Helen Campbell Pickford ‘Irrelevant Amateurs?  Volunteers as ‘Professionals’ and ‘Amateurs’ in the Heritage Sector:



This paper considers how inadequate methods of measuring engagement are reinforced by the inaccurate perceptions of volunteers’ current roles in the Heritage sector, resulting in a poor understanding of their contribution.  It compares the ways unpaid work is surveyed by particular policy making bodies with interview data collected by Historic Towns Forum (HTF) from approximately fifty volunteers and their managers in the Historic Built Environment.

European policy makers have very different opinions of the importance of architecture and the built environment for cultural engagement.  ESSnet, the European Statistical System Network on Culture (2011) reported that the built environment has little relevance for surveys on cultural participation, as it is dominated by professionals, with participation in architecture and built heritage confined to ‘consuming’, as visitors, not ‘producing’ it as a cultural form. This reveals a profound misconception of the ways in which people are engaged in their heritage, with professionals ‘producing’ it and non-professionals ‘consuming’.  ESSnet equates participating in heritage with visiting, i.e. non-professionals looking at heritage conserved for them by professionals.  However, in addition to the seven out of ten adults in the UK who visited a heritage site in the last year, the UK’s ‘Heritage Counts’ survey (2014) and ‘Taking Part’ survey (2014) also show that 445,000 people volunteered in the heritage sector in 2014.  More than just visiting, these figures suggest that in the UK, non-professionals have considerable interest in engaging with architecture and heritage.  This study suggests that the active participation of volunteers as producers, as well as consumers, within the sector, is largely hidden in statistical assessments of cultural practices.


This study aims to clarify the current role of volunteers, not only through quantifying their participation, but by examining the work they do.  Using data from interviews with approximately fifty volunteers and professionals working in the historic built environment, it identifies the factors which motivate people to engage in this sector.  This paper shows that identifying these motivating factors can help to develop thinking in the sector on the ways in which more people could be encouraged, and enabled, to participate.  It builds on UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) categorisation of professional and amateur practice, where amateur (non-paid) participation is further divided into paying to participate, i.e. ‘consuming’ culture, and unpaid production, invention and creation within the sector.  It challenges the perception that architecture and the built environment are largely produced by professionals and consumed by amateurs, by demonstrating the levels at which volunteers work and how they contribute to the sector.  The interviewees also produced recommendations for how participation in the sector could encourage more current consumers to become active producers of ideas for their own built environment, and we invite comments and contributions to these recommendations.


Turning participation and engagement into statistics

This paper examines firstly, the methodological problems and secondly, the conceptual problems affecting how the involvement of volunteers is understood in the Heritage sector.  These problems can be divided into several types:

  • Problems with measuring engagement (as consumers) and participation (as producers) in heritage and the built environment.
  • A lack of clarity in defining terms such as ‘cultural tourism’ and ‘heritage’, as well as a lack of consensus on the methods for measuring engagement.
  • A lack of understanding of how people are engaged in their heritage, as producers as well as consumers. UNESCO’s definition limits unpaid work to ‘amateurs’, failing to recognise the importance of their contribution.
  • Measuring ‘consumers’ and ‘amateurs’ leads to a lack of understanding of what roles volunteers undertake as experts and professionals, affecting policy decisions.


Of these problems, the methodological issues of measuring participation partly explain why understanding of the levels of engagement and the roles undertaken by volunteers is very limited.  In common with other institutions claiming to produce evidence for policy making, UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics sees the production of statistical data as its purpose (Lievesey 2000).  However, in practice, UNESCO and the UK government admit that they have neither the information needed for policy making in cultural participation, nor the methodologies to generate it.  UNESCO admits that the gap between the information needed, and the methods of measuring an increasingly complex area, is widening:


the lack of robust evidence about cultural participation frustrates the possibility of meeting the political aspirations of governments for building up a comprehensive picture of the social impact of the sector, measuring change, …and being able with confidence to assess its relative value for money. … Relatively few projects are able to identify the socio-demographic characteristics of the participants. … the gap between the complexity of the cultural field and the availability of reliable datasets has always been a major concern …. This gap is widening at a very rapid pace.

