizona touted the curative powers of its climate, and hundreds of one-person cabins were constructed as part of a statewide system of TB sanitoria. These cabins were occupied by TB patients from all over the world, who hoped that living in the isolated, quiet desert and breathing its sweet, dry air would heal their damaged lungs. This influx of TB patients and caregivers brought large economic benefits to the state, changing it forever. In recognition of this history, the museum’s tubercular cabin has been on the National Historic Register since 2001. The hundred-year-old wooden structure is preserved, maintained, and interpreted by a staff of two, aided by over fifty active volunteers.

Today, another public health crisis is transforming our society. However, while many museums around the nation are actively collecting and archiving stories and material evidence of the COVID-19 pandemic’s societal impact, the Cave Creek Museum finds itself taking a different approach to serving its community: nurturing its older volunteers’ strong desire for social connection. This work counters other human resources trends in the museum field. According to a survey conducted by the American Association for Volunteers (AAMV) in Summer 2020, an astonishing 84 percent of museums have suspended their volunteer programs during COVID-19. The field can learn much from the example of Cave Creek and other museums that are choosing, during this time of social isolation, to sustain and support their older volunteers. But first we need to understand the long-term implications of putting a volunteer program on ice.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of museums large and small, urban and rural. The typical volunteer is an older, white retiree in her sixties or seventies, in some cases stretching all the way into her nineties. When looked at through the lens of creative aging, museum volunteering provides two essential ingredients associated with healthy aging: having a sense of purpose and maintaining social networks. Volunteers derive deep personal satisfaction from their connection to the museum. At the same time, they donate considerable expertise, energy, materials, and money. The long-standing relationship between older volunteers and museums would thus seem to be a win-win proposition for both parties.

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So why were museum volunteer programs one of the earliest casualties of the COVID-19 crisis? AAMV’s survey identified two reasons, beyond obvious concerns about the health risks for older individuals. The first was layoffs and furloughs of staff responsible for coordinating the programs. The second was staff who saw an opportunity to reorganize their programs with an eye toward more contemporary ideas and younger and more diverse participants. “With so few volunteers around,” wrote one survey respondent, “we are taking the opportunity to completely redesign our volunteer program to better meet the needs of the institution in the future.” At first blush, these excuses sound rational, especially given brewing concerns about the interactions between older white docents and younger audiences of color. But what happens when we consider them through the lens of ageism—that is, the assumptions we make about older people and the value we place on their role in society? Why were so many staff who work with older volunteers laid off or furloughed? And wouldn’t it make sense to use this moment as a learning opportunity, instead of brushing older volunteers aside, even if we might disagree with some of their ideas and values? Aren’t there ways we can think more strategically and ethically about our older volunteers?

“It breaks my heart to think of all of those older volunteers who are adrift right now,” says Jenny Woods, AAMV’s President. “I believe that museums that don’t step up to the plate to engage older volunteers during these difficult times are taking a big risk. We are losing some of our most enthusiastic supporters and cheerleaders—people who love our organizations so much they give us their time, and maybe financial support too. Will our volunteers come back when we are up and operating at full speed again? Or will they simply decide to go to another organization that is better fulfilling their needs right now?”

Museums would do well to heed Woods’s warning. “I’m going to volunteer for the food bank and take my money with me,” a seventy-four-year-old longtime museum volunteer I interviewed for this post told me. She relayed how disappointed she was with the museum’s messaging. “When the museum had to close, we got a mass email telling us that we were no longer needed, as of immediately. It was more nicely worded than that, but no one reached out to me personally. I’m strong, but I do live alone, and they know I’ve had some health issues. No one from the museum asked me how I’m doing. After all those years, all those days and hours, and all the money I’ve helped them raise, all I get now are one email after another asking me for a donation.” Her friend, who serves on the same museum’s women’s board, shared a similar story, as did another interviewee, a retired curator, about a different institution. None wanted to be identified as they did not want to embarrass their respective museums.

Dismissive behavior like this is familiar to researchers who study ageism. As geriatrician Louise Aronson notes in her book Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimaging Life, “When a plurality or even a visible minority of people in one setting or profession become insensitive to the essential humanity of others, the culture itself is unwell.” In speaking specifically about museum volunteers, Carol Thomson of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, adds: “My most important job as a volunteer program manager is to remember to take care of the whole person.” It behooves museums, then, to keep in mind the impact of COVID-19 on our older volunteers and their essential humanity and act accordingly.

Fortunately, there are actions we can take with minimal effort, even under the constraints of reduced staffing. AAMV survey respondents identified a few of these methods, including regular e-newsletters written and sent out by volunteers; a “daily positivity digest;” virtual book clubs, study groups, and trivia games; and virtual docent-led tours for other docents. However, some museums have gone further. Their methods include taking a high-touch, empathetic approach to their older volunteers, prioritizing frequent and diverse avenues of communication, and utilizing technology to link volunteers directly to visitors. Three museums, all in the western United States, have embraced these approaches with surprising benefits to their communities.  We will meet them in the second half of this blog post on December 4.

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1 Comment

  1. I have volunteered at a museum for fifteen years, I look at my notes, files, articles, and art books and feel pain. I loved my work! I feel I have lost my sense of purpose and an important social network. I’m working on what to do next.

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