free archaeology: austerity Britain – museum workers and entire workforces are replaced with volunteers

Posted: 27/05/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , , , ,

The reduction of the City of York Council’s archaeology officer to a part-time worker and the threat of redundancies for its conservation officers prompted shovel-bum to (rightly) complain that ‘members of the field are pointlessly arguing about where Richard 3 should be buried, far more important archaeological concerns are being overshadowed.’

They may not be overshadowed much longer. The Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Harriet Harman, has highlighted taxpayers’ essential yet ‘invisible’ support for production of and access to culture; and it is becomingly increasingly visible increasingly quickly, as austerity drives professionals and entire institutions to the wall.

Following on from my post on coincidences of and clashes between “unpaid voluntary work” and “workfare” (work-for-welfare), I wanted to provide more substantial evidence for my fears that, in the Big Society, “volunteering” is being used to enable the savaging of the cultural heritage sector, and that workfare will be used to double down on this unemployment and precarisation of the cultural heritage profession, in spite of the fact that the cultural heritage industry generates money, with the consequence that it will depress local economies. As the links show, a lot of this information is thanks to (the British Archaeological Trust) Rescue’s efforts to map the cuts.

(If you’d prefer to be depressed about the prospects for the archaeological sector, see Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s great, data-filled posts on archaeology as a McJob and the split between academic and commercial archaeologists’ interests, and the loss of 30% of jobs in the crisis.)

Museum closures

Between 2002 and 2010, 12 museums closed. Between 2010 and (October) 2012, 30 museums closed, including Grantham Museum; Stamford Museum; Church Farm Museum in Skegness; Elmbridge Museum; the Tarbat Discovery Centre; Archaeolink (Prehistoric Park); the Botanic Gardens Museum in Southport; Clarke Hall in Wakefield; and Lackham Museum of Agricultural and Rural Life. And museums have continued to close, from the Electricity Museum in Christchurch, Dorset to the National Museum of Costume at Shambellie House in Dumfries.

Redundancy slips for cultural heritage professionals

Since 2010, there have been 43 redundancies at the Tate, 32 redundancies at the British Museum, 21 redundancies at the Victoria and Albert Museum (though it has generously maintained its massive internship system) and at least 20 redundancies at the National Gallery.

The National Museum Wales is going to make 35 permanent staff redundant and end 125 temporary workers’ contracts; the National Media Museum has already managed nine voluntary redundancies; the Museum of London has cut eight curators’ jobs; the York Museums Trust has imposed six compulsory redundancies; Maidstone Museum has cut five members of curatorial, operational and front-of-house staff; Perth Museum and Art Gallery’s budget-cutting voluntary redundancies have included its Principal Officer for History; and, due to the austerity imposed on the Arts Council England (ACE) Renaissance East Midlands programme, Northampton Museum’s lost two members of staff who existed to give ‘free professional support to the wider museum community’.

Gloucester City Council’s got rid of its Historic Environment Record/Planning Officer and Community Heritage Officer; the National Trust has cut three archaeologists (though, notably, its humiliating internship programme has survived intact); Natural England’s lost the north-western two of its northern historic environment officers, so the remaining four have to do six people’s work; and Leicestershire County Council’s community archaeologist has been made redundant, so its museum archaeology officer has to do both jobs. and so has its curator of archaeology.

Austerity drives volunteers out of voluntary work

Leicestershire museum store volunteer Ian Marshman has very kindly clarified the details of the cuts to Leicestershire County Council’s museum service.

The community archaeologist was first reduced to a part-time worker, then made redundant; and the curator of archaeology was also made redundant. A more junior, more poorly-paid archaeological officer has been employed to do both jobs.

What is most sad is that both staff had spent almost their entire careers excavating in the county and their loss means that the council is now without an i[r]replaceable body of knowledge. Both staff deserved a much more fitting end to their long careers than to be booted unceremoniously into early retir[e]ment.

The creation of the lower ranking and less highly renumerated post of Archaeological Officer means that both of these roles are now expected to be performed by one less experienced (although she does a great job!) member of staff.

The loss of the Curator has also meant that it is no longer possible to support the sizable body of volunteers (myself included) who once worked in the store, meaning this redundancy hides what is actually a very large cut to the work being undertaken….

Those who conceptualise and impose austerity destroy livelihoods and economic, social and cultural goods; and when they cannot exploit volunteers to disguise the harm they do, their cuts interfere with voluntary efforts that consolidate and amplify the benefits of the professionals’ public service.