Measuring Cultural Participation UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2012



Similarly, the UK government survey of participation admitted ‘that as a quantitative survey ‘Taking Part’ is not the best tool for collecting in-depth information about why individuals do not participate in culture and sport’  (Department of Culture, Media and Sport ‘Barriers to participation’, 2016: 12).  Despite recognising that measurements were unlikely to reflect the complexity of participation in culture adequately, both produced figures intended to direct policy making. The need for numbers (even inaccurate numbers) drives the policy makers, further frustrating their relationship with those directly affected by their policy outcomes:


Politicians and policymakers appear to care most about the instrumental economic and social outcomes, but the public and most professionals have a completely different set of concerns.  As a result, the relationships between the public, politicians and professionals have become dysfunctional.  The ‘cultural system’ has become a closed and ill-tempered conversation between professionals and politicians…

Holden, J. (2006) Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy:  Why Culture needs a democratic mandate.


In this paper, I examine the ways in which the limited understanding of the Heritage and Historic Built Environment sector, the roles of volunteers within this ‘cultural system’, and the lack of knowledge about their contribution to the sector are reinforced by the inappropriate ways their participation is measured, resulting in misdirected policies for public engagement.


ESSnet and European Union Models of architecture, heritage and the built environment

As with UNESCO and the DCMS, The European Commission’s Statistical System (ESSnet) admits that they struggle with defining terms, such as


Cultural Tourism: there is no clear definition of it … It is not an identifiable activity …


ESSnet lists no creative participation in historic sites, but sees participation as a rather passive set of activities – recognition, restoration and administrative management.


Heritage and its various subdivisions … their purpose is more linked to conserving than to producing;  architecture … is included as a domain as it is part of an artistic tradition, though only a small proportion of architectural activity could be seen as cultural … whilst the production side of it should not be considered as such.  […] for heritage, … the creation functions are scarce whereas their inherent status conveys them towards preservation and safeguarding.


Without a definition of cultural consumers, and with no recognition of creativity or active participation even by professionals,  ESSnet struggles to understand and quantify the ways in which people engage in culture, or to measure their engagement.  The Heritage sector is perceived by policy making bodies such as ESSnet, UNESCO and the DCMS in a way which divides the roles of professionals and consumers into separate categories, respectively conserving and consuming the built environment.  There is little recognition of either the professional contribution of volunteers, or that (non-professional) ‘consumers’ are also playing an increasingly active role in managing and even creating the built environment.


This understanding of heritage as a domain largely devoid of creativity, restricted to preservation and safeguarding, would be contested by many of the interviewees in HTF’s survey.  They typically saw it as actively reinterpreted and reproduced by non-professionals as well as professionals.  I argue that the failure to understand their creative engagement is also a factor in failing to understand the contribution of volunteers. There is a failure to perceive the creative aspects of work (beyond safeguarding and preserving) in the sector.  This is reinforced by the invisibility of unpaid work to policy makers.

Economic and social understandings of volunteering

The importance of unpaid work is unrecognised in UNESCO’s categorisation of ways in which people participate. Those paying to participate, for example by watching performances or visiting sites, are seen as consumers.  Unpaid production is assumed to be individual and domestic, with surveys limited to writing, photography, crafts etc. , as in the maps of  ‘Amateur activities / home-based cultural activities / self-care activities’  (UNESCO Framework for Cultural Statistics 2009: 33 – 4). There is no category for unpaid work in architecture, buildings or environments, nor for group work in the environment (gardening is mentioned, but as a solo activity).  Professionals may be productive in groups, but when questionnaires are designed to measure unpaid activity exclusively by individuals, UNESCO categories permit only for individuals to quilt, garden, and cook only as amateurs.   ‘Intangible’ heritage, and threats to it, are a significant concern for UNESCO, but the work of unpaid groups of people on their built heritage is invisible in its categories.

