one out of three ain’t bad: who wants to be a Volunteer Research Assistant at the Serpentine Galleries?

Posted: 18/11/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , ,

Thanks to a friend who knew my Sunday night wouldn’t be complete without an offensive advert for unpaid labour, I now know that the Serpentine Galleries‘ ironically-titled ‘jobs’ page is inviting applications to be a Volunteer Research Assistant – at least, to be an assistant…

A notorious old plan


The Serpentine is an internationally renowned, visionary new model for a world-class arts experience. We invite and encourage artists and audiences to explore both art and the ideas behind it…. The Serpentine is an equal opportunities employer. Applications are welcome from all sections of the community.

While the idea of not paying your free workers is relatively novel, I’m not sure the Serpentine can claim to have pioneered it. Would audiences still have a world-class experience if they knew it was achieved through the use of unpaid labour? The Serpentine uses ‘volunteers’ who must work at least two days a week for three months to do the legwork for its public programmes, and ‘work experience’ volunteers who must work at least three days a week for three months as dogsbodies to secure individual giving, the ‘extremely important income stream‘ that underwrites or pays their bosses’ wages.

The Serpentine’s Indian Highway exhibition explores issues including gender and class. Does the gallery encourage its audiences to explore the idea of the arts exploiting middle-class women who are trying to achieve economic independence (as most unpaid arts workers are middle-class women), or of excluding and disadvantaging working-class men and women (and ethnic minorities who are disproportionately present in the communities who cannot afford to work without pay)?

“I’m the Co-Director’s Office Assistant.” “You’re the Assistant to the Co-Director’s Office.”

Volunteer: Research Assistant to Co-Director’s Office

The Serpentine Gallery is currently offering a volunteer placement within the Executive team, working with two Senior Assistants in the Co-Director’s office.

This placement is an excellent opportunity to experience working at a prestigious and high-profile gallery, providing support to the Co-Director’s Executive team in all aspects of the running of the Co-Director’s office, including collating information and general administrative duties. The successful candidate will gain practical work experience and contribute to the work of the Gallery.

This placement would best suit a person who is keen to pursue a career within arts administration and who has:

• Good administrative or secretarial experience
• Excellent organisational skills
• The ability to use initiative and work independently
• Excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to work effectively as part of a team
• Strong verbal and written communication skills
• The ability to use MS Office and MS Outlook

As highlighted by the friend who pointed out the advert, is this even a research job? According to the advert, it would not be best suited to someone who has research experience, and it would not be best suited to someone who is keen to pursue a career in research. It ‘would best suit’ – so, it will go to – someone who has administrative experience and wants a career in administration.

It sounds very much like an everyday admin job, which is no more research than the work I did as a casual clerk at the Inland Revenue, which is being presented as a short-term research opportunity in order to disguise the fact that it’s a job that deserves a wage (as if research jobs didn’t deserve wages). Don’t they need admin bods, front-of-house staff and donation-beggars the other nine months of the year?

This placement is offered as a volunteer activity and, as such, is outside the scope of National Minimum Wage legislation. Reimbursement of expenses up to £14 per day is available.

The placement will be for 3 months, and will require a commitment of full-time commitment of 5 days per week from 10.00am- 6.00 pm from 09 December 2013 until 3rd March 2014.

A job does not become a placement, work does not become volunteering, employment is not placed beyond the reach of minimum wage law, by the simple act of declaring it so to be. This is a temporary job, but it is a job nonetheless. If this is outside the scope of National Minimum Wage legislation, then there is something fundamentally wrong with that legislation.

  1. I wonder whether someone who held that position, and in subsequent job applications claimed to have been a research assistant at the Serpentine, would be liable for misrepresenting the facts.

    • samarkeolog says:

      It’s an interesting question! I think you must be free to record whichever job title you’ve been assigned – normally you don’t get any say in it and you couldn’t be expected to risk your position by protesting – but you do have to describe your job accurately. My last research position involved a lot more “generic” NGO/public-facing work than it did research-with-a-capital-R, but I make that clear and it’s always been understood.

  2. […] co-director’s full-time research assistant to be a minimum-wage employee rather than a ‘volunteer‘, or £7,725 for any one of its part-time fundraisers to be paid themselves, or £5,150 for […]

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