voluntarisation of cultural heritage labour at the Museum of London

Posted: 27/09/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , , , ,

There are going to be further redundancies at the Museum of London (MoL). In order to balance its slashed budget, the museum’s getting rid of its entire oral history and community workforce (via @lornarichardson).

The precarisation of the cultural heritage profession

The museum is making a ‘radical shift’ to ‘greater flexibility, cross-departmental working and diversifying the skills of existing staff at every level’; in other words, it’s firing some people and making the remaining staff responsible for their “redundant” colleagues’ work as well as their own.

Do you think I’m being cynical, even unfair? The MoL ‘plans to axe all of its dedicated oral historian posts and focus on “digital collecting”‘, where ‘the delivery of the digitised oral history collection will be added to the responsibilities of the digital curator’.

The voluntarisation of the cultural heritage profession

Will their already hard-working (indeed over-worked) team be able to work even harder? Will they have to? Without a hint of irony (or sheer embarrassment), the Museum Development Officer for Organisational Health (who is responsible for helping museums to ‘survive and thrive‘ through austerity) is also responsible for its (actively cultivated) volunteer workforce.

Instead of having community workers doing community work, now ‘[c]ommunity work will be embedded in how we work across the organisation…. within the context of our strategic plan and audience development strategy.’ And their strategic plan is to ‘build skills through volunteering’, amusingly allegedly ‘enabling people to become more employable’.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t view the article where Mar Dixon (@MarDixon) made the case for ‘letting volunteers run your social media‘. Even more unfortunately, the Museum of London’s community team probably did see it the week before the museum announced their redundancy.

[Someone was kind enough to show me Mar Dixon’s article. Despite the title, it was not a call for unpaid voluntary workers’ management of social media activity; it was simply a call for cultural heritage organisations to trust their volunteers to contribute to their social media (in a genuinely voluntary fashion), which I support.]

Even better, for the museums, if and when they use digital volunteers/distance volunteers/e-volunteers, most volunteers use their own work spaces, phones, computers and internet connections, so the museums save money. And if the paid workers ‘give the volunteers ownership of the project’, it reduces their own workload.

The consequences of defending or acquiescing to free archaeology

More cultural heritage workers are being made redundant all the time. And more volunteers are being exploited for unpaid labour to enable those workers’ unemployment. The consequences of defending or acquiescing to free archaeology are our friends’ and colleagues’ unemployment or exploitation.

Bill White’s explained how to promote well-done, well-paid archaeology and punish unethical cultural resource management companies (overly briefly, to praise the good, shame the bad and use compliance procedures to make unethical conduct unprofitable).

We need to do the same in public archaeology/cultural heritage. Whether we need to use existing mechanisms or to establish new ones, cultural heritage workers must refuse to be complicit in the redundancy of their colleagues and the exploitation of others.

Workers must refuse to (ostensibly) take up the burden of their former colleagues’ responsibilities and (actually) offload those responsibilities onto the backs of exploited volunteers-who-will-never-become-colleagues.

[I was somewhat sleep-deprived when I wrote this… Hopefully obviously, I’m not condemning heritage workers for trying to continue to provide a public service. That’s admirable. But if we disguise the harm of the cuts, the government and the bosses will keep on cutting.]


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