Today we are addressing a rather sensitive issue – what happens if people do not take your job seriously because your job is somebody’s hobby… It has been brewing on my mind for a few months ( years really!), and I have discussed it with lots of other professionals, and now at last have time to put some of the ruminations on paper ( well, screen…)
Yes, I love my job. But yes, I would like to be paid for it too.
It happens to all of us, over and over, again and again – we are contracted to do a job, but people are surprised we are charging for it. A few months back I was asked to spend 6 weekends at a historical venue nearby, from 9-5, providing craft demonstrations and interpretation. I was told the venue had received a very generous National Lottery fund, and were putting lots of events for the public, some ticketted, some not, to enhance the venue’s standing and income. Great, I thought, an interesting job.
But when I replied with a quote, the organisers laughed – ‘Oh no, we meant you do it for free, as a volunteer! You know, just for fun of it, since you seem to like what you are doing? We really want quality stuff to entertain the public, but would rather spend our grant on enlarging the venue’s facilities, so we cannot afford to pay people who dress up. But we are a nice bunch, so you will have a great time!
You can probably guess my reaction. The organisers were disappointed but not too much – we will get some free people instead then, we know it is not the same, but they don’t cost us anything. Maybe you will reconsider – at least you will get some exposure?
Well, let us put it into a different context. Would you be happy if someone who likes law took over your job in law firm for free, just because they love it? if someone was so passionate about educating young drivers they would take on your career as a driving instructor, teaching folks for free? A passionate amateur photographer who provides free wedding shoots out of pure love for the art? I am not saying the hobbyists/ amateurs are bad at it, mind you – they may be better or worse than you, but they won’t charge, since they are having fun.
In an ideal world, that would be perfect – we all do as much of what we love as we want, serving the community for the fun of it, but we have all our needs covered, so actually we don’t need to enter a paid employment.
Alas, we live in a very different world. If you are affluent enough to treat your hobby seriously and go to events for free, entertain the public and having a great time, it is all well – but think about all those for whom the job would pay their bills. ( we have done and will do events for charity/ but this is possible only after we have earned enough to pay our own bills…)
True, historical interpreting is a relatively new thing. It has emerged as a separate profession over the last few decades, but that doesn’t mean it is not a proper job – a job that requires dedication, unusual hours, a considerable investment in learning the necessary skills, materials, props, clothing, training etc, as well as a running a business. Many people start it as a hobby, many always knew that was the job they wanted to devote their lives to. It is not an easy job, contrary to a popular belief, not an especially well paid one either – but can come with a huge professional satisfaction.
Let us have a look at a few features of a professional historical interpreter.
- extensive knoweldge of their historical field ( or fields) – often backed by a related college or Uni degree, as well as more than cursory knowledge of generic history relevant to their period. A Victorian cook would be familiar with the receipies of her period, as well as clothing, social customs and have a generic understanding of social history of the era and location.
- top quality kit – not a Steampunk corset and a granny skirt, not a cotton tunic, but properly researched and made garments that are not costume – they are working clothes suitable to the role. These are either commissioned, or made individually by the interpretors – but in either case they do require a substantial financial investment.
- constant learning and honing skills relevant to their portrayed persona – if you are a noble knight, you not only need to look like one, but act like one too, including basic combat skills and horseriding, as well as being able to perform skills required by a knight of a given era. A posh Regency lady who cannot play, sing, dance,draw, sew, embroider, ride, speak a couple of languages and is not able to run a house would be a very poor marriage prospect in the past ( though good looks and a huge dowry could level the odds) – but these skills would up any interpreter’s game a lot too. Craft demonstrations etc – goes without saying! And if they posses none of the relevant skills, then the next point is of huge importance.
- ability to present to the public, on a small and big scale. Whether addressing the crowds, or individual members of the public, the ability to interact in an engaging, entertaining and educational manner is essential – especially if it is an educational job. Basic acting skills and good memory are vital, often a teaching qualification comes in handy.
