by Amanda LightstoneOpening Doors Project Coordinator, University of Cambridge Museums 

Originally posted on the UCM Blog.

The recent SHARE Front of House Forum meeting was held at Sutton Hoo in September and focussed on ‘Volunteers in Museums’ and the management of this vital group of people.  Many of the Eastern regions museums wouldn’t open if not for the dedication and enthusiasm of its volunteers. Volunteers play an important role both in the customer service and welcome offered, but also behind the scenes often in roles not initially noticed by visitors.

The University of Cambridge Museums identified the need for this forum and coordinates the meetings three times per year on behalf of SHARE Museums East. The minutes of all previous meetings are available on the SHARE website or carry on reading for a brief synopsis of what was discussed recently.

The Sutton Hoo meeting was attended by 40 museum professionals from across the region, many of who themselves are volunteers.  Mark Taylor, former Director of the Museums Association, gave the keynote presentation in which he covered the following points:

  • A museum’s staff is its most important asset; a poor collection surrounded by enthusiastic and engaging people is far more like to succeed than a great collection with bored and disinterested staff.
  • The definition of a museum has changed recently, highlighting that a museum’s worth is in how it treats visitors, not just the size of its collection. This is a major change from the previous attitude towards the public accessing museums.
  • Front-of-House staff and volunteers from the local community will increase the welcome visitors feel as it will be from people like them, rather than being met by a team of academics whose sole focus is the historic value of the collection. FoH act as a liaison or advocate point for the museum, encouraging people to feel a part of the museum they are visiting.

Mark was followed by Jeremy Althorpe, House Manager at Aldeburgh Music, Snape Maltings, who encouraged the group to think of volunteering as a journey where volunteers who build up their skills can move onto roles with more responsibility.  Jeremy highlighted Aldeburgh Music’s process for recruiting and managing volunteers, and impressed the importance of being clear and fair about what the role requires and the expectations the staff should communicate to the volunteers.

Aldeburgh volunteers contribute around 10,000 hours per annum, covered by just 150 volunteers. They are guides, front of house managers and staff the visitor centre. They also act as ambassadors as they represent Aldeburgh Music to the audience members and visitors.

Following lunch and the chance to wander around the besutiful Sutton Hoo site, the group reconvened for an interactive afternoon session, looking at ‘Managing volunteers through a period of organisational change and difficult situations’.

Niki Hughes of IWM Duxford explained the mentality of volunteers faced with by saying, ‘There is a common misconception that volunteers are against change, but this is not the case as volunteers actually fear the unknown, rather than change. Often this is because they are not aware of the entire picture, they only know the fragments that have been filtered down to them, so are uncertain as to how that will affect them. Because they love the work they do for their organisation, they are more likely to question what’s happening, as it is affecting something they are so passionate about.’

And, Lynsey Coombs from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology shed some light on the process of transitioning the museum volunteer role from ‘Invigilator’ to ‘Engager’. She advised, ‘Take the time to understand the organisation and the volunteers, involve the volunteers in the ideas process and plan in detail. Will additional training be required? What might go wrong? How can this be coped with? If you’ve considered all the problems you might face, there is more confidence in the process.’

Full notes from the Forum are available on the SHARE website.

The next session of the SHARE Front of House Network will be on 11 February at Botanic Garden, Cambridge and the topic will be ‘What Front of House, paid and unpaid, want from curators and senior management’.

To register for this event, click here.

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