I would like to take a bit of personal privilege in this post and get on my soapbox and preach a moment. I came across an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that noted the increase in volunteerism over the past several years. Coupled with other materials such as a recent report from the Center for the Future of Museums, even from a pragmatic perspective, volunteers will be integral to both Archaeology and Museums in the future. At the C.H. Nash Museum, we are at the start of a process to revamp the very nature and approach to our volunteer program.
Here are a few practices we are addressing in our revision. First, we are careful not to solicit volunteers in the abstract without a specific plan to follow-up and engage the individual. Over the years, I cannot begin to count the number of sign-up sheets I have signed to be a volunteer, never to receive any follow-up. In a focus group I led several years ago, the “no follow up” factor was the most common complaint about the “volunteer fair” held by the organization. In essence, I learned that one should not have a volunteer fair or put out a call for volunteers unless there is also a commitment to the follow-up.
Second, at Chucalissa we are mindful to engage with volunteers while on site and not treat them as anonymous cogs in an artifact sorting, counting, and weighing assembly line. As an undergraduate years ago, despite hearing the steady drone from graduate students complaining about their overworked lives, after many attempts I finally found one who agreed to allow me to volunteer to help process artifacts from their excavation. I remember being particularly irritated when the grad student turned out to be a no-show for the first session, apologizing later that they had forgotten about the event. It seemed a daunting task just to find someone who wanted a volunteer! Perhaps one of the most successful volunteer programs I encountered to date is at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History with their archaeology collections. Every Tuesday morning for at least the last 20 years a regular group of volunteers meet to process artifacts. I was impressed those 20 years ago that even as a newcomer, I too was welcomed and integrated into the group. The Cincinnati experience is a good example of a third place type experience ala Ray Oldenberg that takes place in a museum.
At Chucalissa, we now write each volunteer a thank you note upon completion of their project. The volunteer response is interesting. Our thank you notes have generated volunteer thank you notes in thanks for us thanking the volunteer. Last year we held a volunteer appreciation dinner where we reviewed museum accomplishments of the past year, plans for the coming year, and specifically detailed how volunteer support made it all possible.
This all leads me to the title of this post – the myth of volunteers as free labor is no more valid than the myth that funded grant proposals as free money. This recognition goes to the very heart of a successful volunteer program. The average number of employees in a museum in the US today is 7 and the average number of volunteers is 59. (The reference here escapes me at this time – something put out by the AAM) As paid staff decrease, these numbers speak to the valuable role that volunteers can and will play in archaeology and museums in the future. Realizing that potential will take a considerable investment of time and effort in itself.
What steps do you take to assure a meaningful experience for your volunteers?
This week I downloaded a bunch of podcasts from last September’s annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History. You can download the podcasts directly from the AASLH web page or through iTunes. The podcast topics include Web 2.0 Technology and Social Media, Discovering Your Hidden Audience, Creating Diverse Partnerships, and so forth – about 20 in all. The couple I listened to so far have, in one case been interesting – the Lincoln administration with some interesting comparisons with President Obama – and the other quite helpful in exploring how three different institutions use social media. The social media podcast illustrates two ways I find this information tool useful. First, the topical coverage is basic, in this case covering Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so forth. Second, the podcasts include case studies that offer insights on how to adapt and apply these tools to my own needs.
Cuts in travel budgets make conference attendance more selective. To answer this challenge, more and more organizations reach their membership through inexpensive or free webinars and podcasts of Annual Meetings. For example, in addition to the AASLH, for the past several years the Society for Applied Anthropology posted selected sessions from their annual meetings as free podcasts. Will the Society for American Archaeology be not more than just a few years behind this trend?
Free webinars include those sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution such as their Problem Solving With Smithsonian Experts kicking off this week. The American Association of Museum also offers low-cost webinars, free podcasts, along with free webinars that ultimately end up on YouTube.
All of which raises the obvious – with so much stuff out there, how does one choose? Here is my take on this point. Gordon Wiley was considered the last “generalist” in archaeology. As a discipline, we clearly are quite specialized. Two decades ago I wrote my MA Thesis on the analysis of flint artifacts from a single site. I now serve on a committee of a doctoral student who is testing a very specific type of non-destructive spectral technique for fingerprinting flint raw materials. Specialties are now sub-specialized. I find that podcasts, webinars, and the like are excellent resources from which I can choose resource information to which I will devote more time. For example, with social media, podcasts and blogs are very helpful in directing me to specific resources that answer specific questions.
How do these resources answer your research needs?
This week I wanted to throw out some thoughts on the future of archaeology and museums. Of late, I am fond of saying, if we think we can just hold our breath for a while and things will go back to the “good old days” of funding and support, then we will likely die of asphyxiation. At the very heart of archaeology is the understanding of change through time and space. Our very discipline provides us with the starting point to consider the change going on all around us today as well.
One of my most intriguing finds in the recent past is from the Museum Audience Insight post on Museum Visitation in Tough Economic Times. The blog is based on a comparison of museum visitation studies by the Research Advisors and a recent report of the American Association of Museums. In part, the AAM report concluded that although these are tough economic times, museum attendance overall is holding steady. Further, the blog looks at the demographic trends of visitors and the nature of their museum engagement. A follow-up post has a rather detailed analysis of the study respondents. Both of these posts are definitely worth a look.
From the Heritage Key website in England comes 12 Expert Predictions on the future of Archaeology. Although most of the predictions focus on advances in the scientific applications in archaeology, such as remote sensing, radiocarbon and DNA testing, other types of changes are also envisioned. For example, author Brian Fagan predicts that site destruction will reach a crisis point. From the Manchester Museum, Peter Brown sees new forms of communication as key for Museum success. Experimental Archaeologist Jacqui Wood sees archaeological parks as more year-round experiential sites, bringing to mind venues such as Connor Prairie in Indiana.
What are your thoughts on the future of Archaeology and Museums?