I realize that what I am about to write will probably offend even some of my most loyal followers, but it needs to be said. Natural history museums, zoos, nature centers, parks, and other public and private institutions have come to rely too heavily on volunteers to accomplish their missions, especially in management of specimen collections.
Case in point: Today one of my Facebook friends posted this recruiting announcement. I was all excited until I saw it was for volunteers. Do you really want non-professionals handling specimens? The time and expense to properly train them really outweighs hiring a professional? You can’t contract for this kind of work?
Those institutions that do offer paying opportunities sometimes have unrealistic expectations, desiring PhD- or Masters-level candidates when a Bachelor’s degree, or even experience in lieu of a degree, would be more than enough to execute the requirements of the position. Increasingly, work in collections management in particular has become grant-dependent, for a limited amount of time, and still heavily reliant on volunteers being managed by the person hired for the project. This only serves to set up a destructive cycle of neglect of collections followed by salvaging of specimens years later, followed by another period of neglect and so on.
I freely admit that I take all of this as a personal insult to my previous professional experience and current abilities to work in a museum setting and advance the goals of whatever department I’m working in. I don’t think I am necessarily “better” than any other person in this field, but I certainly have better qualifications than a volunteer or docent off the street. Museums deserve better than that as well. I don’t need to make a fortune, either, but I need to be able to pay the rent, afford health care if I need it, pay for my own continuing education, and save for increasingly frequent stretches of unemployment when I don’t have any income.
That leads to another point I believe is not being considered: The failure of investments that retirees were counting on for income has left them looking for paying work as well. The volunteer pool will be steadily shrinking in coming decades. Better to address this now, and reward good work with a paycheck instead of just a pat on the back or a plaque.
The continuing devaluation of professional personnel in the natural sciences, from museum collections to field work and public education must cease. We owe it to current generations, as well as future generations, to deliver the high quality services that only experienced professionals can provide. Could it be that the trend toward “anti-scientifism” is one result of such a heavy reliance on non-scientists to do scientific work and deliver science education? I’m just sayin’.