Front of house at Gallery Oldham

Untapped potential: volunteers, apprentices and front-of-house staff

Maurice Davies and Helen Wilkinson, 15.04.2011
When funds are tight, it is in everybody’s interests to draw on all of the talents of all of the people who work in your museum

Volunteers are the backbone of some museums and essential to the running of many more. The challenges of the current funding climate make it even more important for museums to ensure that they make the best possible use of volunteers. In practice, this means two things: encouraging new and different kinds of volunteers and giving existing volunteers new and better opportunities.

While volunteers should never be used to directly replace or substitute paid staff, offering more opportunities to volunteers could help your museum to:

  • Refresh the workforce with new insights, new ideas and new energy at a time when you may have very limited recruitment to paid roles
  • Improve your links to diverse audiences
  • Introduce new programmes and services
  • Demonstrate to funders and grant-makers that your local community values you highly. A strong volunteer base shows that a lot of people care enough about your museum to want to give their time for free
  • Help people who are looking for work improve their skills
In 2009, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery launched a new volunteering project called First Hand, which used volunteers to staff desks with handling collections in some of the galleries. The project was inspired by the British Museum’s Hands On project, which is well established, with hundreds of volunteers participating.

Alison Cooper, assistant keeper of art at Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery, says the project aimed to add an extra dimension to the educational experience on offer and also to expand the kinds of people who worked in the museum as volunteers.

“Before, most volunteers were students or retired people,” she adds. “We’ve got many more volunteers now – and we’ve got a diverse mix of people who work together, not on separate projects.”

How to make the change:

  • Expanding volunteering could mean an organisation-wide drive to include volunteers in different projects or departments. Or it could mean a single, focused programme
  • Remember that supporting and supervising volunteers needs staff time. Whatever the scale of your volunteering initiative, make it the responsibility of a named individual
  • Recruit openly and select transparently and consistently. Advertise vacancies where possible
  • Borrow ideas from organisations that already use volunteers successfully. For example, Plymouth City Museum and Gallery found the British Museum a generous source of support and advice, and has now shared its own experience with colleagues in the region through a South West Fed training day
  • Look for partner organisations. Agencies that work with adults with learning disabilities, or with long-term unemployed people, for example, are often looking for placements for their clients. They may be able to offer you support and specialist advice in return
  • Bear in mind that different kinds of volunteers may require different levels of support
  • Expanding volunteering at a time of cuts can look like an attempt to make savings by replacing paid staff with people who work for free. You must not do this – or appear to be doing this. The Volunteer Charter produced by the TUC and Volunteering England has ideas about how to ensure that the relationship between paid staff and volunteers is harmonious and productive


Museums have a long tradition of bringing new people into their workforce by using job-creation schemes and traineeships, most recently the now-closed Future Jobs Fund. In the past few years, museums have also made increasing use of apprenticeships, particularly creative apprenticeships and traineeships, such as Diversify positive-action traineeships.

Another way of getting fresh voices into the organisation is by offering shorter-term work experience for people from school-age upwards.

Schemes helping people into work help museums to diversify their workforce. The individuals on the schemes can also bring new ideas into the museum and may have skills not otherwise available to the museum. They are often younger than existing staff and so can help with engaging young people in the museum, plus if they are members of the local community then they can help the museum connect with local people.

Placements give the museum extra capacity, potentially freeing up existing staff to do other work. They can also give existing staff experience of line management and an opportunity to work differently.

Luton Museums was part of the Renaissance East of England Stepping Stones project, which was one of the first programmes in any sector of the economy funded by the Future Jobs Fund. Although the fund is now closed to new applications, many of the features of Stepping Stones remain relevant.

Ingrid Wilkes, performance and development manager at Luton Museums, stresses the importance of matching the work experience and training to each individual’s interests and motives. It is also good to encourage them to experience a range of roles and take up varied training and development opportunities as they arise.

Formal schemes such as apprenticeships tend to rely on external funding but Wilkes says these can be done inexpensively. For example, some levels of NVQ can be obtained free. If funding is tight in future, it may be possible to create an informal low-cost hybrid of an apprenticeship and volunteering in which the volunteer gains a qualification such as an NVQ.

As it would be unpaid, it is not ideal – but it is arguably better than attending college because it would give extensive work experience as well as a qualification.

How to make the change:

  • Properly integrate trainees in the teams they are working for and ensure that trainees are linked properly into the museum’s structures, especially if they are part of a wider scheme run from outside the museum
  • Make sure staff understand why the museum is offering training places
  • Allocate enough time to supervise and support trainees; include supervising or working with trainees and volunteers in staff job descriptions
  • Share out responsibility for overseeing short-term work experience placements between different staff
  • Have a small budget to pay trainees’ extra expenses and, if you have external funding for trainees, make sure you fully understand any requirements
  • Hold weekly debriefs with trainees


Front-of-house staff can bring a different perspective to programming and exhibition-making and can improve other departments’ understanding of audiences. They will also be able to give a better experience to visitors if they know more about the rest of the museum’s work.

Even small museums can involve front of house staff more. At St Albans Museums a project called Our Museums involved asking the front-of-house team to write labels for their favourite object at the Museum of St Albans explaining why they had chosen that object.

Elanor Cowland, keeper of community history at the Museum of St Albans, says: “Many people who wanted to contribute needed a lot of encouragement and reassurance that they weren’t going to say the wrong thing, but this only highlights the problems that we are hoping to resolve.”

At a time of funding cuts, visitor services may be the only area where museums continue to recruit. For museums keen to diversify their workforce and employ people from a wider cross-section of society, it also makes sense to think carefully about how front-of-house staff are recruited.

For example, when the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford reopened after a major refurbishment in 2009, it wanted to recruit a new team of visitor services assistants who were representative of Oxford’s diverse communities. The advertisement and selection criteria avoided giving the impression that previous museum experience was necessary and also emphasised the advantages of speaking a language in addition to a good command of English.

The first round of interviews were then conducted over the telephone. Gillian Morris, head of HR at the Ashmolean, explains: “I would like to think that the blind nature of the telephone interview allowed there to be zero prejudice in the selection process.”

Elsewhere, Leicester Museum Service used the title “customer service representatives” rather than museum assistants for the purposes of recruitment, and found that this led to an increase in applications from people from minority-ethnic backgrounds.

How to make the change:

  • Accept that not everyone who works in visitor services will want the opportunity to contribute in this way. Pilot new ways of working with people who are keen
  • Make sure senior management are committed to the idea and remember that involving visitor services staff in programming can represent a significant cultural shift for the organisation
  • Do not make limiting assumptions about the nature of the contribution visitor services staff can make
  • Consider asking curators and other back-of-house staff to spend some time working front of house to help cover rota gaps caused by front-of-house staff working in other departments

This article is an edited extract from the Museums Association's Culture Change, Dynamism and Diversity report, written by Maurice Davies and Helen Wilkinson
. Click here to read the report


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04.05.2011, 15:49
The full potential of the permanent paid staff must also be recognized.

I have come across several times - when the permanent staff's skills have not been maximised on.

There is often an obsession with "new blood" - wanting a large number of stafff to have a big skills pool. This alienates and discriminates the permanent staff ... and patronises there own skills.

Often - volunteers are brought in to use their skills - ignoring the permanent paid staff who have superior skills.