The problematic topic of the volunteer culture in archaeology and heritage in Britain

In the past few months it has become apparent to me that the subject of voluntary work, in heritage in general and archaeology in particular, is a really rather difficult one. I’ve decided to write this post because the topic has been raised more and more as my classmates and I reach the final stretch of our studies in Cultural Heritage Management and Other Wonderful Archaeological Topics.

It has only become more apparent as I begin to search out jobs and complete application forms from employers who expect a huge amount of experience (both voluntary and paid) from successful candidates. All too often, it is impossible to gain experience in a paid position until you have really rather substantial voluntary experience. Personally I have around 700 hours of voluntary experience, most of which is in field archaeology, and some of which is curatorial or journalistic. But still this does not feel like enough to get the jobs which I have spent the last 6 months qualifying myself to do.

So one of the issues that comes straight to mind is what exactly qualifies someone to do a job – is it experience or is it a piece of paper? Universities are churning out hundreds of gifted and enthusiastic graduates and postgraduates who are inexperienced but who have all demonstrated an ability to learn and apply themselves to various tasks with which they might be confronted with in the working environment (as far as I can gather teaching transferable skills has become extremely important in most university curricula), but their lack of experience hinders them significantly.

So who does have the experience? Well, to me it appears to be those who have the resources that mean they can devote considerable amounts of time to their chosen voluntary pursuit, be that field archaeology or being a Steward at a museum or heritage site .  This brings us on to an even more challenging subject. It is, of course, money! Those who can afford to work for free, are able to do so. Those who have spent a considerable amount of money (not to mention time!) studying Cultural Heritage Management, Digital Heritage, Public Archaeology, Museum Studies need to be paid for their time in order to make their investments in their education worthwhile. Could it be argued then that heritage practice is becoming de-specialised because there are those without qualifications who are willing to work for free?

I must stress here that I am in no way against the involvement of volunteers and the general public in archaeology and heritage. I am a strong believer that everyone who wants to should be able to be involved in their own heritage, but if we lose the heritage specialist, then what do we have left?

There are so many aspects of this conversation to pursue (to list just a few: diminished levels of knowledge/professionalism in the field, entertainment, potentials for community development) which have been mentioned by some of my fellow tweeters.

Interestingly enough, as I started this post, I tweeted about it, and the very immediate and passionate response I had from both followers and non-followers was interesting. This is clearly a subject that people have strong feelings on. I’d love for this to become and open (respectful!) discussion, so please contribute in the comments below, or join in the twitter conversation here. We’re using the hashtag #FreeArchaeology to contribute our thoughts and opinions on the subject!

I will leave you with an interesting and amusing little flow chart that a good friend and fellow blogger of mine, Hannah Sterry  pointed out to me. It is entitled Should I Work for Free? and I believe it contains swears, although there is a button at the top which will remove all traces of the f-bomb.

I look forward to hearing any contributions anyone may have and below I will provide links to others’ thoughts on the subject:

Stone: Some Incoherent Thoughts on Volunteering – A wonderfully honest blog post from Lucy Shipley

Q: Why should archaeology be free? A: It shouldn’t. – Jennie Bancroft presents some statistics that provide an insight into volunteer culture in British Heritage

free archaeology, part one: volunteering, training and crowdfunding – A nice review of how the #FreeArchaeology twitterstorm started, summarising the arguments made on twitter and through blogging.

