Volunteering in the Big Society
|maj 20, 2011||Posted by skapaallmanningar under Berättelser från allmänningar, Gemensam välfärd, In English, Öppen industri||
In this article, we go to the shop floor of the Big Society Initiative, taking a closer look at volunteering at three different museums in three of the largest cities in England.
The Big Society Initiative is a program initiated by the British conservative government and strongly promoted by Prime Minister David Cameron. The initiative’s primary focus is to reinforce public-sector institutions with volunteers and encourage volunteers to take over certain services in local communities, such as bus lines and postal offices. However, the initiative have met intense criticism. Critics suspect, and probably rightly so, that the initiative is a smoke-screen for cutting costs in order to be able to lower taxes, and to do this by outsourcing work to volunteers while portraying this as a way of giving power back to local communities. One case speaking strongly in favour for this interpretation is the fact that Cameron – of course – does not encourage the same development regarding private enterprises. However, the focus of this article will not be on the macro-level, but rather on the mechanism of getting people involved in public-sector work and on the motivation that drives the people spending their free time volunteering.
One of the sectors having been put forward most strongly as being well-adapted to the spirit of the Big society is museums. I had the privilege of visiting museums in three of the largest cities in England during a couple of weeks, and therefore decided to do a small comparison between them.
Students of Liverpool keep the museums going
Liverpool was declared one of the “vanguard areas” of the Big Society Initiative when it was launched in 2010. The city already having several volunteer and worker-cooperative projects in different sectors made it seem like a perfect example. However, Liverpool soon decided to opt-out of the initiative, not wanting to be part of a propaganda for something the Liverpool Labour politicians believed to be a way of cutting down on public finance, especially in areas being close to volunteer-run sectors and thereby, according to some, impoverishing the very soil and prerequisites for making volunteering possible and efficient.
Having abandoned the status of “vanguard area” has not meant that there is no more volunteering going on. I visited the combined Merseyside Maritime Museum and International Slavery Museum, both of which rely quite heavily on volunteer work. Both museums, together with the other museums that are part of National Museums Liverpool, have several hundred volunteers in-all, the absolute majority of which consists of students with a special interest the museums’ areas of expertise. The volunteers work in many parts of the museums and both on their own and together with the regular employees. Most popular are the archives, where volunteers get to seek and sort relevant documents and artifacts for the museums but at the same time get first-hand access to unique material that can be extremely relevant for their studies. I conducted a short interview at my visit, and was told that except pursuing personal and professional interests, the social aspect was considered rewarding by many, and many volunteers worked with guided tours and similar. Finally, said my interviewee, it should not be underestimated how many does this in order to get something extra for their CV. Volunteer work, of course, looks good as a witness of character, she said, and if the area of volunteering is relevant for the future career then even more so.
Manchester – where work was born
Next stop on the trip was Manchester, and since Manchester has an extremely interesting history as one of the main cradles of industrialization, I had to visit the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). MOSI has a wide collection of cultural and techno-historical exhibitions, among them fully functioning 19th-century textile-factory equipment, trains and huge collections of airplanes and other (mostly military) vehicles. MOSI, just like the National Museum Liverpool, has quite a lot of volunteers.
I visit the aircraft hall at what is referred to as a “Volunteer Tuesday” and immediately find a large group of volunteers working on a car in the museum. One of them is John Williams, a retired ex-engineer who has been coming to the museum every Tuesday for the last twelve years. He had been retired less than a year when he started taking part in the volunteer work at MOSI, and together with the other volunteers he provides a valuable asset to the museum. This particular Tuesday, there is twelve volunteers working in this part of the museum, almost all of them retired engineers who enjoy getting to use their knowledge keeping the old and valuable historical machines in good condition. And the interest from potential volunteers is obviously substantial, since the MOSI webpage even states that they can not accept any more volunteers at the moment.
When I ask Mr Williams about his motives for putting in so much work without any kind of economical compensation, he simply shrugs and says that this is what he loves to do. In his spare time, he says, he is a slightly fanatical Rolls-Royce owner, and his interest in other Rolls-Royce engines, such as the ones used in Spitfire airplanes and other machines present at the museum is a large part of the explanation. Another explanation is company, and he tells me that many of the volunteers has been around for many years, creating a group of friends combining work and their favorite hobby. As he himself puts it: “It makes you get up in the morning.”
The great British Museum is built by free men
The final stop is in London, at the famous British Museum. This huge museum contains an astonishing collection of artifacts from all over the world, in many ways an invaluable monument of past imperialist glory. There is certainly reasons why one would want to get the chance to learn more about the vast collections, and volunteering is, of course, one way. The museum has an ambitious volunteering program, with volunteers performing all sorts of tasks, from making guided tours for the visitors to digitalizing the collections. The British Museum seems quite similar to the Liverpool museums in that its volunteer force contains quite a lot of students, which raises the question as to why the MOSI is almost exclusively using retired volunteers. One factor could of course be the need for highly skilled engineers that might not be likely to do volunteer work in the middle of a busy career. However, the British Museum obviously needs highly skilled volunteers as well, so it would be interesting to know if the different museums have taken different paths in choosing which volunteers to admit.
The British Museum also has quite a bit of information on its website, providing an interesting insight. In the policy document for volunteering, it becomes clear that the question of outsourcing paid work to volunteers is a hot topic. Under paragraph three, it states:
“Volunteers are not a substitute for employees and the Museum does not recruit volunteers to displace them. A volunteer accepting full or part time employment in the Museum shall not be expected to continue his/her voluntary work. ”
This obviously acknowledges the debate over Big Society volunteering just being a way to cut costs, and also hints at the same kind of conflict of motives that we could imagine in the case of the Liverpool museums. The document states that a “volunteer is anyone who without compensation or expectation of compensation (other than reimbursement of expenses) performs a task at the direction of and on behalf of the Museum. ”, but at the same time it seems that hiring of permanent staff from the pool of volunteers is not uncommon. It is not unlikely that many of the volunteers at the museum are in fact there trying to get a permanent job, rather than spending some of their free time engaging in a favorite interest. (These two motives do not, of course, exclude one another.)
Different models for volunteering
When comparing the museums visited, a point can obviously be made regarding the difference in age and position, and perhaps also on the motivating factors. It would seem from what we have heard that genuine personal interest is the main driving force behind volunteering at these museums. At the same time, the interviewee at The Merseyside Maritime Museum / International Slavery Museum put quite a bit of an emphasis on the student’s focus on their careers and CV:s, whereas the ex-engineers at MOSI are obviously working for other reasons that are extraneous to market logic. How this affects their attitude in general is beyond what I have researched, but it would be very interesting to dig deeper into this topic.
The Big Society Initiative has so far not been a progressive economical project. However, there clearly are parts of the wide-spread British volunteer sector that could be constituting a logic of the commons. Instead of focusing on traditional criticism of the initiatives of right-wing politicians, simply calling for more public spending, it would be interesting to see a evaluation of these tendencies, in order to find a way to undermine both the state and capital, to give the power back to the people and to truly create a big society.