Juggling Time and People in Heritage Jobs

DSC_1390Years ago I volunteered in the collections department of the Dufferin County Museum and Archives.  I remember being amazed at how well the collections staff handled frequent interruptions that came with working in an open office space and being responsible for a small army of volunteers.  Working in an open office situation or in a position that involves interruptions is something that is fairly common in many heritage positions.  Roles that involve this type of work environment can take some time to get used to and might be something that many new heritage professionals don’t consider when applying for jobs.

You might expect an museum technician, collections manager, or archives tech position to be very focused on the organization’s holdings and not subject to so many external influences.  This is true in some cases.  But many heritage jobs involve multitasking, interacting with people, and sometimes working in the open.  This is particularly true in smaller organizations where one person is responsible for a huge range of activities and might be jumping from cataloging artifacts to answering reference questions.

I like the interaction that comes with working in an open office and I like the fact that it can contribute to working on a wide range of projects and having more interaction with the public.  But it can at times also mean it’s hard to get a chunk of quiet time to work on more detail oriented projects.  Some of the strategies I’ve used to keep on track while working in an open office space include:

  • Being able to select the type of work you’re going to do on any given day can be important.  For example, if you know you’re going to have a day filled with interruptions pick work that is easy to put down and pick back up.
  • I keep a list of ongoing projects broken into specific tasks.  This helps me manage my workload but also is a spot I can leave notes for myself to remind me about project details.
  • Know your working style and try to fit that into your surroundings.  Quiet time in the mornings are very important to me, I often come in a bit earlier than other people so I can have a bit of time to get settled in the morning.  This helps me orient myself for the day and get started in the right mind-frame.
  • Communicating with coworkers can help a lot with finding the right balance of being open and accessible.
  • Earphones are your friend.  For music and white noise. They can also be used as a signal to others not to interrupt you.
  • Having a separate space to take long phone calls or meetings is helpful.  Many organizations that have moved to open offices have found that providing meeting room and conference room space is essential to open offices working long term.

Have you worked in an open office space?  Did you like it? How has office layout impacted your working style?

Volunteers and Heritage Events

It’s Gathering and and Conference planning season again.  For the third year in a row my work is planning a large Gathering and Conference for a summer long weekend.  This year’s Gathering is occurring on the long weekend in August and I am substantially more involved in the planning and implementation of the Gathering.  

Events and outreach activities are a fairly common occurrence for heritage organizations.  Events are one of the many ways in which heritage groups encourage first time visitors and promote themselves within a community.  It also fairly common that heritage groups rely heavily on volunteers and donations in-kind when planning an event.

The planning experience so far this year has inspired a lot of thoughts about the importance of having an involved volunteer based and community connections.  Even large heritage organizations utilize volunteers as in day to day activities and special events.  Many hands make for light work. 

Volunteers are wonderful.  They also require planning and coordination.   Every volunteer comes from a unique background and has individual interests and skills sets.  A good volunteer coordinator will establish tasks for a volunteer that are suitable to their interests and skill sets.  I’ve been lucky in my volunteer experiences.  While volunteering for the Dufferin Country Museum and Archives, the Red Cross, and the Canadian Museum of Nature I was given tasks that suited my interests and room to expand my skill set.  All of these organizations were also extremely flexible in working with my schedule and supporting me in my initial foray into public history.

Having organized volunteers for specific events has contributed to me having a huge respect for individuals who work full-time as volunteer coordinators or in an outreach role.  Scheduling volunteers, providing the right amount of guidance and training, and dealing with unexpected volunteer problems requires patience, flexibility, and a huge amount of planning.

What about volunteers for one off events?  A few things I’ve learned from the past events we have organized, include:

  • Having an orientation session prior to the event can be extremely helpful in avoiding day of chaos. 
  • One off volunteers tend to be a bit less reliable than regular volunteers. Having more volunteers than you think you’ll need usually helps mitigate this.
  • Assign someone to be in charge of the volunteers the day of the event.  Have a central place for the volunteers to meet and take breaks. 
  • Treat your volunteers well (free food always helps) and they will be more willing to help out again in the future. 