32 thoughts on “The problematic topic of the volunteer culture in archaeology and heritage in Britain

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  6. A very good article. It isn’t just limited to archaeology either, and I’d suggest not restrained to the UK. In Australia over the last 30 years or so volunteering has been used, rightly or wrongly, to support critical services such as education, health services and the emergency services. Many council and government services are also supplemented by volunteers, and I have recently become aware of council employee in heritage positions with no understanding of the heritage legislation. I fully sympathise with the archaeology students of today, being one myself. By the time I had finished my undergraduate degree part time I had over 6 months full time field and lab experience on a single site. My total volunteer experience in archaeology now amounts to a full year, before I have finished my masters degree. I do believe it is an industry problem. In over 30 years in the work force only the archaeology industry has requested the paper first, experience second when I have applied. Volunteering experience is a valuable commodity in any employable capacity, but it must be in balance with the education. Other industries look at transferable skills and a fit to the business. Training on the job then brings the employee to the standard required by the business. The employee can be provided with the specialist skills. The lack of this foresight is surprising bearing in mind the archaeological and heritage industry builds itself on techniques and methods drawn from other disciplines. Sadly, with a glut in archaeology employment at the moment the educational requirements for entry level positions is extraordinary. I find I am financially worth more to a company without my degree than with it. At least, in archaeology, that is the perception. Personally, I have resigned to the thought that the only way forward is to find work in another industry and invest to fund my own projects, rather like the practitioners of early archaeology.

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  18. An interesting topic. What purpose does a heritage specialist serve?

    You can argue that it is impossible for society to progress without knowing the past. Shedding new light on the past can easily be argued to *have been* critical to society’s development.

    If the profession continues to produces new findings that give a new insight into the future, then it has found a need: A reason to fund archaeology as if it were critical to the future.

    What evidence exists that the profession has found new insights that will be of widespread benefit to the future? If no new insights have been forthcoming, the profession has transformed itself into a ‘want’, not a ‘need’ of society: “Free archaeology” may be the only possible outcome.

    • Hi Jonathan, thanks for your contribution!

      I think that there is a general, unspoken and perhaps subconcious consensus amongst all human beings that heritage and our collective pasts are both extremely important. It’s just that when govt. organisations etc ask ‘what would you rather have: education and the NHS or a museum?’ the answer is always inevitably going to be the former.

      Perhaps we need to stop separating heritage etc off as an optional cultural luxury and make it part of the wider social scheme?

      • The wider social scene is largely concerned with the future rather than the past. The type of concern usually shifts with each new discovery of threat or opportunity. Nevertheless, everyone would probably agree that the archaeological profession has, in the past, helped to fundamentally change society’s perception of itself. When discoveries which affect society cease, a profession has reached its mature phase.

        If the profession is still maturing, and performs a function that could help shape, change and develop society, a careful approach is essential: Reshaping history is far more controversial than almost any new scientific discovery.

        On the other hand, if the profession has reached the mature phase, it may be better to adapt, accept and encourage the volunteer culture.

    • I don’t think the industry has turned into a volunteerist society. In the United States, archaeology has become synonymous with cultural resource management (similar to heritage conservation in the UK, I believe). Basically, a niche has been created for archaeologists and other preservationists that provide a form of legal advice for clients and take up some of the slack of site identification, damage assessment, and mitigation for government agencies. There are a few good paying jobs and many poorly paid positions. There are also ample opportunities for volunteering.

      No matter how large the volunteer pool becomes, cultural resource management will always be supervised by skilled professionals. They are the only ones that can provide proper advice for clients and agencies. You can’t get your project done without complying with environmental laws (unless you want to eat a few thousand dollars in fines). Experienced, educated CRMers are the only ones that can provide those services.

      However, two things threaten the whole stack of cards: a race to the bottom from lowballing CRM companies and a glut of college grads willing to do whatever it takes to get a job. I have no idea where this will take the industry. Despite what some of my peers think, I believe the establishment of a guild-like structure (think the American Bar Association or American Medical Association) can do much to enforce a livable wage for CRM professionals and raise the requirements to become a professional. It will still be hard for those starting out, just like in law, but once you make it you can live the middle class dream. Another savior is expansion into markets outside Western Europe, Australia, and the U.S. in order to provide CRM services for international companies and other countries. It’s a well-known fact that western companies have been exploiting developing countries without meeting international cultural resources/heritage conservation regulations. I think there is room for a large number of jobs to be created providing services to international conglomerates and countries that want to do more but don’t know where to start.

