Volunteers as Mission

Okay, think quick – Why do archaeologists and museums have volunteers?  Is it because:

  • They’ve got more stuff to do than they have staff to do it?
  • They’ve got more important things to do than sorting and counting flint flakes and pottery sherds?
  • It’s a good way to spread the word about their institution?
  • Or because volunteers are an integral part of their Mission?

Consider a snippet from our Mission Statement at the C.H. Nash Museum:

. . . to provide the University Community and the public with exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities . . .

Our mission mandates our museum to be a resource for volunteer participation in the same way our mission mandates we preserve the Chucalissa archaeological site on which we are located.  I previously wrote about the myth of volunteers as free labor.  Here is our volunteer story these days at Chucalissa.  We continue a monthly Volunteer Saturday with an average of 20 – 40 participants.  The variation results largely on competing events in Memphis on any given weekend, promotion by the local daily newspaper, and so forth.

A couple of months ago we asked if there were folks who wanted to participate beyond the normal sorting/processing of prehistoric materials.  Several volunteers responded.  Each got plugged into a separate project.  One couple spent the past two Volunteer Saturdays pulling artifacts from West Tennessee collections of a prehistoric culture (Poverty Point) whose center is about a five-hour drive from Memphis.  This past Saturday they reported their plans to visit Poverty Point this week.  Another couple opted to help tag the 50 years worth of black and white photos from our museum as we prepare to digitize the collection.  In the process, they found several photos of themselves dressed in their Native American regalia at a Powwow held 20 years before.  Ron Brister, another volunteer with some 30 years experience as a Collections Manager now provides regular impromptu presentations on the specific artifact types that the volunteers are processing.

On the other side of the volunteer equation, our interns, graduate assistants, and staff all know that Volunteer Day is the one event each month in which they need to schedule their time to be at the Museum.  I have enjoyed watching our staff attitude shift from the volunteers as free labor myth to one of excitement when volunteers come to the fore.  For example, this Saturday, one or our GAs, Natalye Tate, asked the volunteers processing materials from an early 1900s orphanage to write about their impressions of each object.  These reflexive impressions can fit well into a future exhibit.

As Museum Director, my understanding of volunteers moved from a need to slowly but consistently develop the volunteer base of our operation to account for reduced staff and increased opportunities to one of appreciating the volunteer component of our mission mandate.

A student in my Museum Practices class, Nancy Nishimura, spoke several weeks ago about her experience at the Tenement Museum in New York.  All of the tours are docent led and there are no labels in the exhibits.  The very mechanics of visiting the museum results in a more engaged visitor experience. Nancy noted that before beginning the tour, the docent sits with the visitors and discusses how they would have experienced living in a New York tenement early in the last century.  That is, the visitor is asked to bring themselves experientially into the exhibit.

Such an experience invites the visitor to engage dynamically, not as a static observer.  This seems the logical direction in which we might take our volunteer mandate – not because it’s an expedient way to get things done, but because it is our mission of building engagement and relationship.

At the European Volunteer Center a page contains a Why Volunteering Matters list. The page lists the less tangible reasons at the top with the economic benefits below.  The American Association of Museum Volunteers also has many resources on this subject.

So, if we approach volunteers as part of our mission and do not fall for the myth of  volunteers as free labor, where does that take us?

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Museums, Anthropology, Bicycles, Recovery, Cancer, Retired

3 thoughts on “Volunteers as Mission”

  1. In my experience, using volunteers is often seen as being – rather vaguely – ‘a good thing’ or as standard ‘good practice’ by heritage / culture organisations, without much thought being given to exactly why and how volunteers can be best used to the advantage of both the organisation, and the volunteers themselves.

    ‘Why?’ is a very good question to start with. Honest answers will help, too!

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