Shifting Priorities and Heritage Relevancy

The May/June issue of Muse included a number of short pieces focusing on relevancy, visitor engagement, and doing more with less resources.  A short International Council of Museums (ICOM) writeup by Mannon Blanchette hit the issue squarely on the head by noting,”In the face of constant and rapid transformations, museums are trying to meet the important challenge of remaining relevant and effective…”

Heritage organizations across the spectrum are being asked to provide more with fewer financial and physical resources.  Arts and heritage organizations are at times seen as ‘extras’ by communities, individuals, and funding bodies.  Yet, the preservation of our past, the educational value of heritage, and importance of community spaces are all things which museums contribute to communities. 

So how are heritage organizations adapting to changing societal needs and expectations?

  • Building a digital presence.  Using social media and digital collection tools it is possible for heritage organizations to reach potential visitors in new ways.  However, the most effective digital presences are engaging and not merely static websites.  Creating a digital space which invites user participation and encourages online users to visit a physical space requires staff time and commitment.
  • Seeking new sources of funding.  With declining governmental funding many heritage organizations are looking to revamping their funding structures.  This often includes developing a great capacity for fundraising and an emphasis on seeking private donors.
  • Emphasizing community connections.  Providing services to the local community the extend beyond a heritage collection are often part of this.  Initiatives such as participating in Doors Open events, sponsoring a community garden, partnering with other organizations to host events, and bringing heritage outside of the institution through booths and off site outreach programming are all ways which heritage organizations have fostered strong community connections.
  • Social engagement.  Heritage organizations need to be stronger advocates for their needs and in promoting their services and values.  The days of simply waiting for people to visit an institution based on chance are gone.  Active communication with stakeholders, potential visitors, and the community at large are essential.

The Hurdles of Moving a Heritage Institution

Anyone can who working in a heritage organization or archive can tell you that storage space is often at a premium.  No matter how much space you have you often need more. Sometimes this space crunch, space renovations, or other factors can cause a heritage organization to decide to relocate.  Moving a heritage institution isn’t a task to be done on a whim, tremendous planning, manpower, and organization are needed when relocating archives and museums.

Think about the shipment of temporary exhibits: insurance and loan documents need to be completed by both parties, the exhibit is normally store in specially made packaging, the condition of everything needs to be documented when it arrives and when it leaves, and space needs to be made available to unpack and install the exhibit.  Even the relocation of small temporary exhibits take lots of planning and paperwork.  Multiple that effort tenfold when an entire facility is being relocated.

Some of the primary areas of consideration when moving or renovating a heritage facility include:

  • Packing: material that is not already boxed needs to be packed in a manner which ensures safety during movement.  Fragile material and oversize material such as artwork requires special consideration in developing material specific packaging.  Books and paper material is heavy and people backing material should be conscious of those who will have to lift the boxes.
  • Shipping: Even just moving material small distances requires a lot of planning.  Staff who are helping move the material should be trained in proper handling procedures, insurance should be acquired for the traveling material, and additional security issues may apply to valuable items.  
  • Documentation: Everything should be well documented including: who is doing the moving, box content lists, timelines, insurance, costs, etc.
  • Public: Many heritage organizations exist for the public and hold items in the public trust.  As such,  planning for the least interruption of public services is often important.  Granted, in some cases service interruption and facility closure is impossible to avoid.

Culturally Sensitive Heritage: A Case for Health Support

Many heritage institutions broach topics and themes that have the potential to be emotionally difficult for visitors.  The holocaust, wars, slavery, residential schools, and numerous other topics are addressed by heritage organizations across the world.  Physical displays, archival records, and digital material all have the potential to be triggering – especially if the topic being addressed is emotionally sensitive or has a personal connection to patrons.

How do heritage organizations broach collections that contain material which may be considered triggering?  Careful consideration should be put into displays, contextual information, and the general presentation of material.  Ideally organizations will have established policies for handling this type of material and include members from the impacted community in the design process to provide guidance.

In addition to careful display planning many heritage institutions which deal with sensitive material have health support on staff.  Health support workers can have a variety of training, but typically they have some experience in social work or mental health counseling.  Health support can be invaluable for patrons who are triggered by material in a heritage institution.

Even organizations which cannot afford to hire a health support person full-time should look into providing all their front line staff with basic health awareness training.  This training should touch on possible triggers, how to identify people who have been triggered, techniques for approaching and talking to someone who is emotionally triggered, and coping skills for dealing with sensitive information.

Heritage institutions are gateways to the past.  It is crucial that staff are aware that this gateway can open up to memories which are not always pleasant.  History needs to approached respectfully and patron care is essential to respectful presentation of the past.