      If you want to get a job in archaeology, start with creating a large network throughout the profession, connecting on a personal level with ALL of the people that can give you a job, and giving selflessly of your knowledge and connections (Don’t give your labor. It just fuels the problem. Choose to opt-out. Archaeology service providers and agencies in the U.K. need to pony up the money to do archaeology or not do it at all). Companies/agencies hire people they know rather than the best applicant. You need to become the person they know.

      In general, college degrees are giving less of a market benefit for those that have them. There’s actually an education bubble in the U.S. where students are taking out massive loans to get degrees that won’t ever pay themselves off. Student loan payments are actually stunting the development of our economy, society, and will have negative repercussions for decades to come. It’s a problem for all young careerists, not just archaeologists.

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  20. I thought hard before deciding to contribute here, not least because I know Emily and didn’t want any comment to be seen as personal. I think the piece is thought-provoking (she certainly provoked many Twitter responses) and makes many valid points. It is a many stranded and emotive topic. I would like to tug at a few of those strands. My comments apply to the situation in the UK, I don’t pretend to be qualified comment on a wider basis.

    When we talk about experience, it is important to distinguish volunteering from doing unpaid work (or paying to attend a fieldschool) which is required to obtain a qualification. Both are experience, but the fact that you are not being paid does not of itself make you a volunteer! Pay-to-dig is a whole separate issue – maybe another blog topic Emily?

    There is a common misconception that volunteers are people who can afford to work for free and may do so for months on end. In my experience, certainly in the field of archaeology and heritage, that is rarely, if ever, the case. Volunteers generally give up evenings/time off-shift/weekends/holiday entitlement to do stuff they consider worthwhile. Furthermore, many invest further time and perhaps even money to obtain qualifications in their chosen field without expectations of any reward other than satisfaction.

    You ask how Heritage gets away with having people work for free and suggest that other organisations getting money from tourism don’t – the answer is that other organisations would love to! Look at all the firms that signed up to the Government’s “slavery” Workfare scheme. The reason Heritage has so many volunteers is that, by and large, the organisations in the sector are not-for-profit and survive through public subsidy and grant funding. People volunteer because they identify with the ethos of an organisation and because if they don’t do the work, no-one else will. Nobody is being done out of a job as there are no funds to pay anyone. Every museum in the land has volunteers working in it, underpinning the activities of the institution. One role of the specialist is to give focus and direction to volunteers and ensure standards are maintained.

    I share your concerns about de-specialisation, but I believe the threat to the role presented by the current economic retrenchment is much greater than any from the use of volunteers. The local authority for the area where I live has become the first in the country to announce it is withdrawing all funding for arts and cultural activities, I fear it will soon be followed by others. One consequence locally is that two museums will close. Heritage specialists have already been told that their contracts will not be renewed. The decision is said to follow public consultation, but it is all too easy to get the result you want from such consultation. Ask if spending on heritage is important and you may get a positive response. Ask whether it is more important to protect abused children than to fund museums and you can guarantee the answer (I have no idea what actual questions were used, as I was not invited to take part in the consultations, but the decision to close half the area’s libraries has been revealed as based on responses from 60 teenagers). Heritage benefited from being perceived as a “good thing” in the last two decades, but there are ominous signs that this may no longer be the case.

    Turning back to archaeology, something that is not much talked about is that many (I don’t have the data to say most) professional archaeologists, whether employed or self-employed, are volunteers too! Turn up at any research or rescue excavation and you are likely to find archaeologists working there who are “on holiday,” specialists who just happen to be passing but stop and offer their opinion, and acquaintances who supply their services and the use of expensive equipment for a day or two at no charge. Even the few people on site who are paid to be there probably “volunteer” by working more hours than they are paid for. Once again, no-one would otherwise be paid to do all this work – it simply wouldn’t be done otherwise. These projects are run on a shoestring and all available funding is already committed. People help because they want to.

    One final thought – it is interesting that lawyers are applauded for undertaking pro bono work.

