Volunteering – Numerous Possibilities and Continuous Challenges

To mark the tenth anniversary of the volunteers’ project at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, a conference was organised in the Hungarian National Gallery. One of the guest speakers was Kusuma Barnett, who initiated and from 1988 to 2010 lead a similar project at the British Museum. She is associated with the Volunteers for Museum Learning Award, which acknowledges the best volunteers across the United Kingdom. MúzeumCafé spoke with her. Kusuma Barnett says that she has always liked to volunteer. It makes her feel good and useful. She doesn’t see any difference between volunteering and a paid job. Volunteers undertake work in a similar manner, only not for money, but for other rewards such as pleasure, success and joy – something she herself has experienced over the years. Volunteering brings mutual benefit for an institute and the volunteer. The volunteer not only gives time but also expresses confidence, respect and esteem vis-à-vis the institute. In return the volunteer gets pleasure and enjoys the advantages which a museum ensures. She regards it as important to live in a society where people help each other and volunteering is precisely about this. Paid work and volunteering are always strictly separated. When a paid position at the British Museum becomes vacant, it is never filled by someone who has been a volunteer. This has been important, mostly for the paid staff, whose position is not threatened by a volunteer. You always have to aim for good relations between volunteers and staff. Initially it was older people who constituted a secure pool of volunteers. Younger ones can act as volunteers before getting a job. However, today we can speak of a half-and-half division, and the museum has lots of male volunteers. Volunteers work and assist in different departments. Every day they conduct 15 guided tours. In addition, they organise and implement various projects for children and people with special needs.   The Volunteers for Museum Learning Award relates exclusively to museum volunteering. It was initiated by Kusuma Barnett. At first she wanted to introduce it for British Museum volunteers, but later it covered all the museums in the UK. The award relates to ten areas of museum activity, with one winner for each area. There is also one person designated as overall winner. For a volunteer coordinator, self-knowledge, self-criticism and self-learning are important. When someone knows themselves well, knows their strengths and weaknesses, then they will be consciously prepared for dealing with even the most complicated situations, and their positive qualities can come into play. The most important task for a coordinator is to build a team, which not only works cooperatively but is loyal to the institute. Kusuma Barnett was born in Sri Lanka in 1947. In recognition of her work, in 2006 she received the Order of the British Empire from the Queen.