Volunteers in museums: getting them back after COVID

Author: Emma Halford-Forbes, Industrial Museums Scotland Coordinator

Quite a few folk have asked about how to get their museum’s volunteers back after COVID.

Here are my thoughts.*

Should we?

The main question I am being asked is: should we bring our volunteers back on site? Lots of folk have expressed concern about bringing anyone – staff, volunteers or the public – back on site after the pandemic. It is a huge responsibility to take and there are a lot of unknowns. Many volunteers fall into a more at risk category – age has been shown to be a factor. In addition, they may be shielding or living with someone who is. As with any member of your workforce, this must be taken in to consideration. But, unlike paid workforce, volunteer are under no obligation to return to their duties. And, of course, should you consider it unsafe to do so you do not have to let them return! The onus will always be on the organisation to make the decision about when it is safe and appropriate to allow volunteers back on site.


The key consideration when looking at bringing back any workforce – staff or volunteers – is communication. Make sure you are communicating with your volunteers – to pass on information as well as a wellbeing check. If you are considering bringing volunteers back on site – or not – make sure you talk with them about this before making the decision. If you are looking at changing roles, or bringing in new roles, talk with them about that too. We should recognised that our workforce are often the experts on areas of operation relating to their roles – whether it be front of house, guiding or learning – so they will have vital input. As with all workforce, don’t make decisions on behalf of volunteers without at least consulting with them first.

Risk assessment

The advice I am seeing coming out of the sector is to do a risk assessment for volunteers that is separate from risk assessment for your paid workforce. There are so many variables, not least that volunteers are not contractually obliged to attend your museum. Demographics – including age, gender and race – is a big consideration. The best advice on risk assessments I have seen thus far has come from Unite – find out more.


Will your insurance cover letting workforce back on site after the pandemic? Make sure this extends to volunteers.

Impact on core services

Not being able to utilise volunteers will have an impact on core services. Many organisations rely on volunteers to manage front of house, to give guided tours or to keep the education programme running. Without that personpower, there are grave concerns about how core services will function going forwards. I don’t have any answers on this, except to say: you are not alone in struggling with this. Reach out to your regional forum or local volunteer hub to find out what measures other organisations are putting in place.

Changes to roles

Museums that will reopen over the coming months will do so to very changed times. Not least to a different audience with different needs. Roles will change, amongst a very many other things. Consult with your volunteers on changes to roles. Make sure you have role descriptions and that these reflect changes to roles. Volunteer policies and handbooks will need to be updated. It would be worth asking your volunteers to sign a new volunteer agreement, to make sure you are both on the same page about what volunteering with you will look like going forwards.

*It’s worth noting I’m not an expert in volunteering in museums. I am not currently managing any museum volunteer teams – however, I am working with a consortium that do. I’d be very happy to take comment and suggestions on the contents of this blog. If anyone has other and/or better sources of info on this topic, please get in touch.