Being a Volunteer

As I mentioned, while I don’t work in a museum (yet), I do volunteer for the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

It’s a good place to be, both in the general sense of doing something worthwhile and enjoyable, and in the professional sense of gaining some knowledge of museum operations and connections and such. Of course, my personal job-finding goals aren’t a flawless match for the goals of the volunteer program. Some thoughts about being a volunteer:

  • Volunteers matter–but not singularly. At the holiday party last year, where volunteers were invited along with staff, a number of employees made a special effort to tell my how important the volunteers’ work is. Which is nice, but to my mind, a bit over the top. Volunteers make the museum better, but an individual volunteer like me who’s there once every other week… I don’t think the museum will fall apart without me. This isn’t a complaint, though, it’s an observation. The museum staff are almost undoubtedly wise to lay it on too thick rather than too thin, thus stroking the ego of those who do need it, while those who don’t will still appreciate the effort, perhaps make an ironic comment to themselves, and move on.
  • Your role is your role. I volunteer in Public and Interpretive Programs. I get some leeway in how specifically I do what I do: I can pick which animal I bring out for one of our Critter Connections, for example, and I have the responsibility and the authority to engage with visitors in the way that I see best while I’m handling those animals. But I don’t get to, say, set the animal safety policies, or decide how many animal programs there are per day, or say that I’m going to do all animal programs when there are also nature walks to lead and educational craft programs that need to be run. Except that…
  • Some things don’t fit precisely into roles. Being interested in museum marketing, I’ve offered my services to the museum in a general sense. Perhaps not surprisingly, they weren’t much taken advantage of, although I did make a video to promote volunteering at the museum. My next, uh, thing is a bit of uncharted territory, I think. I’ve proposed an online marketing and public engagement campaign about the museum’s butterfly haven. I’ll write more about it in the future–particularly if it’s something that I get the go-ahead to do–but it is designed to be volunteer (namely, me)-lead and crowdsourced in part.
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