Heritage volunteering – Britain’s landscape would not be the same without it

Richard GoughRichard Gough is the volunteer coordinator at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust in Shropshire. He is part of the National Heritage Volunteering Advisory Body, a group of volunteer managers from the UK heritage and museum sector working to strengthen organisations and consider ways to treat volunteers more fairly, consistently and sustainably.

The heritage landscape of Britain would be a barren place without years of volunteering effort. It is this landscape that is home to heritage railways like Talyllyn in Wales which began, in its current form, in 1951, solely as a result of the efforts of volunteers. It is home to us at Ironbridge, which was opened by volunteers at Blists Hill Open Air Museum in 1967. And it’s also home to countless heritage sites and museums. Volunteers got them up and running and volunteers open the doors each day. Just saying ‘thank you’ does not seem quite enough.

Photograph: Andrew Bowden (Some rights reserved)
Photograph: Andrew Bowden (Some rights reserved)

The role of volunteer management

While a high proportion of our museums and heritage sites involve volunteers – 95 per cent according to research by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council – the extent to which volunteer management is understood and supported by the sector is incredibly varied.

At a time when budgets are shrinking, and museums are becoming increasingly reliant on volunteers, good volunteer management has never been more important. Yet the high turnover rate of museum volunteer managers means that only basic issues are ever discussed collectively, and then only on an irregular basis.

In order to move toward more strategic training and thinking, we must enlist the help of specialists from outside our sector. Also, we need to strengthen existing regional networks of volunteer managers from museums and heritage sites, large and small. We must champion volunteer management, making it a worthwhile career choice instead of a stepping stone into museums and heritage.

High stakes

The sustainability of our museums and heritage sites is at stake. We must get volunteering right if we are to survive – and certainly this is true of large museums as well as the small volunteer led museums. This is what motivated us to form the National Heritage Volunteering Advisory Body (NHVAB). Together we can share the expertise and contacts to help unite the sector behind this aim. We are building networks and identifying the needs of all parties. We will use these networks to promote a change in the perception of heritage volunteering, and also to provide national evidence on the major impact heritage volunteering has on individuals and society.

We are sharing

We are sharing best practice and research from the wider volunteering sector, and information on the heritage sector’s specific needs. We’re also sharing solutions to common problems and issues. Yes, excellent frameworks and standards exist, and we can signpost to these, but we will have to go further than that.

For example, how does a small museum run by three volunteers apply these standards? How is a financially stretched museum going to fund their application? We know of museums that have done both, and share their experiences through our network. The Investing in Volunteers (IiV) quality standard, for example, is not a complicated benchmark to work toward, but demystifying it for volunteers for whom it is an unknown quantity is at least one tangible goal of the group.

By far the biggest benefit of our partnership to date has been to sit in the same room as our peers, and discover, perhaps unsurprisingly, that we all have experience of the same issues, the same looming threats, and many of the same solutions. It’s always nice to be among colleagues who share the same values, but even nicer to know we can do something truly productive with them together.

Find out more

You can follow NHVAB on Twitter @heritagevols

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