Four months ago I conducted an interview with the chair of a trustee group who are responsible for the museum in their small city. I was visiting the city to do some research for a book I was working on and, in the process, I got talking to the volunteers in the museum about their situation. That talk, and many emails after that visit, now make up the body of this interview. All names and locations have been anonymised as the people I spoke to did not want to cause any bad feelings, and feared that their grant applications would be refused yet again if they were found to be speaking out. I have nicknamed them V for Volunteer.
A little background first.
The museum is in a city with a population of around 43,000 people. These 43,000 people are spread out over a large rural area with a concentration in the city. The area is right in the middle terms of deprivation with the rural areas being very poor, and the towns being better off. The museum was part funded by a trust fund established by a Victorian benefactor, but with the bulk of funding coming from the local authority. It is in an area of great archaeological and historical importance, and conserves and displays items relating to that history, as well as many items of social importance.
In 2013 all local authority funding was cut from the museum, as were all council funded grants. Since then the museum has had to rely entirely on volunteers and donations from the community. Applications for grants have so far been refused, and the trust fund is only sufficient to cover heating and lighting. The volunteers have been left to try to keep the museum going.
This is their story.
Me – First off, I have to say that you do an amazing job. The museum is wonderful and I can see from the comments in the visitor book, and the joy on the children’s faces, that this place is loved. You are the Chair of the volunteer group, how many volunteers do you have?
V – (sighs) That’s a good question. When we first started this whole thing we had tons. I mean at our first meeting in the Town Hall, when they were talking about taking away the funding, we had over 600 people sign up for more information and 480 of those said that they’d volunteer regularly to help. That was back in early 2013. When we started doing this in January 2014 we had, I think, 75 volunteers. That number went down and down every week and now (April 2016) there are 13 of us left.
Me – Wow! That’s a huge drop in numbers. It looks like a pretty nice place to volunteer, and everyone I’ve met is incredibly friendly. Why do you think the numbers fell off so badly?
V – The trouble is that it’s not just us that needs volunteers. There are so many local things that now rely on volunteers and there’s only so much people can do. People gave all sorts of reasons for not sticking at it. Many of our volunteers found that the commitment was too great. As the numbers went down we had to ask people to do more to fill the gaps, but they couldn’t commit. Some got jobs and couldn’t spare the time. Some had other volunteering that they felt had to take priority. Many couldn’t afford to drive into town, and a good few left when they cut many of the bus routes into town. We did ask people why they quit, and the most common answer was that it was “just too much”. Most of our volunteers were over 65 and I think they just found it too tiring. It’s pretty exhausting working in a service capacity, and they no longer felt up to it. Lots of them said it “wasn’t what they expected” too. I think they all thought it was going to be a nice easy bit of a thing to do in their spare time and they were shocked at how much was expected of them.
Me – How do you raise money to keep the museum going?
V – We have applied for many grants, but so far have not been successful. The process of making grant applications is hugely complicated and none of us have any experience of that process and I think that has slowed everything down. We’ve had to beg friends for favours to get some help to put in these applications but each time the application has been turned down. One of the things we keep being told is that we need to be able to “prove a sustainable plan” – but how can we do that when we have no sustainable income? We are being asked to create business plans and detailed accounts, but we’ve been given no help to do that.
We do raise money from the community, but they are at the limit of what we can ask for. You can’t keep going to a community for money. There are literally hundreds of groups asking the community for money and we are experiencing a good amount of obvious weariness from the community over local charitable fundraising. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that we’ve already asked them for so much.
Me – What have been the main problems in running a service like this entirely with volunteers?
V – The main problem is that we really don’t have the skills for the job. I mean, we all do our best and try to learn as much as we can, but we really don’t know what we are doing. Six of us have a background in archaeology so we know the exhibits, and can do the talks for schools, but we don’t know how to write business plans, or handle competitive tendering, or keep a boiler working. This year I’ve had to learn bricklaying because the back wall collapsed and we couldn’t afford to pay someone to fix it. If I’m honest we are keeping going with a whole bunch of guesswork and patching over the cracks.
The other problem is that not all volunteers are really cut out for it. Many are unreliable and simply don’t show up, some are rude and aggressive, some hate children and think that they should be quiet at all time, or shouldn’t be in the museum at all. Most lack any kind of customer service experience. Public feedback is now saying that the museum is not the friendly place it once was, but we are completely dependent on volunteers and so we even have to keep the ones who would not make it if they were paid staff.
My personal main problem is that I’m exhausted. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going like this. The museum is open 35 hours a week, and I’m working around 40 hours a week for nothing. I love this museum, and walking away would be devastating, but for my own sanity and health I can’t keep going like this. I’m afraid to stop because I know that if I do the place will start to fail. I’m already living on my savings, and my husband feels it’s all threatening our marriage and our children’s future. This isn’t fair. We shouldn’t have to do any of this.
Me – That rather brings us to the future. What do you see in the future for the museum?
