Monday, 6 August 2012

Miss Caitlin Reilly, the DWP/JobcentrePlus and Poundland. A nail in the coffin of volunteering in museums.

Miss Caitlin Reilly and the issue of her forced work placement in the chain store Poundland whilst claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. Not wishing to detract from the issues concerning the legal arguments of the case, the facts in this case illustrate the limited vision of the DWP/JobcentrePlus when it comes to voluntary work. Miss Reilly is right in her observation that the DWP/JobcentrePlus fail to see volunteering in a museum as a valid and commendable route into employment. They perceive museums and the heritage sector as the preserve of the middle class and volunteering in them as a comfy task more akin to something undertaken in one’s leisure time or as a hobby, and therefore not qualifying as working towards a goal of paid employment. 

I have a physical disability and have had many dealings with the DWP/JobcentrePlus. I am also am archaeologist who has volunteered within museums and as a lecturer in the further education sector I have been involved in teaching students within a museum environment. Museums and the heritage sector are not the preserve of the middle class, when I was an archaeology student in the 1980’s I was a volunteer digger at Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex. I dug alongside people who were undertaking archaeological placements as part of the then Manpower Services Commission scheme for unemployed and who came from all walks of life the only common denominator being that they were on the MSC scheme by virtue of their unemployment. This scheme worked very well and led to careers in the archaeological field and in museums for unemployed people. Volunteering in a museum is not a comfy or easy option; it is hard work which requires the volunteer to possess many skills. Museums are powerhouses of learning they play a vital role in education not just for children but for people of all ages and volunteers are their lifeblood.

 I have also worked as a volunteer at what is often perceived to be the hard end of volunteering as a Citizens Advice Bureau advisor and in my experience volunteering in a museum is just as an important role to society as undertaking C.A.B. work. A policy that museum volunteering does not count from the governmental department and agency tasked with securing employment for the unemployed if continued to be pursued over the long term will I fear be a nail in the coffin of volunteering in museums and the heritage sector in general. Furthermore until the DWP/JobcentrePlus realise that all forms of volunteering are beneficial to the securing of long term employment including volunteering in a museum their various work schemes will continue to fail.

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