It would be wonderful to have a corps of museum volunteers willing to assist with every possible task at any possible moment. But people have numerous demands on their time. Many families include two adults who work full-time. How can a museum compete? There is no easy answer and certainly no single solution, but there are ways to develop a successful volunteer program. One avenue is to look toward a less traditional volunteer model.
Science and natural history museums, zoos, aquariums, and children’s museums actively engage young people in volunteering. It is less common for youth volunteers to participate in small general museums, historic sites, or house museums, but there are overlooked opportunities for young people to offer volunteer services in these venues. Any youth volunteer program needs solid planning and quite a bit of structure to ensure that the volunteers have a rewarding experience and contribute to the museum’s operation. Youth volunteers are usually accepted at a museum at around age thirteen and can continue through high school. While some young people are motivated by school service requirements, more volunteer to follow some interest. They act as tour guides, greeters, assistants in educational programs, and “explainers,” as well as serving in many other capacities. Youth volunteers generally need to have a parent sign a release form and may need references from a teacher, coach, or counselor. They typically have to commit to orientation and training and to volunteering a certain number of hours to the museum. Although not required to do so by law, a museum would be prudent to correlate its guidelines for youth volunteers with child labor laws.
Museums can offer opportunities for families to spend some quality time together. Special events, such as historic celebrations, are appealing to families. Outdoor events, such as a cleanup day, might be inviting. A family could participate in an educational program. The volunteer opportunities need to be tailored to fit the needs of the particular family, which can involve considerable staff time to plan but can also be rewarding for both the families and the museum.
Communities with large industrial plants or corporations often encourage their employees to contribute volunteer hours to civic organizations. The companies may have human relations departments that help place employees in appropriate volunteer slots. Some corporations will also match volunteer hours with a cash contribution.
With the growth of Internet use, there are opportunities for volunteers to support museums in new ways and in their own time. This opens new opportunities for volunteers who are employed. They can do research from home. They might be able to enter data about collections. They could develop educational materials that correlate with state-mandated educational goals.
Community Service Volunteers
Some museums have found that with the right supervision, individuals who have been sentenced to public service after breaking the law may be able to lend support to museums. Each museum needs to weigh the potential for their assistance with possible security risks.
Information Technology Support
As technological changes sweep our society, some museums are on the wrong side of the digital divide. With limited budgets and often outdated equipment, such museums can benefit greatly from savvy volunteers who know how to use technology to the museum’s advantage and where to look for assistance in upgrading the museum’s skills and equipment. People with technological skills can also help the museum with a website and with social networking through venues such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. As with all volunteers, it is important to have clearly established objectives and responsibilities in writing for both the information technology volunteer and the museum.
Patricia L. Miller is the executive director of the Illinois Heritage Association, a nonprofit service organization based in Champaign, Illinois. She works with museums, libraries, and other cultural heritage organizations throughout the state. A peer reviewer for the American Association of Museums for its Accreditation and Museum Assessment programs, Miller is an adjunct lecturer in the history department at Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, where she has taught graduate classes in historic site administration since 1985.