Is volunteering right for you?

Alexandra Rasic
Public Programs Manager, Homestead Museum, City of Industry, CA

Volunteering helped solidify my career path. I am one who knew from an early age that I wanted to work in a museum when I grew up, but how I would go about doing that…who knew? So when I was in high school and I found out about a volunteer program at my local museum, I signed up. I was fortunate that the Homestead Museum had a well‐developed volunteer program, and an institutional culture that believed in using volunteers to their fullest and treating them like true members of the staff. Because the paid staff knew of my interest in history and museums, I was given the opportunity to work on special projects that benefited me—and the institution.

Once in college, I started to volunteer at different museums and in special collections while continuing to volunteer at the Homestead. I wanted to experience what it was like to work at large and small institutions, and for those that were privately and publicly funded. (A consulting position for a corporate archive came about as a result of volunteering in the Los Angeles Public Library’s photo collection.) I quickly learned what it was that I liked, and didn’t, about the field. I liked working with people of all ages, the press, researchers, and colleagues in the history field. I didn’t like bureaucracy and solitary work. I also realized that I liked working with volunteers, whose diversity reflects the general audience that visits most museums. I happily accepted a temporary position with the Homestead, which led to a part‐time position, which led to a full‐time position with increasing responsibility. Because of what I get to do as Public Programs Manager, and who I get to work with, I have remained excited about my position, and the institution.

BOTTOM LINE: I encourage anyone with an interest in the field to find someplace where they think they would like to work and actively volunteer. Ask to help with special projects, and talk to the paid staff about what they do. Not only will you discover whether or not you actually like the field, but you will learn more about where your strengths lie, and the kinds of skills you might need to develop to gain employment.

Kelly Wilkerson
Former Director of Membership and Programs/State Coordinator for Tennessee History Day, Tennessee Historical Society, Nashville, TN

As a college student in the early 1990s, I spent a couple of semesters completely undecided about my future. I was pursuing a major in history with a minor in education but after a brief required field experience in a 6th grade classroom, I knew that teaching middle and high school students would not be the career for me. After a few weeks of despair, I spent an afternoon in my advisor’s office asking questions that to me seemed to have impossible answers. What would I do with a history degree? Could I do anything other than teach or go to law school? Had I wasted three years pursuing such a degree? What was I going to do now?

My very wise advisor asked me several questions about what I actually enjoyed doing and what I liked about studying history. By the end of the meeting, he wrote down the phone number for the local history museum and suggested I give them a call and ask about volunteer opportunities. I did so and immediately began volunteering there two afternoons a week. My initial assignment as a volunteer was with the museum collection department. I catalogued and cleaned objects, did research for the curator at the university library, transcribed family letters written during the Civil War, and helped to write and edit exhibit label copy. In other words, I had a blast! A few months later, the curator resigned his position for a new job in another state. Just a month after that, the registrar’s spouse was transferred out of state. It was Thanksgiving and the museum was left with no paid staff working in the collection department and the holiday season fast approaching.

Fortunately for me, I had maintained a regular volunteer schedule and had gotten to know much of the staff. The museum’s executive director called and asked me to come in for a meeting with him and the registrar who was leaving at the end of December. At that meeting, the director asked if I’d like to begin working in the collection department on a part‐time basis. While still an undergraduate, the director was adamant that I maintain a regular class schedule and devote myself primarily to my studies. I was elated to be presented with such an opportunity. I immediately began training with the departing registrar and in January, took responsibility for the department on a part‐time basis. After about two months a new curator was hired. The museum’s director asked me to stay on until I was scheduled to depart for graduate school that fall.

My year‐long affiliation with this museum cemented my love and respect for the public history field. I knew immediately after I began my volunteer experience that public history would be the career for me. Now, after working in the field for nearly 15 years, I am so grateful to my college advisor who steered me in this direction.

Eden Chung
Outreach Coordinator, La Habra Children’s Museum, La Habra, CA

I did not know what was in store for me once I changed my major to history during my second year of college; however I was almost positive that did not want to teach. Knowing this narrowed down my options toward public history. I have always enjoyed going to museums and seeing the old artifacts they housed. But I knew there was more to museums than just displaying old artifacts. So before jumping into public history and making a rash decision overlooking other possible options, I wanted to volunteer at a local museum.

The first step I took was volunteering at the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry as a docent. During docent training I met wonderful docents and staff that shared the same interests as me, and helped me get a step closer to my future profession. As I gave tours and volunteered at events for the museum I realized there were various behind‐ the‐scenes staff working at the museum in order for things to run smoothly. I realized that if I were to select public history as my profession, I didn’t always have to read and research old artifacts for the rest of my life, but that I could also work with kids, help with the upkeep of the museum, plan events, in addition to various other tasks. The best part of volunteering at a museum is meeting new people and networking with them such as: retired teachers, history buffs, students, and engineers—and being able to hear their wonderful stories.

Not only did I have fun experiences at the Museum while meeting new people, but volunteering also helped me land a job. I applied for a position at a Children’s Museum while I was still going to college, a position that eight other people applied for, including a few college graduates. During the interview I told the assistant director that I was volunteering at a local museum as a docent, which she was interested in hearing about. I had experience in other job fields previously but the interviewer mostly inquired about my volunteer work at the history museum. Thanks to the volunteer experience, I got the job. Today not only do I get to work in a museum, but I get paid for what I like to do.