One possible reason for this is suggested by the categories which oppose ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’, with the latter meaning ‘unpaid’.  Unpaid activity may be the consumption of culture or its production, but even where it involves production, it is perceived as peripheral to the more important professional work.  Although this perception of unpaid workers is frequent in the literature on volunteers, HTF’s interview data show that the roles they undertake are increasingly skilled, demanding, and essential to the organisations employing them.

In the literature as well as in such surveys, volunteers are often perceived as peripheral, or as ‘laypeople’ (Merrell 2000). They are rarely portrayed as decision makers or instrumental in driving organisational activity:

With respect to the task structure and volunteer’s role, the perspective of seeing volunteers as complements, rather than substitutes, for paid staff seems to prevail. [….] Volunteers are important as they contribute to organisations by filling supplementary roles, enabling paid staff to concentrate on central tasks…  (Newton et al, 2014: 514)

They might even add to the workload of paid staff or lower the standard of work (Newton et al, 2014).  Volunteers are portrayed positively as altruistic (Unger, 1991) and value driven, but their professional contribution is less frequently recognised.  HTF’s interviews showed that like most volunteers, those in heritage were ‘value driven’ and passionate about the causes they worked for.  However, in contrast to the peripheral roles they occupy in the UNESCO surveys and the literature, they provided two highly valuable types of expertise: on their own communities and environments, and professional knowledge including as architects, planners, administrators, policy makers and fundraisers.

Both early and late career volunteers were described in the interviews as contributing vital expertise.  Early career and ‘intern’ volunteers were seen as critical problem solvers bringing in valuable fresh thinking.  All were doing highly skilled curating, archiving, research and restoration.  Some had developed an autonomous project in consultation with the organisation employing them, allowing them to design and complete a piece of work within limited time.  Late career, often retired professional volunteers acted as trustees, consultants and experts; many also worked in highly skilled jobs, including maintaining publications, editing policy documents, developing neighbourhood plans,  sometimes autonomously or managing others, including paid staff.

Many volunteers in the Heritage sector had identified a specific need in their local environment, such as a building or monument needing restoration, and founded their own organisations or groups rather than needing to be trained by an existing one.  These volunteers had complex managerial roles as well as professional skills and were highly successful at fundraising, publishing reports and influencing local decision making.

The work of these volunteers can be seen as essential, responding to the skills gap in the sector.  The Heritage Counts survey 2014 identified an ‘ongoing loss of expert capacity’:

  • Local Authority staff in historic environment employment are down 18% on 2003 to 835.1 full time equivalents;
  • a 35% decline in conservation officers,
  • a 26% decline in archaeological officers.

Although there is no quantified evidence of how much of this work is now being undertaken by volunteers, HTF’s interview data suggests that volunteers are essential in mitigating the effects of the resulting skills gap.  Their work is both highly skilled and desperately needed.  It is time to stop regarding volunteers as peripheral, as passive consumers, or as producing only at an individual or domestic level.

From consumer to producer – engaging participants as volunteers in Heritage and the Historic Built Environment

This section summarises strategies for engaging and managing volunteers in the Heritage sector, gathered from the interviews for this study.  The advice given here is specific to Heritage organisations, recognising that volunteer roles in this sector are often highly skilled, and that their contribution may be made most effective by enabling them to work autonomously or influence decisions within the organisation.

HTF welcomes comments on, and contributions to, this list of recommendations.

Strategies for engagement in paying and all-volunteer organisations:

  • Build teaching, training or mentoring as well as learning opportunities into task design.
  • Develop ways of publicly recognising volunteer contributions, particularly expertise.  A direct link between knowledge and outcome is a highly valued validation of a volunteer’s work.
  • Treat volunteers as ambassadors for the organisation, and manage their exit as well as their recruitment.
  • Particularly with early career volunteers, discuss whether gaining paid work is a motivation for doing this work.  If so, consider whether a transition to paid work is possible within the organisation, and be honest if it is not.  Enable volunteers to network and build valuable experience, not just photocopying and making tea.


