Museum Volunteers

June 14th, 2013

By Karen Osburn, Archivist and Geneva City Historian

Older woman sitting at a table with archival boxes and piles of paper on it.

I have a real soft spot for museum volunteers. Once upon a time I was one, and it led to a career in museum work that I still love. I didn’t know when I made that first phone call and was offered a choice of volunteer duties that by choosing to work in the museum library I was going to one day become an archivist with 20 years of museum training under my belt. That day all I knew was that I loved museums and libraries and it seemed like a great volunteer combination.

Our Geneva Historical Society volunteers come from all walks of life. Some are retired and some are still working. Some come for social contact and interaction, some for history, some because they want to contribute to their community, and some because they love museums and research. A couple of people who volunteered for me have gone on to become archivists, and I would like to think that their exposure to archive work at our museum helped them make that decision.

With museums, as with many other non-profit organizations, volunteers are a tremendous help with day-to-day operations or with special events. When a historical society owns several properties with numerous out buildings, has a limited budget and also a limited number of staff, the volunteers are extra hands, and brains. They do all sorts of tasks from helping with artifact cataloging to taking photographs, baking cookies, working on fundraisers, working on landscaping, fixing things in buildings, painting, cleaning, greeting visitors, giving tours, running gift shops, helping researchers, washing and ironing table linens and gloves, and indexing records.  Some volunteers take on a long term project that may occupy them for years; others take a short term, one time only projects like helping with a workshop.  Some help once a year with a special event; others contribute their time weekly.

The some volunteers assume responsibilities like finances, opening and closing of buildings and supervising other volunteers. Why do they accept these large responsibilities for no pay? Volunteers are special people. Whatever their reason for helping an organization they are enjoying themselves or they would not give their time. And of course, (in volunteering for a museum) there is the added bonus of seeing and handling various artifacts, whether historic, natural science or otherwise, every day. Where else might you see a 150 year old chamber pot, a taxidermy passenger pigeon, or a tintype photo? Depending on the museum you could even see Mastodon skeletons, whale bones, fossils of trilobites or flowers, suits of armor, or an Egyptian Mummy! The different types of specialty museums are too numerous to mention here, but there is one for every interest.

Most museums rely on volunteers to some degree. Some small museums are run entirely by volunteers. Some museums add up volunteer hours and record them each year. These hours are often cited in grant applications, sometimes for matching grants.

Volunteers add so much to the organization where they donate their time that it is hard to thank them enough.  We acknowledge our volunteers’ generosity with a luncheon in the autumn.  I invite you to consider becoming a volunteer somewhere.  The rewards are incredible.

Woman sitting at a table with boxes of slides and a binder to put them in.

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