Volunteers: The ‘Backbone’ of the BCHS Museum

NEW ULM – Anne Earl sent her retired husband, Larry, to the Brown County Society Historical Society Museum to volunteer, to, well, “get him out of the house.”

One thing led to another, however, and somehow, she herself “got roped” into doing a cemetery tour; by BCHS Research Librarian Darla Gebhard, always on the lookout for docents (volunteer tour leaders).

Larry, who has always had an interest in history, is still a core volunteer at the BCHS museum; but now, so is Anne. Over the past three or so years, the retired materials manager for Caterpillar has put in some 400-500 volunteer hours at the museum. Making use of her business background, she works in the archives, filing and even doing grant writing and research and helps maintain the building, by calling up contractors, for example…

As Vicki Pieser, President of the BCHS Board of Trustees, puts it, Anne is a “consummate professional”; the kind of support she lends the museum is of no amateur level!

Anne herself notes that while she had not previously shared Larry’s love for history, volunteering for the BCHS has “opened a whole new door” to her, aligning her interests better with Larry’s and enriching her life.

“It is important to keep your mind busy, to continue to learn and grow,” says Anne.

Volunteering, she adds, is a way to give back to the community (“I believe we need to give something back, and I can afford to give back”); a statement mirrored over and over and over, by many other BCHS volunteers.

Pieser, the BCHS Board of Trustees President, calls volunteers “the backbone of our organization.”

In a separate conversation, Bob Burgess, BCHS Museum Director, mirrored her statement, using a slightly different, yet similarly-telling, turn of phrase to describe the volunteers as the organization’s “bread and butter.”

Volunteers are always on hand at the museum and in offsite programs.

They lead tours of the galleries, walking tours of historic sites downtown and the ever popular historic section of the cemetery tour…

They help out with children’s and other outreach programming and work at the reception desk and the museum archives…

They organize the annual museum book sale, the museum’s largest fund raiser (Kathy Drexler, one of this year’s organizers, said she put in three weeks into it this year, from start to finish)…

They “man” the historic Popcorn Wagon…

They serve as teachers in the Summer School House that takes local students on a back-in-time learning adventure…

Often, a volunteer can be observed surrounded by a group of children, showing them the hands-on trunks in the Dakota War of 1862 exhibit; waiting on a customer; filing information or typing a letter; doing maintenance work on museum equipment; painting the walls or banisters; setting up an exhibit…

Just this last January, a typical month, volunteers pit in some 230 hours into the historical society’s work, Burgess calculated upon request off of log sheets.

He also provided a list of the core, most engaged, volunteers, with 25 names!

(The BCHS board members themselves serve as volunteers and often volunteer for much more than their board meetings.)

The hours put in by volunteers skyrocket during special circumstances, such as last year’s US-Dakota War of 1862 commemoration, adds Burgess.

“When you look at the economy and all the budget cuts, I don’t know what we would do without the volunteers,” mused BCHS Research Librarian Gebhard.

Having worked at the Research Library and archives for decades, Gebhard can easily testify that, over time, the museum has increasingly had to make do with less: transitioning from five or six full-time staff to one full-time director and about three core staff who work part-time.

“Without the volunteers providing the hours, we wouldn’t be progressing, we wouldn’t be able to add to and grow the collections…,” says Gebhard.

“We wouldn’t be able to put on the exhibits we have, or the outreach programs.”

The help volunteers provide in filing and cataloging artifacts and with customer service inquiries frees up some of Gebhard’s time, giving her a chance to focus on the more substantive, specialized aspects of research and archival.

Similarly, their work at the reception desk, in the office, etc. helps out the office manager and curator.

Who likes to volunteer?

Many volunteers are professionals in their fields, with a variety of talents and skills, explained Gebhard. Some, such as docent Jim Boeck, or former MLC professor John Isch, are retired teachers; others, like Marlene Rolloff, nurses (these are just some examples; there are many, many others).

Retired teachers often enjoy interacting with students and tend to be more comfortable talking to groups, said Gebhard.

That makes them comfortable serving as docents.

(Docents are in high demand, and the BCHS offers shadowing and training to those willing to try it, notes Gebhard.)

Other volunteers prefer more “solitary” work, such as maintenance, or archival, using specific skills acquired in the work force.

(Such is the case of Gebhard’s husband, Alan, who jokingly calls himself “a lifer volunteer.”)

While some volunteers have retired or semi-retired from paid jobs, quite a few juggle paid jobs and volunteering.

Volunteering can be attractive to young people, notes Gebhard. Students considering a career in history, for example, can explore this interest volunteering in specific projects, such as helpers in the historic schoolhouse.