As if this were not enough a further round of cuts is on its way, but with only a Finds Lia[i]sion Officer, Archaeological Officer and a property manager left, it is difficult to see who else could be axed. The Tory chairman of the county council was very happy to open the recent exhibition on Treasure finds from the county at Snibston Discovery Museum, but he certainly doesn’t seem to think the county’s past is worth paying to protect and interpret to the public.

Cynical, barely-legal cuts

If there were one council archaeologist for every 300,000 people in Britain, there would still only be 200 council archaeologists for the entire country. Yet, like an increasing number of places, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council (which serves around 300,000 people) does not have any archaeologists anymore.

Sandwell MBC has sacked its Borough Archaeologist and Planning Archaeologist, so now its Historic Environment Records Officer must do the work of three people. As Matt Nicholas noticed with due incredulity, SMBC’s cynical (and only-just-legal) act was announced on TwitLonger.

Lost knowledge and experience

The Harris Museum and Art Gallery has made ten education, curation, exhibition and marketing staff redundant. As Preston City Council’s head of arts and heritage, Alex Walker, observed (and Ian Marshman affirmed below): ‘In the current climate some will find it difficult to find jobs and their knowledge and experience will be lost to the sector.’

Taking (a) part

Gainsborough’s House Society’s trustees have made its director redundant, leaving it without ‘any curatorial staff, specialist expertise’, ‘any art handlers or conservators’; instead, the trustees act as curators.


Decades after devastating its manufacturing industry, (now with the help of their Sheffield Hallam MP-led Liberal Democrat coalition partners) the Conservatives are devastating its post-manufacturing industry. Museums Sheffield, which had already frozen the post of Keeper of Archaeology, ‘lost all of its Arts Council England funding‘, so Western Park and Millennium Galleries’ opening hours were cut, Graves Art Gallery’s workers were reduced to a historically-ominous three-day week and Bishops House’s workforce was replaced with volunteers.

Then the ACE Renaissance Major Grants’ austerity-driven cut caused ‘a crushing 30% reduction in its [remaining] overall budget‘. That has caused 45 redundancies, as well as ‘major reductions’ in exhibitions, and school and adult education. Sheffield City Council had supported Museums Sheffield’s ACE funding bid, but may now reduce its own support for the museum trust, leading to ‘a further 10% cut to its annual grant‘; and outstanding loans may yet cause the complete closure of Graves Art Gallery.

Death by a thousand cuts

All of these are mere examples of confirmed closures of “high street” cultural heritage institutions and confirmed redundancies for other “high street” institutions’ cultural heritage professionals.

They completely exclude other real-terms or effective cuts to the cultural heritage sector, such as frozen funding and frozen positions (and consequently stretched staff); sometimes drastically reduced opening hours (and consequently reduced wages or lost jobs, or staff consequently reduced to precarious, seasonal workers).

They also completely exclude allegedly temporary, years-long closure or mothballing of sites and projects; definite but unspecified redundancies and funding cuts with proposed job losses and other as-yet-unstated consequences; and other threats of redundancy and precarisation, for instance through the outsourcing of (decades-long) museum contracts.

They don’t begin to address the targeting of archaeology departments to compensate for university funding cuts, such as the shutting down of Birmingham University’s Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity and the redundancy of the majority (19) of its staff.

Big Society, small state, little culture: voluntarisation of work in Liverpool

How is the cultural heritage sector coping with the cuts? Sheffield’s Bishops House is not an isolated example, and the explosion in exploitation of volunteers cannot be excused as support of ‘volunteering for wellbeing’.

Until 2008, National Museums, Liverpool (NML) had used the 1,800 volunteer Friends of National Museums, Liverpool (FNML); but, for some unexplained reason, it stopped working with them. Still, in 2010, faced with huge budget cuts, it rediscovered its love of volunteers.

Big Society pilot scheme representative and NML Chairman Phil Redmond said,

We want volunteers who are more hands on on a daily basis, who will come in and help run the museums after five o’clock…. and have them open the museums at weekends….

They sound very much like part-time workers, yet Redmond insisted:

It is not about replacing our staff – who I should not need to reassure because without them NML would not be where it is today. We just want make best use of the funding we receive from the government.

Indeed, he should not have needed to reassure his staff that they would not be replaced; but he did need to reassure them, and they were replaced. NML suffered 30% budget cuts. (Naturally, those cuts also harmed the museum services themselves.)

An unnamed museum worker had to serve (probably) the last six months of her contract knowing that she was ‘one of those people who will most likely be replaced by a volunteer‘. Even if they did receive the news with a ‘mixture of disbelief and fatalism’, and even if they have survived year after year of seeing their friends and colleagues made redundant, the museum’s workers will have spent those years insecure and anxious, and they will remain in utter precarity.

