The energy, audience participation, humor, and yes, snarkiness, at the second annual Great Debate at this year’s AIC Annual Meeting proved that this is an event that should definitely become a regular installment on the Annual Meeting schedule. After a rousing debate over Topic #1 (whether we should exhibit unstable objects as an act of preservation), the teams for Topic #2 took the stage to debate the statement:
“While volunteers used on preservation projects often allow us to accomplish more work, they undermine our capacity to regularly employ conservation and collections care professionals.”
Arguing for the affirmative were Dawn Wallus, Rose Cull, and Kelly Keegan. Their opponents for the negative position were Beverly Perkins, Will Hoffman, and Michele Marincola. Moderator Richard McCoy (who wore a very dapper bow tie in honor of the “modified Oxford style” of the debate) made it clear that the event was a purely intellectual exercise, and that the opinions expressed by the participants did not necessarily reflect their own or their institutions’ views. It was clear by the energy in the room, however, that this topic represents a significant concern for many in our profession.
First up for the negative team was Will Hoffman, who began his argument by pointing out that the statement in question requires clarification before it can be considered. Hoffman explained that, though many institutions do use the kinds of volunteers that most of us were probably thinking about, such as pre-program interns and good samaritans who help with large tasks such as rehousing projects,we should all expand our idea of the “volunteer.” The speaker then cited examples of experts in other fields who have volunteered their time and skills to help conservators with the things that we cannot do for ourselves, such as a hospital performing a CAT scan on a mummy. The opening statement also touched on the commonly held belief that many institutions simply would not be able to function without volunteers, and suggested that volunteer programs sometimes lead to employment for either the volunteers or for new staff members by demonstrating the need for personnel.
Next, Dawn Wallus stepped up to the podium to set up the argument for the affirmative team. She began by declaring that even though she could hear a “puppy dying” somewhere in the distance, she and her team were still prepared to make a case against the use of volunteers in institutions. Wallus commented that while there are many good volunteers, there are also those who, despite the best of intentions, end up undermining the professional nature of our work (cue Wallus’s teammates holding up masks bearing the image of the unfortunate Ecce Homo fresco that was botched by a volunteer conservator in Spain last fall). The speaker also noted emphatically that there are laws in place that stipulate that non profit organizations cannot use volunteers to further their own agenda, and that any volunteer interns must be present for their own educational benefit only, and not to provide work for the institution.
Next to the podium was Beverly Perkins for the negative team. She reiterated her team’s position that the presence of volunteers can lead to the creation of new staff positions- she even provided an example from her own institution. Kelly Keegan’s rebuttal for the affirmative team made use of the old adage, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Teammate Rose Cull followed up on her remarks by restating the argument about the legality of volunteer labor, adding that our use of volunteer pre-program interns creates a socio economic barrier to entry into our field.
When the time came for audience questions, it was clear that the audience had much to say about this topic. Several people wanted to know whether the affirmative team would outlaw volunteers, or, more simply, how they would address the problem. Among a variety of answers, Rose Cull’s response stood out when she stated that all we have to do is to simply follow the guidelines in our own Code of Ethics. Beverly Perkins delivered a rebuttal in the form of a poll, in which the majority of the room declared that they do indeed follow these guidelines, as their volunteer programs exist for the purpose of training people and not in order to get work done. Other audience questions addressed issues of unskilled vs. skilled volunteers (which instigated one of many subsequent reappearances of the Ecce Homo masks), how to get into formal training programs without volunteering, whether data exists on the actual effect of volunteer programs on employment, and other issues. There was so much interest in the topic that the moderator eventually had to cut off the questions in order to allow time for closing arguments.
After both teams had reiterated their points in closing arguments, the room was polled to determine the winner. Both teams appear to have been equally persuasive, and the debate ended in a tie. The end of the formal debate signaled the end of the conference, but it was clear from the conversations heard in the halls on the way out that it will not be the end of this very important discussion. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments, but please remember to uphold the good-spirited nature of the Great Debate!