V – (another very big sigh) Awful question. When I’m asked that in public I have this smiling version of the story and I keep the positive outlook but, as you’re going to make this anonymous, I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t think that there is a future for the museum. Without public funding of some form we can’t keep going like this. We have been allowed to sell some items from our archive and that gave us a little slush fund. I reckon we are six months away from having to charge admission, and charge a lot more schools for visits. The risk around doing that is huge because we know how tight money is in schools and so the move towards charging may well be the final coffin nail. Sad fact is that we can’t afford to not charge. We are between a rock and a hard place. Behind the scenes we are getting really desperate now, and if I’m honest we don’t know how we are going to open this winter because fuel prices have shot up and the dwindling trust fund can’t take much more. Our heating bill alone could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The thing that really makes me want to spit blood is that we all know that if the museum fails, the council will make out like it’s our fault. They’ve lied to us all the way down the line by telling us we’d have support and guidance through this process. Now I can’t even get a reply when I call for help and I no longer even know who is supposed to be responsible for being our support contact. Last year our treasurer had a heart attack and we didn’t have anyone to take her place in time for the accounts to be processed. I contacted the council asking for help and I was passed from pillar to post trying to get someone to help. No one ever did. In the end we had to beg a friend of a friend to do them. We’ve just been cut adrift.
Me – What would you say to other groups taking on tasks like this?
V – Honestly? Don’t do it. We all started with such high hopes and we all wanted to save the museum and make a difference, but it’s been a huge mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I love working in and for the museum and I look at the faces of the people who come in here and for a bit it all seems worth it. Then I’m up at 3am because the decrepit alarm has gone off again, or I’m up to my elbows in the toilet because the old cistern can’t handle tissue, or I’m rallying people to mop up a flood from another frozen pipe. It’s hard to remember how much you love museums and the difference they make when you’re on your knees scrubbing up a spilt drink or consoling another unpaid colleague who has been shouted at by a member of the public. We know that the roof needs fixing, but we all pretend not to think about it.
All of this and we all daily work with the heavy knowledge that we haven’t really saved the museum at all, we’ve just put off the inevitable for a few years. Unless some miraculous benefactor steps in and gives us a few million, we won’t make it to the end of the decade. If the museum goes, it will be one more thing gone in our community. If I had to give people advice I’d say that time is better spent fighting to keep funding and paid staff. Do whatever you can, fight and fight and fight to keep that funding in place.
Me – It’s not an easy question, but I have to ask it. Why do you do it? Why do you think the museum should be saved?
V – We’ve already lost so much, the library is under threat and the buses have gone so that threatens the market. The youth club lost funding last year and so did five other youth projects. Pretty soon there will be nothing left to call this a community, it will just be a place with nothing left in it to give anyone culture or pleasure. The only people who will have any kind of pleasure or culture left will be the ones who can afford to pay for it. We all know the council should be funding community resources, and we all know the huge benefit to any community that a museum represents, but no one seems to listen. A lively and thriving community benefits everyone. It makes for a better place to live and so people want to live there. Those people pay council tax and national taxes and they work hard and deserve to see some kind of return in their towns.
What’s the point in working our whole lives if we have nothing left in our communities to give life more purpose and meaning? How can we hold a community together if there is nothing left to bring people together?
I will leave this interview with that extremely important point – how can we hold any of our communities together without our community resources? How can we possibly expect people to feel valued if an “everything must go” price is put on their community resources? How can we expect our communities, and the individuals in them, to have a sense of cohesion if all we do is drive them further apart?
Museums, libraries, art galleries, youth centres, parks, playground, paddling pools, drop-in centres, housebound services, day centres, community centres… these are the glue that binds our communities. These are the things that bring people together and create that sense of community that makes for safer and better lives for all. The current austerity cuts that are specifically directed at services like this represent an attack on the links in the chains that unite our communities. These cuts are eroding our culture and society and we, as citizens, are expected to do all the work to keep them going. Those of us who volunteer all the time are expected to carry this entire burden on our weakening shoulders. Good people are being lied to, and then they are expected to take all the responsibility for trying to keep their essential community resources going.
It is up to us all to unite to stop that erosion. This should not be a battleground of individual skirmishes, this is a war on social cohesion and on our culture, and we need to join together to raise our voices to stop it before we have lost everything that made our country great.
Write to your MP, sign as many petitions as you can find, speak out against the destruction of our communities, make your voices heard for all of those who don’t have a voice, rally your communities so that they can see what they are losing, make it clear that losing these services is not an option.
Above all, don’t let the desperate struggle to protect our community services and resources drive us further apart. Join your community with others, link to other groups and present a united and public front.
Divided our voices are hard to hear, united we are impossible to ignore.
Dawn Finch is a national library and literacy campaigner, and a children’s writer. She is the President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and a member of the Society of Author’s Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee (CWIG)
On November 5th 2016 there is a rally in London to show support for all of our libraries, museums and galleries. This rally is a time to show all of those in power just how much we value our cultural resources. Show how much this matters to you by joining them on the day.
CILIP have a national campaign to protect our libraries and support the essential work they do to raise national literacy levels and develop our communities. Please support the campaign for your legal right to a library provision here.