NML began 2010 with 603 staff; but through early retirement (and non-replacement), voluntary severance and voluntary redundancy (and possibly now compulsory redundancy), it got rid of 31 workers in 2010-2011 and 34 in 2011-2012, and it is believed to have got rid of 145 in 2012-2013, so 393 will be left. Aside from being 210 individual tragedies in an already economically-depressed area, those unemployed workers constitute a 35% cut in NML’s staff, which NML covers by overworking its remaining employees and exploiting volunteers as unpaid part-time workers.

As the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union’s North-West Secretary Pete Middleman feared, ‘this whole “big society” idea is a smoke screen for making a smaller state, cutting jobs and bringing in volunteers to fill the gaps‘. Liverpool City Council’s pulled out of the Big Society pilot scheme, but the practice of supplanting cultural heritage workers with volunteers persists.

Merseyside Maritime Museum volunteer tour guide Chris Middlehurst noted: ‘Most [volunteers] have full-time jobs and will help if they can, but whether you will get people to sit in an art gallery all day for nothing is another matter.’ Workfare might solve that problem.

At least unemployed workers can maintain their skills in Hampshire and Moray


Hampshire Museums, Arts and South East Hub ‘already [had] between 140 and 200 volunteers providing support services‘ to its 116 full-time paid staff; now it’s cut 26 of its cultural heritage workers. The entire workforces of the Allen Gallery in Alton, the Curtis Museum in Alton, Bursledon Windmill near Eastleigh, and Rockbourne Roman Villa and Museum near Fordingbridge have been replaced with volunteers.


Similarly but even more boldly, Moray Council has withdrawn 100% of its arts and culture funding. The council’s himself-soon-to-be-redundant libraries and museums manager, Alistair Campbell, explained their intention ‘to transfer Tomintoul Museum to a relevant community group and the Falconer Museum to a relevant organisation, with… the Friends of the Falconer Museum being invited to take over that responsibility’. Until that decision, the Falconer Museum employed seven workers (and used sixteen volunteers).

So, more job losses, and further voluntarisation of the cultural heritage sector, or perhaps simply the forced collapse of the sector. As the Friends of the Falconer Museum’s secretary, Chris Bridgeford, noted, ‘[m]ost of our members are in their seventies and eighties, and they don’t feel they can take this on‘.

My darkest professional fantasies come true in Leicestershire

Those who design and drive austerity “externalise”, privatise, force the costs of public goods onto civic-minded citizens, such as retirees; people with a sense of social and/or professional responsibility, such as specialists; and vulnerable members of the public, who are dependent on the service or the potential (but probably non-existent) benefits of providing the service, such as unpaid interns.

A paid professional has been made redundant but, for the sake of the community, has carried on going in to work anyway as an unpaid volunteer. As Ian Marshman explained,

If it were not for the willingness of the [Leicestershire County Council] community archaeologist to continue much of his outreach work in a voluntary capacity, then it is hard to contemplate the state that Leicestershire’s archaeology would have been left in.

He’s Peter Liddle, who had in fact been awarded an MBE for ‘services to community archaeology’ at the council and ‘pretty much coined the phrase “community archaeology” back in the ’70s, we all owe a lot to him‘.


Bolton and Gloucester city councils have sold off parts of their museum collections to fund their work with what remains.

[Originally posted on conflict antiquities]

  1. […] cross-posted on (un)free archaeology.] Following on from my post on coincidences of and clashes between “unpaid voluntary […]

  2. bishopshouse says:

    It is something volunteers are very much aware of and is a great moral dilemma. In the case of Bishops House staffing levels and opening hours had already been reduced twice and what had been a museum with usual opening hours had moved to a weekend only. There were no Bishops House Staff left as such, merely museum staff from elsewhere who did Saturday or Sunday as part of their usual work. Permanent staff were backed by an unpaid or low paid internee. The museum was losing visitors. It was then after hearing that the museum was likely to be totally closed that a lobby group formed with no intention of taking over. I don’t think you can use Bishops House as an example of present recession behaviour but more the lack of Arts Council spending in South Yorkshire for a number of years.

    • samarkeolog says:

      Thank you for this. As I understood it, the Arts Council’s own funding was cut (as an austerity measure), and that’s why it cut its spending in South Yorkshire; I certainly agree that there’s a longer trend of under-funding of arts and culture. I’ve got to finish a couple of other things, then I’ll update the post.