Strategies for volunteer engagement in paying organisations

  • Recognise and train for new relationships between paid and unpaid staff, specifically addressing decision making powers.
  • Rethink volunteer roles to include leadership, expertise and innovation, not only supplementing or enabling others.
  • Plan volunteer placements to allow for autonomy, flexible aims and for volunteers to contribute to outcomes.
  • Consider the role of volunteers in the organisation’s identity – do they want to change/refocus the aims of the organisation?  Expert volunteers may expect to contribute to the organisation’s aims as well as short term outcomes.
  • To recruit expert volunteers, don’t offer ‘increased self-esteem’ or ‘the chance to make friends’ as the main inducement – treat the recruiting process as hiring a professional.


Strategies for engagement in all-volunteer organisations

  • Rethink HR designed for paid staff.  Provide training in HR management to experts with professional expertise but little management experience
  • Recognise and enable volunteers who want to set up independent organisations with a specific (possibly local) focus by providing physical sites, websites, part time use of resources, and listing pooled resources available locally.
  • When setting up a voluntary organisation, consider what types of expertise will be required, and how much time each person will need to contribute.  It may be necessary to design tasks for pairs or small groups of volunteers if there is not one individual who can undertake the whole task.  If so, build the time for planning this into the task.
  • Community and volunteer organisations need financial services, including bank accounts, which are currently complex and difficult to access.
  • Provide training in traditional and social media where necessary.



Although volunteers in the UK Heritage sector (including libraries and museums) are estimated to number 4.2 million (DCMS Taking Part survey, quoted in Heritage Counts, Heritage and Society 2016: 2) and many of these are contributing essential expertise, the methodologies measuring their contribution are out of date.  Although numerically important and contributing increasingly essential skills and knowledge, policy making organisations are still viewing participation in the Heritage sector as divided between peripheral amateurs and decision making professionals, when in fact unpaid work is increasingly becoming influential.  In viewing unpaid ‘amateurs’ as either consumers of a shared culture, or private producers of ‘home-based’, individual crafts and skills, surveys are failing to capture the contribution of highly skilled volunteers working for civic organisations, often in highly influential roles.  More work is needed to revise their methodologies, categories and conceptualisation of unpaid work to improve the evidence base for policy making in the Heritage sector.









Bina, V. Chantepie, P. Deroin, V. Frank, G. Kommel, K. Kotynek, J. and Robin, P. (2012) ESSnet-Culture: European Social Statistics Network on Culture Final Report.  Luxembourg: ESSnet.  http://ec.europa.eu/culture/library/reports/ess-net-report_en.pdf

Charlton A., Potter M., McGinigal S., Romanou E., Slade Z. and Hewitson, B. TNS-BMRB. (2010) Barriers to participation: Analysis to inform the development of the 2010/11 Taking Part Survey.  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/137997/TP_Barriersrreport.pdf

DCMS (2016) Taking Part Survey.   https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/taking-part-longitudinal-report-2016

Heritage Counts, Heritage and Society 2016: https://content.historicengland.org.uk/content/heritage-counts/pub/2016/heritage-and-society-2016.pdf

Heritage Lottery Fund (2015) Values and Benefits of Heritage: A Research Review https://www.hlf.org.uk/values-and-benefits-heritage

Lievesley, D.  The UNESCO Institute for Statistics. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/statcom/doc01/unesco.pdf

Merrell, J. (2000) Ambiguity: Exploring the complexity of roles and boundaries when working with volunteers in well woman clinics.  Social Science and Medicine, 51 (1) 93 – 102.

Newton, C.; Becker, K. and Bell, S. (2014) Learning and Development Opportunities as a tool for the retention of volunteers: a motivational perspective.  Human Resource Management Journal 24(4) 514 – 530.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2012) Measuring Cultural Participation. Montreal: UNESCO-UIS. http://www.uis.unesco.org/culture/Documents/fcs-handbook-2-cultural-participation-en.pdf

Unger, L. (1991) Altruism as a motivation to volunteer.  In Journal of Economic Psychology, 1991, 12, pp. 71-100.


Heritage Matters both now and in the future !

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