On Volunteers at Museums and Historic Sites

In April 2009 Congress passed and President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which aimed to promote the “dramatic growth of service and volunteer opportunities that will address key social issues.” A council called “Reimaging Service” was tasked with implementing the legislation’s Call to Service initiative and encouraging more citizens to volunteer for the federal government with tasks related to these “key social issues.” In January 2015 the council issued its final report and disbanded.

Obtaining more info about volunteers for the National Park Service and encouraging more people to volunteer for the agency was one of the goals of Reimaging Service. (Department of the Interior Sally Jewell’s “Play, Learn, Serve, Work” initiative has also worked towards this goal). In June 2014 Reimagining Service issued a report about NPS volunteering that included this opening paragraph:

In an age where resources only seem to dwindle, it is encouraging to see one resource on the rise: volunteers in national parks. The National Park Service (NPS) increases its volunteer numbers and the hours served annually, continuing a positive trend.

It’s been a well-known fact among NPS employees and visitors to the agency’s sites that there has been a remarkable increase in the presence of volunteers at sites throughout the country. A friend and fellow NPS employee who recently went on a trip through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming reported hardly any front-line rangers in uniform greeting visitors or leading interpretive tours. Two years ago I visited three Civil War battlefields in Virginia and saw one ranger in uniform during the entire trip. There are probably many reasons for the increased volunteer presence, including more people who are retired and anxious to help out their local parks. But it also seems that such trends are reflective of government austerity measures that seek to eliminate budgetary costs incurred through paid full-time and seasonal employees.

It’s probably a taboo and controversial question to ask, but are more volunteers in national parks truly a “positive trend” for the future of the agency? Do museums and historic sites more broadly benefit from more volunteer help? Who benefits from an increase in volunteering within public history sites, and who is hurt by the process?

It should go without saying that volunteers are crucial to the operations of countless museums and historic sites, and the volunteers I work with on a daily basis at my place of employment are wonderful people who sacrifice their free-time to help out our modest operation. We should all thank our volunteers. But our thanks should not preclude institutional leaders from considering the extent to which volunteer help can and should be utilized and when a particular job requires the skills of a paid employee. As Elizabeth Merritt of the Alliance of American Museums points out, the fair market value of a museum/public history job is very much in flux and is further complicated by the fact that so many people are willing to do such work for free. Institutions can abuse their ability to rely on volunteer help. An over-reliance on volunteers runs the risk of keeping competent workers out of the field or underemployed, preventing people from disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to work in a volunteer capacity from breaking into the field, and devaluing the labor of public historians, particularly front-line employees who specialize in education and interpretation. It is one thing for an institutional leader or supervisory public historian with a stable full-time job to applaud the increase in volunteer labor at public history sites, but one can see how a young graduate student or new professional might see such a development as troubling and disenchanting.

I do not propose that all volunteer positions at a given historic site or museum should be replaced with full-time employees or that an increase in volunteer help is a wholly terrible development. Volunteers enhance museums and historic sites in countless different ways, and in most circumstances volunteers are the most enthusiastic boosters for supporting public history sites in a local community. But I do think there are potential negative consequences that come with increased reliance on volunteer labor, and the field as a whole needs to be more introspective about the role of volunteering and the establishment of a fair wage for public history work. I am lucky to have a stable full-time job in the public history world doing interpretation and education, but what happens when I leave? Will my spot be filled by a volunteer in the future? I know of too many instances in which that scenario has played out, and I can’t help but be worried about future employment opportunities for the many talented people who are trying to break into the public history field and support themselves with a stable job. Similarly, there are many volunteers who would love to obtain paid employment but find themselves unable to do so.

When at all possible, we need to be paying good work with good pay.



12 thoughts on “On Volunteers at Museums and Historic Sites

  1. I think it is important to think of NPS volunteers as people who can expand a park’s capacity to do things that staff themselves are unable to accomplish. The NPS will always struggle with funding and staffing. I don’t think that will ever change. But I also hate hearing that a park can’t do innovative programming or necessary maintenance because of lack of staff. Volunteers can help a great deal and are integral to linking parks to communities. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about the lack of entry-level public history jobs or underemployment in the field. It’s easy to place blame on volunteer programs for undercutting the field, but I think volunteers have an important role to play in the future of parks. What is more concerning to me is a statistic a friend showed me yesterday that nearly 75% of NPS employees are over the age of 45. People under the age of 29 account for 7% of the workforce. I wonder if there is a similar correlation in volunteer ages. I doubt it. NPS needs to do a better job in finding the mechanisms to bring in a younger generation. There is a whole class of college graduates (myself included) that were left out when the Obama administration got rid of the STEP/SCEP programs and didn’t have anything in place for a number of years.

    1. Hi Angie,

      I appreciate your wonderful, thoughtful comment. You eloquently state the value of volunteering in much fewer words than I ever could. To further clarify my position, I don’t “blame” volunteers at all for undercutting the field or the value of public history labor – the blame is entirely with institutional leaders who determine the budgets and, for better or worse, find themselves relying more on volunteer labor to run daily operations. Again, it’s difficult to assess the value of museum/public history labor when so many people are willing to do it for free.

