How to Volunteer at a Museum

Man pointing at painting on wall in front of people
With more than 17,500 museums in the U.S., it should be easy to find one where you'd like to volunteer.
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The word "museum" comes from the Greek word "mouseion," a place dedicated to the study and appreciation of the muses. Every day, millions of people worship those muses by visiting museums to admire ancient artifacts, commune with the likes of Monet and relish the simple beauty of a Japanese garden.

According to the American Association of Museums (AAM), among Americans, zoos are the most popular venue, followed by science and technology museums, arboretums and botanic gardens, children's museums, natural history and art museums [source: AAM].


In society, museums play the role of collecting and caring for objects of scientific, artistic or historical importance and making them available to the public.

Museums are generally nonprofits funded by government grants and private donations. Typically, they rely heavily on volunteers, who do everything from handing out tickets to leading tours and cataloging inventory.

Volunteering for a museum is typically an easy process. Most museum volunteer positions require filling out an application and in some cases, providing a resume and references as well as undergoing an interview and training program. But the hardest part may be deciding where to donate your time.

That decision depends on your interests, talents and availability, not to mention which museums are in your area. A good place to start is the AAM's Web site, which has a listing of museums by geographic areas as well as topics [source: AAM].

Read on to find out how to narrow your search.


Becoming a Museum Volunteer

Name a topic, any topic.

With more than 17,500 museums in the U.S., there's bound to be one that serves your interests [source: AAM].


From the Earth's core to outer space, museums provide exhibits on everything you could possibly think of -- African American history, the women's movement, contemporary art, American railroads, technology, zoology, sea life, antique cars and ancient cultures.

If you're interested in finding out more about your own heritage, you may consider volunteering somewhere like the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, the Mexican Fine Arts Museum in Chicago, Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena or the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle.

Like politics? Turn off "West Wing" and start volunteering at one of the 13 U.S. presidential libraries and museums [source: The National Archive]. If telling war stories is your favorite pastime, why not look into donating time to the National Civil War, National World War II or National Vietnam War museums?

If you like studying particular leaders, institutions like the General George S. Patton Museum in Fort Knox, Ky. may be just the place [source: General George S. Patton Museum]. Those with a social activist streak may find gratifying work at places like the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles [source: Museum of Tolerance].

There are also museums dedicated to specific artists, such as the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. or the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M [source: Georgia O'Keeffe Museum]. And if you're a little bit country, or a little bit rock 'n roll, don't forget the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. or the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

Read on to find out the benefits of volunteering at a museum.


Benefits of Being a Museum Volunteer

When it comes to finding a job, it's all about who you know and what you can do. And a museum can be the perfect training ground for launching your career.

Working at a museum can help sharpen professional skills like working with the public, organizing programs, raising money and working with computers. It can also beef up your resume and help facilitate a move from one industry to another -- such as a banker who transitions into becoming a history teacher by volunteering at a historical museum [source: Weiss].


It's not just about getting out of the house and finding something to do. Volunteering at a museum expands your network and puts you in contact with patrons, fellow volunteers and museum administrators. If you're looking for regular employment beyond your volunteer work, this could lead you to the next big thing (or at least help you find something that just might pay the mortgage).

Job searching aside, studies have shown that volunteering leads to greater life satisfaction, lower rates of depression and better mental and physical health, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service [source: Imperial Valley News].

For those interested in a career in museums -- such as becoming a curator, archivist or historian -- interning or volunteering at a museum is essential. Big museums like the Smithsonian and Metropolitan Museum of Art offer formal internship programs that are a great place to start.

And remember, the AAM's job search database is one of the best resources for finding a museum job or internship [source: AAM].

For more on volunteering at a museum, see the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Association of Museums. (Accessed 5/23/09)
  • City Town Info. "Idle Workers Attracted to Volunteer Jobs." (Accessed 5/23/09)
  • "Archivists, Curators, and Museum Technicians." (Accessed 5/23/09)
  • General George S. Patton Museum. (Accessed 5/23/09)
  • Georgia O'Keefe Museum. (Accessed 5/23/09)
  • Imperial Valley News. "Suffering from Recession Depression? Try Volunteering." (Accessed 6/01/2009)
  • Museum of Tolerance. (Accessed 5/23/09)
  • Norman Rockwell Museum. (Accessed 5/23/09)
  • The National Archive. "Visit Presidential Libraries and Museums." (Accessed 5/23/09)
  • The Official Museum Directory. "About the Official Museum Directory." (Accessed 5/23/09)
  • Weiss, Tara. "Laid Off? Become a Volunteer." Forbes. 3/1/09. (Accessed 5/23/09)