      I hope that it’s clear that I’m not criticising the volunteers (or the Sheffield museums’ staff, who are clearly striving to preserve the most basic services); I admire their efforts. As you say, the threat of closure forced them to act – I only object to them being put in that position. (Having a friend who taught at Park Hill and took her kids to Weston Park, and having once helped (as a volunteer!), I do very much appreciate the value of the museums to the community.)

      • 3B1shops?! says:

        I don’t disagree with you, just that Bishops House is not a good example of this, as the staff had been cut and exhibitions dropped and so it had been going into decline over the last 20 years.

        Underfunding of Sheffield Museums happened many years ago under previous austerity measures and a previous Conservative Government and it is a mark of how hard MS have worked that things aren’t worse. The extra cost of repairing and refurbishing Weston Park due to major structural problems caused MS huge financial problems that they have never recovered from. The council cutting funding and insisting they don’t replace people who left also didn’t help but this was all before the present financial crisis.

        I think more obvious during the present economic climate is the number of education projects that have had to be dropped, including MS community education programme and the closure of the Mayfield environmental centre with the idea that teachers can take up the slack by doing it all themselves.

        Given that the Millenium Gallery has the biggest visitor numbers in Yorkshire for a free venue and the fact that the Arts are a major contributor to the Nations economy all these cuts are literally false economy.

        If you look at lottery funding as well as Arts Council funding it is heavily weighted in favour of London and surrounding counties so really the North have always been working under austerity measures.

        To be honest unless there is an acknowledgement of the economic advantage of the Arts and it is seen as a job creator and not “a drain on taxpayers” volunteers are all that stands between a lot of venues collapsing and I am sure most volunteers are aware of that. I’m also quite sure they would rather there was more funding and people employed as there is a limit how much time and effort a volunteer can put in. Yes they are being exploited and they know it but what alternative is there? There needs to be a completely different attitude to the Arts nationally before things will change.

      • samarkeolog says:

        I honestly think that a general volunteers’ and interns’ strike may be necessary…

      • 3B1shops?! says:

        I don’t think that would help. Not all volunteers would support it, but even if they did, Government policy wouldn’t change and places like Bishops House would close, as so many have already and opening hours will continue to be cut for the big Museums and Galleries. Under present condition the volunteer groups as a community charity can apply for funding that the big Museums and Galleries can’t.

        I think big and little organisations and voluntary should get together to make their point about the Arts being an Asset rather than a drain on resources both locally and Nationally. I do think many museums and galleries are not communicating with volunteers and using them effectively. Also there has often been a big gulf between the community run museums and the publicly funded institutions. There is a lot they could learn from each other. What the publicly funded institutions could learn is the power of publicity online.

        Social networking is a powerful thing. If you look at the numbers re heritage sites and facebook pages the numbers are astounding. There is a lobby group that could be mobilised if they understood the arguments.

  3. samarkeolog says:

    I don’t like the idea of a general strike. I would like to believe that all we need to do is raise awareness, but the government already knows that heritage generates money; and if even the immediately atrocious bedroom tax can’t be stopped by a massive campaign and widespread news coverage, I don’t see how it would work for museums’ death by a thousand cuts. I’m really at a loss.

    • 3B1shops?! says:

      I only know the facts because I have been studying it. I am not sure the government as a whole do know the facts nor the general public.

      I was pretty astonished to see visitor figures for the Millennium Gallery in the light of all the cuts they are having to make as it doesn’t make good economic sense, especially as at the same time Sheffield Council is supposed to be working hard to encourage visitors to the City centre. A look at Manchester which is the most visited City outside London and this adds over £10 billion to their economy. As most of those visitors are coming to their museums and galleries it should prove the point, but this ruthless obsession to cut costs has over-ridden common sense and I don’t think you can even lay this at one political party’s door.

      The message is not getting through. Possibly because most Arts Council funding is down south and a lot going to what is seen as elitist places such as the Royal Opera, the general public see Arts funding as irrelevant.

      • samarkeolog says:

        It’s certainly not party political; if I remember rightly, it became a noticeable problem about a decade ago (though it’s obviously spiraled out of control in the last few years). And as you say, people see subbing operas as irrelevant (at least); I do think they’d feel differently if it were the place they took their kids on a rainy Sunday. Arts England(?), Culture 24, etc. have highlighted that heritage generates £20b a year; it’s just that they’d rather save money now regardless, even at great economic as well as social cost later.

  4. […] It seems to me that, although the driver is the reduction in the number of paid jobs in archaeology, several things are being conflated in some discussions at the moment. […]

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