- dealing with all the backgroud stuff – marketing, invoicing, admin, negotiating, accounting, insurance cover etc – the list is endless.
So why a person who invested their time and resources wouldn’t expect to be paid for the service they provide? 😦 and yet we are, quite often too…
And please, let us be clear on one subject – Volunteers are great. We seem to have a love hate relationship with them, but to be honest, I think they provide a very useful service – especially in the cases when the organisation/ museum/ etc doesn’t have funds for anything else. Many museums use volunteers on everyday basis, hiring paid specialists only for bigger events. And that is great – many places would collapse without them, and we, the paid crew during the big event, do appreciate the volunteers’ work and assistance on the day. Also, many people volunteer because their age or health prevents them from entering a full time employment and as a volunteer they can contribute their skills in a less demanding, more flexible environment.
It is when the organisations can afford professionals ( or are commissioned to provide such) but instead use free folk, without having to fork out extra money ( and in some instances pocketing the extra cash, alas) that it is getting tricky.
If they are lucky, the volunteers will turn up on the day, and will be of the quality ilk. If not – they will be understaffed ( there is no contract obliging a volunteer to attend if it is raining or if they feel a bit under the weather) or have a bunch of cotton clad knights or ‘edwardian’ ladies wearing hippie lace dresses. I have been to events when half of participants didn’t turn up – they were volunteers, and the weather was abysmal, so only a couple of unpaid guys showed up ( respect!!! ) alongside the bunch of paid folk, who were under contract to be there no matter what envirnemental conditions…
Many museums take proper care for their volunteers too – they provide quality, historically accurate clothing, courses, education and support, basically training a highly efficient local staff. This is great. But equally, many places just opt for the cheapest available resource – and we have all seen the plastic princesses swanning around the venue all happy to wear a nice frock in a nice place, but unable to interact with the public, unable to answer questions or provide any other information apart from – I am Anne Bolleyn, I know all about her and Tudor England because I have read all the books by Philippa Gregory…
In short, my point is: if the venues have funds to provide the public with the best possible entertainment/ education – please ( if any of you read this anyway… ) do, and don’t be surprised when we charge for being there, no matter the weather, doing the job we love. Have the volunteers as well – the more the merrier, but understand that we are doing a job – a job we just happen to be passinate about.
If they don’t – that is understandable, many places are really struggling – but don’t exploit people. If you are lucky enough to have volunteers willing to help you, do take good care of them. Provide education, help with quality kit – it will all be appreciated, by both the volunteers and the public, who, surprise surprise, can tell the difference in quality….
But what about all you guys who love dressing up and are happy to spend time at events for free, but having read all that above feel just a little bit guilty for stealing somebody else’s job?
Well, rest assured there are a number of ways – there free public events of which there is more and more nowadays, balls, parades etc. (below – Victorian picinc and boating trip – free, beach party, free, and a ball in Denmark – a reasonably priced ticket!). Join a reenactment group – a quality group will help you out with kit, learning etc, you will attend the events and have fun, and the groups are often paid by organisers to be there, provide displays etc – not much, alas, usually much less than they are worth really, but enough to cover main expenses ( transport, accommodation, public liability insurance , food).
Better still, if you dont fancy a group – but you have a friend who is an intepreter, ask them to include you in their events too. Then they are able to provide the venue with more people for the same fee, and you not only help your pals – but have a good time doing so too, the best of the two worlds! You will often need to be up to your friend’s standard – quality kit will be essential, but you may not be required to interact with the public if you are shy, or don’t feel knowledgeable enough. Or you can leave early if you are tired. You never know, this may serve as a sort of apprienticeship and in time you may want to take it up as a profession too!
These are just my thoughts on the volunteering/ unpaid jobs subjects – results of personal experiances as well as discussions with friends who are in the same business – as well as volunteers. What do you guys think? Any other suggestions?