    • Hi Dave!

      Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation! I’m glad you decided to post this reply – you have a very important viewpoint.

      You make very (very!) good points, and I agree that volunteers are important for the very practicality of getting archaeology done. They have as much right to be involved in their own heritage as those who are officially qualified to do so, but I think that all of the concerns that have been voiced in blogs and on twitter over the past week or so are still important and relevant, and need to be talked about!

      A lot of the points you make strengthen the argument that a large part of the problem here is the fact that there is a devastating shortage of funding to be had at the moment. It feels like there’s absolutely nothing we can do about this issue at the present, but I can see a few promising projects appearing and I am hopeful that we can somehow reach a happy equilibrium for workers and volunteers.

  21. Hi Emily. This is not a new problem! When I graduated and got my first paying archaeological job ( in 1990 transitioning from the CP/ MSC days to PPG16 framework) the unit I worked for expected a minimum of 2 years experience before hiring you ( fortunately I was employed for computing and geophysics so got my foot into the slippery door that way).
    There is a tension between work being carried out as part of a development project and the tradition of public engagement with archaeology ( through local archaeological groups) which is an ongoing conversation (cf however there is a principle that no one should as a volunteer be doing the work of an employee ( and trainee positions should be paid – although training and CPD in archaeology is another can of worms.

    • Hi Phill! I agree. There is this perpetual dichotomy between commercial and research or public archaeology, but I think that by now we perhaps ought to be trying to move away from these dichotomies in practice and working towards increased communication between the two sub-disciplines. I also agree that no one should be doing the work of an employee for free, and employers shouldn’t allow that to happen.

  22. Re: “The problematic topic of the volunteer”, it strikes me that there needs to be more dialogue with people who have worked in the private sector (meaning the business non-arch non-public-sector and past-academic world) to seek a different perspective? I’m an archaeologist who just spent 26 yrs working for hi-tech US/global companies after grad. It sure brings a “different” view of the intra-arch conversations and dilemmas. It could also add structure, direction and a shared lobbying hub (in the context of constant reactive winjing). Much of the time I feel, of archaeology, “get real about your introspection”. Best, SC

    • I agree Spencer – Jennie points out in her post (here) that no one else in sectors that get most of their money from tourism (talking more heritage than archaeology now) allows people to work for free, so why does Heritage get away with continuing to do so?

  23. Very interesting post. The side of volunteering I deal with is less of the unpaid internship model and more of avocational folks who pursue their interest as a hobby. In this capacity, as stewards of public resources, I believe that we have an obligation to make these opportunities available to those who pay our salaries through their tax dollars. I posted on this general idea earlier today:

    In growing these types of programs I have had some success in securing more funds to finance the supervision and education of volunteers. In my perhaps too Pollyannish view of cultural heritage development, I would like to think that with continued community outreach and volunteer opportunities, the “public” will become more appreciative of the value of their heritage curated in museums and better fund that presentation and preservation. However, as Adam notes, this is a sticky situation.

    • Hi Robert! Your point about needing to involve those who wish to pursue voluntary work as a hobby, and allowing them to gain from voluntary opportunities. Your post is very interesting, and I like your observation that continued outreach may result in increased chance of various stakeholders investing in (perhaps crowd-funded) projects.

  24. This reminds me of the backlash against unpaid internships that are a common “first step” on the career ladder for many scientists. Often doing such work at a lab or on a field study or excavation is the only way to get into the profession. A backlash against this practice is beginning to develop in many fields because it’s elitest: only those who can afford to go unpaid for 6 months will be able to become professional scientists. On the other hand, with so many cuts to funding often not paying interns is the only viable route for many organisations. It’s a sticky situation.

    • Thanks for your reply Adam! Yes, I agree, and that point about elitism and ending up with only those who can afford to work for free prior to gaining employment has been raised multiple times on the twitter #FreeArchaeology feed. I have no idea how we are going to get around the issue, financially.

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