Friday, March 8, 2013

SMA Conference Materials: Exploring the Effect of Volunteers on Museum Professionals

These are materials from a session at the Small Museum Association conference from 2013.  

Small Museum Association Conference Feb. 2013
Tuesday, Session Two with Colleen Walter

Evil Nemesis or Grand Alliance: Exploring the Effect of Volunteers on Museum Professionals
The Premise:
This is my third year attending the SMA conference, and my first as a speaker.  During this time, I have transitioned from student to museum professional.  This experience raised in my mind many questions about the value of history education in the job market and the devaluation of the work of professional historians.  Positions once considered ideal for a newly minted historian are now highly competitive and graduates find themselves competing against colleagues with years more education and experience for entry level positions.  Many of these new professionals opt to volunteer at local institutions in the meanwhile, gaining work experience and waiting out the recession.  For some, this strategy ultimately secures them a paid position within the institution.  But what about the rest?  By willing to work for no pay, are new professionals doing themselves a disservice?  Are they unintentionally devaluing the years of training and expense spent to earn the title of historian? 
Small museums thrive on the time and work of dedicated volunteers or docents.  Without the efforts of those individuals vital programming, events, education, and outreach would never be accomplished.  Clearly, volunteers are a valuable asset to the small museum.  And so a catch-22 emerges.  How can we, as museum professionals, make the best use of our volunteers without writing ourselves out of a job?  What role do volunteers play at your museum? 

Discussion Outline
·         Understanding Your Volunteers
o   What roles do they serve at your site?
§  Examples from my work experience, in no particular order: Docents, board members, assistance with educational programs, basic archival processing, grounds (ie hiking trails and farmstead site) development and maintenance, gardening/ farming, seed preservation, participation in living history events, heritage textile arts (Stitch in Time= traditional wool processing), FoodWays colonial cooking and food preparation, costume manufacturer, and many more.
§  Consider these roles.  Are volunteers effective?  Why or why not?  What do you consider to be an effective use of a volunteer? 
§  What unique skills or qualities does a volunteer bring to their role?
o   Demographics- Who are your volunteers?
§  Retired people, stay-at-home parents, non-earning spouse in a single-income household, individuals with a devoted interest in the history of YOUR site, they generally live locally

·         Understanding the New Professional
o   What skills/ training do they possess that is unique?
o   Academic degree, training in standards of research and interpretation, comprehension of the field overall, professional accreditation, knowledge of current research and case studies in a specific field
o   With that in mind, what roles could they serve on site that is different from those listed above for the volunteers?
o   Do YOU think that the use of volunteers devalues the work done by New Professionals?

·         An Effective Transition- How Can Your Institution Help?
o   For many New Professionals, the answer to finding work in the field is simple- be a volunteer until a paid position opens up.  Hopefully this comes in the form of an internship.  But post graduation and without gainful employment, many turn to volunteering as a way to continue to be active in the field and do the work they are passionate for.  A constructive position ideally builds on the knowledge the individual brings to that role, facilitating their growth as a museum professional and segue ways into a permanent, paid position. 
o   What opportunities does your institution offer to facilitate this transition?
§  Small museums generally mean a small, dedicated staff.  As such, many times there are simply not positions available to offer to a volunteer, regardless of their qualifications.  Should/ could you turn first to volunteers when conducting a search to fill a vacancy?
§  Do not discount the value of a trained professional when deciding whether or not to fill a vacancy. 

·         Closing Thoughts
o   What can we take away from this discussion? 

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