Valued and Valuable:
The Museum Volunteer Workforce

April 1, 2011 No Comments

Volunteer programs constitute a vital element in museum operations. In fact, museums would be unable to properly function without the dedication of their volunteers.  Thus, it is an ongoing process to bring in new, enthusiastic volunteers, to keep them feeling valued and to provide them with opportunities to stay educated and excited about the institution they represent.  
The Field Museum, in Chicago, Ill., offers visitors a rich experience by bringing in exhibits that explore the wonders of nature and diverse cultures.  “Our volunteers are so important to our museum because they deliver such engaging tours,” said Mary Ann Bloom, coordinator of docents.  “They do a great job customizing information to help visitors enjoy their tours and they provide them with an enriching experience.”
Bloom’s volunteers range in age from new college graduates to retirees and are all well-trained.  “Training varies, depending on the exhibit,” said Bloom.  “Most volunteers will sit down in a lecture classroom.  The bigger exhibits may involve more intense training, such as nine Saturdays, all day.  However, we recently had a smaller exhibit called ‘The Horse,’ which only took one day of training.  Volunteers will also get a walk-through of the exhibits.”  The Field Museum primarily recruits new volunteers through their Web site.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), in Mass., is one of the most comprehensive art museums in the world, with nearly 450,000 works of art.  Ranging in age from teens to retirees, the MFA volunteers are important to the museum for the wealth of knowledge they bring to visitors, as well as their enthusiasm about the work that is done at the museum.  
Volunteer and intern programs coordinator, Herbert Jones, seeks people who are excited about the mission of the MFA.  “We advertise on our Web site and also partner with state and local agencies to find new volunteers,” said Jones.  Many volunteers also come to them from word-of-mouth.  
Specializing in late 20th-century art, the Elmhurst Art Museum, in Elmhurst, Ill., has 25 dedicated volunteers that assist in various areas, primarily as greeters and in the gift shop.  “Our volunteers are valuable, because we have undergone some hiring freezes and are very short-staffed.  The volunteers have alleviated some of the workload.  They let people in, they greet visitors, work in the gift shop and so much more,” said Nancy Himmes, volunteer coordinator.  
Himmes said that two-thirds of her volunteers are over the age of 60, and the rest are under 30.  “We have a lot of retirees because we are a history museum and I think this age group is more interested in history.  We also have 20-somethings, because the economy is so bad and they volunteer to fill their time when they can’t find a job,” Himmes said.
Training the volunteers may involve an orientation to the exhibits, where they are served refreshments and are given a tour by the curator.  “They get the first guided tour of the exhibits, which makes them feel important and educates them, as well,” Himmes said.  
Because the Elmhurst Art Museum is a department of the city, they have access to new recruits in ways that other museums do not.  “We can send fliers with the water bills that go out to everyone in the community.  That is a great strategy for us,” remarked Himmes.  Press releases are also sent to the newspapers as another means of finding new volunteers.
With over 6,000 works of art, the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale is one of South Florida’s leading cultural attractions.  Heading up the volunteer program is volunteer and intern coordinator, Cindy Jo White.  Like Himmes, White said that the volunteers are mostly retirees, with 25 percent being college-aged.  “Jobs are harder to come by in this economy and college students are looking to fill their down-time.  We used to have mainly retirees as our volunteers, but, in these hard times, we are seeing an increase in this younger demographic,” White said.
When it comes to finding new volunteers, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, has been extremely beneficial to White.  “In addition, we have registered with volunteermatch.com and I have also met with officials at all the local universities,” White stated.
Training of these volunteers varies, depending on the job, but the majority of volunteers assist in the gallery.  This group completes an hour and a half orientation and may also hear several speakers from the staff.  Others may receive on-the-job training.
The Cape Cod Museum of Art, in Dennis, Mass., strives to preserve the area’s artistic heritage by exhibiting works of talented artists that are associated with Cape Cod and the Islands.  Deputy Director Debra Hemeon, heads up the volunteer program for the museum.  “Our volunteers, almost without exception, are aged 60 and over,” said Hemeon, who attributes this to the aging demographic of Cape Cod.  In addition, the cost of living in the area is such that most people of working age have paying jobs, and do not have time to volunteer.
“All of our volunteers are members of the museum,” said Hemeon.  “We advertise for volunteers in literature that goes out to all our members and we have also done newspaper ads, as well as e-newsletters.”  Hemeon said that word-of-mouth is also a common way that prospective volunteers hear about the program.
“We are so grateful for our volunteers,” said Hemeon.  “They completely take care of our front desk reception and they are also our entire docent force.  Additionally, they lead museum education for school groups.  In 2009, our volunteers donated over 5,291 hours and that is a really significant contribution.”
Like the other museums, training for volunteers varies, depending on the job.  “Docents put in six months of training.  They work with a mentor and learn about the local artist, the mission and how to give a tour.  Receptionists receive on-the-job training and there is no formal training for those heading up committees,” Hemeon said.
The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), in Scottsdale, Ariz., presents 10-14 carefully selected exhibitions of contemporary art, architecture and design every year.  Providing tours of these changing exhibits and acting as the “face” of the museum are the SmoCA docents.  Said Carolyn Robbins, curator of education, “Our docents give thousands of hours of volunteer service to the institution each year by giving tours, doing community outreach and representing the museum at Senior Expos and the annual Scottsdale Arts Festival.”
Robbins said there are several strategies that are used to recruit new volunteers.  “Word-of-mouth is an important strategy, but we also distribute fliers at various events, promote prospective docent coffee meetings in our event calendar and we place an editorial notice in the local newspaper,” Robbins said.
The docents, who tend to be middle-aged to senior women, participate in an intense 28-week training program, followed by a 10-week apprenticeship program.  “Training includes weekly lectures and learning activities in the museum’s galleries. The apprenticeship program involves preparing and giving a series of tours and an evaluation of a 45-minute tour before becoming a docent,” said Robbins.  SmoCA docents are dedicated to the museum’s mission and act as museum ambassadors wherever they go.

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