      When volunteers expand a given site’s capabilities to do things that paid staff cannot do, they enhance the quality of the site’s offerings and the visitor experiences at those sites. I applaud that. What I am uncomfortable with is jobs and duties that were previously paid positions being re-worked into volunteer labor. Sometimes the rationale for such a change is justified, but in many cases it is not (and keep in mind that I’m trying to think about the field as a whole, not just the NPS). I know of a museum not too far away from where I live where there are millions in the endowment fund, the Director makes more than $250,000 a year, and yet the institution relies on a mix of volunteers and new professionals with graduate training who work 10-20 hours a week at $9 an hour to run most of its museum education programs. That’s not right, and that’s what I want to fight against.

      With regards to the age disparity in NPS employment, you are 100% correct. That is also a serious problem. You’d think that someday all of these parks will need to be run by somebody and that jobs will be open for young people, but the removal of the STEP/SCEP program continues to be devastating for young people trying to get in. I am part of the “7%,” but only because my status under STEP was transferred when Pathways replaced it.

  2. One thing that historic sites need to keep in mind concerning volunteers is that they’re just that: volunteers. While you can get rid of them (a decade or so ago, we let go some volunteers who wouldn’t respect boundaries and kept handling the museum collection even after being told not to; they seemed to think we were a ‘please touch’ museum), they can also decide not to show up, or leave early for something else; it’s very dependent on the person and how well the volunteer manager manages it. If you’re basing an entire program on volunteers, be cognizant that you could have days when you have no program since you couldn’t get a volunteer to work (even the dedicated ones have their own lives going on).

    I’m not quite in that 75% age group over 45 (two more years to go there…), but in my 16 years working for the NPS, it seems like we’re always greying, always aging, always “70%” or whatever within five years of retirement eligibility or the like. The old Intake program that I came in through was supposed to help remedy that, but it’s long gone; it was too expensive, apparently. And the regions make it so hard to hire new permanent staff that it’s difficult to backfill when people do leave (and the nutty hiring strictures make it very difficult to bring in someone young) or to hire them as permanent full time (I’m one who thinks that subject-to-furlough jobs are unethical, and I won’t forward announcements for them to anyone). Just look at how the NPS keeps doing in the annual employee satisfaction survey.

    1. Thanks, Ed. You make a fair point in that volunteer labor is not bound by a standard workplace contract between employer and employee. If volunteers can’t or don’t want to come in on a given day, there’s not much you can do about it. I also agree that subject-to-furlough positions are unethical.

  3. Absolutely correct. There is a place for both volunteers and paid staff in museums, national parks, historic sites, public libraries, and other similar entities. But we want to guard against any of these becoming too reliant on volunteer labor. There is also a tendency for users and funders to under-appreciate agencies that are run by volunteers.

  4. Should we be thinking of volunteer programs more in terms of visitor experience rather than as a supplemental labor force? Volunteers can extend programming, but as Ed points out, they can cause management headaches above what would be expected for professional paid staff; they are not a sustainable solution to an understaffed and overworked labor force, as cbecker53 alludes to. On the other hand, volunteer programs offer people a different, more engaged experience of a park, museum, or historic site. Maybe we are better off thinking of volunteer programs as an enhanced visitor experience.

    1. Hi Thomas,

      I think what I’m seeing in my own thinking is a distinction between a strong, adequately-paid staff that has volunteer help to enhance a given site’s offerings and a situation in which institutional leaders cut down on paid staff and rely more and more on volunteers as a way of cutting costs for a number of reasons not often connected to anything to do with visitor experiences. I’m in favor of the former situation!

  5. Some excellent points being addressed. In my line of work, chemistry, we saw a different, but similar situation arising: the expansion of part-time lab assistants replacing the old full-time stalwarts. It created a swinging door problem, as there was not the career-minded stability with the part-time workers. I feel the same way with “my” rangers at my favourite NPS jewel, Yosemite. I look forward to seeing the same grizzled faces year after year, but, as time passed, some full time positions transitioned to part-time, which eventually gave way to volunteers…and then, eventually, many of the positions were eliminated altogether. It concerns me that the use of volunteers could be used to test the waters of just how many professionals ARE needed? With the advent of Youtube, some of the Gettysburg rangers have attained Rock Star status in my circles, so watch out if they try to take them away from their adoring fans 🙂

    1. That’s an interesting comparison to the science world. I read an article about two years ago in the Boston Globe about diminishing academic job prospects for scientists and an increasing reliance on post-doc labor and lower pay for researchers. You’d think that someday younger people will have to be given opportunities to take leadership positions in these fields but for now that doesn’t seem to be the case.

      1. I am embarrassed to admit this, but what eventually happens is there is a migration from research laboratories to industrial laboratories. I went from helping to solve the problem of pollution, to becoming part of the problem (petroleum industry) I am not proud of my decision, but I followed both the money and career stability. It is even worse for the younger crowd, because they are having trouble establishing themselves before moving out of academia (it was traditional to spend 5-10 years in a university lab before striking out for the lucrative deals in the private industry sector) Pure research is the victim in all of this.

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