Air-Minded: Volunteers Returning (Maybe)

No, not me. I’m done. They wouldn’t have me back anyway … they’re looking for more compliant types.

The underground network of former Pima Air & Space Museum volunteers keeps me appraised of developments there. Two weeks after I left the museum in February 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit and the volunteer program came to a halt. It’s still in hiatus today. If you visit, you’ll find one or two paid staff members manning admissions and the gift store, and that’s it. No tram tours, no bus tours of the boneyard, no one to answer questions. Even the snack bar is closed. You’re on your own, and it’s an eerie experience.

I’ve come to think the suspension of the volunteer program was a bit of an over-reaction. Sure, shutting down motorized tours, where visitors had to crowd together on trams and buses, was necessary. But it seems to me a few volunteers could have been kept on, if only to wander the hangars and answer visitors’ questions (while keeping an eye out for vandalism). After all, PASM’s volunteer suspension wasn’t universal. Restoration, which is volunteer-manned but doesn’t interact with visitors, didn’t shut down. The 390th Memorial Bomb Group, a separate organization on the museum grounds (we always called it a museum-within-a-museum), continued to staff its B-17 hangar with volunteers (most of them elderly and thus prime targets for COVID-19).

My sense of the situation at PASM, during the final two years I volunteered there, was that management (specifically the museum’s executive director) had become hostile to the volunteer program and was trying to figure out how to operate without it.

Well before the pandemic, management had eliminated entire categories of volunteers and volunteer education programs … boneyard tour guides, greeters, walking tour docents, the reference library, the volunteer presentation program and newsletter … and we who remained felt increasingly under the microscope. I was convinced the tram tour docent program, of which I was a part, was next on the chopping block, that we’d be replaced with part-time minimum wage drivers who wouldn’t have to know anything about aviation because the only requirement of their job would be to drive at a set speed while a pre-recorded narration played over the loudspeakers. Something similar had already happened to the boneyard tour guide volunteers: three members of the team were offered paid positions as full-time boneyard tour guides while the rest, ten or twelve experienced volunteers, were terminated.

So, back to the underground network. Here’s the latest, a letter sent out last week to volunteers still on the books:

In the year since the Covid19 pandemic forced the suspension of the public volunteer program we have spent a significant amount of time evaluating the structure and role of the program as it has existed for the last 25 years. The museum leadership has concluded that the program does not sufficiently meet the needs or expectations of our visitor demographic or the general, introductory educational experience we provide to Arizona community and school groups. Therefore, the time is right for a modernization and re-alignment as to how the volunteer program will operate and deliver exceptional support to our visitor experience, moving forward. We are very excited by the opportunities this new program will open to our volunteers and visitors. We know you will be too, and we look forward to working with you all as we continue to grow and improve together as an organization.

Love the corporate-speak on display here: “modernization and re-alignment,” “moving forward,” “grow and improve together.” In other words, “do more with less.” The pandemic has given management an excuse to pare the volunteer program down to almost nothing, with a narrow focus on the parts of it that generate revenue for the museum (very much like what the museum has already done with the boneyard tour guide program).

Here’s the plan, to be executed over the next few months (no specific dates are given in the leaked letter):

As before, there’ll be two volunteer categories, non-public and public. Restoration volunteers, who work behind the scenes preparing aircraft for display, will continue to operate as they did before and during the pandemic. New exhibits attract visitors and generate revenue.

The changes affect the public volunteer program. No more teams. Every volunteer will be qualified to fill any public volunteer position, from roving the display hangars to filling scheduled speaking slots or manning exhibit carts; most importantly, driving and narrating tram tours. The last one’s the biggie:

All Public Program Volunteers will be required to fill a shift in all assignment areas, including the Tram. … Our priority is to get the trams running again, and it will be the daily priority to have this service covered. This means it is possible that other assignment areas go unfilled and volunteers are asked to change their assignment for the day to operate the tram.

Well, sure. Tram tours, like the boneyard tours, generate revenue. Lots of it. The other public volunteer duties … roving between hangars to answer visitors’ questions, manning exhibit carts, giving scheduled presentations … make money only in an abstract sense. One, docents are included in the price of admission. Two, a museum with experienced docents to answer questions and put on free presentations will attract more visitors than one without. But since visitors pay extra for tram tours, now every volunteer will be first and foremost a tram tour docent.

I think, once they get the new program going, there’ll be a whole lot of tram tours and very few exhibit carts and scheduled presentations. Volunteers will drive trams and roam the hangars to answer questions between shifts on the tram, always on duty except for a lunch break.

Prior to the pandemic, the volunteer force skewed old, particularly the hangar docents, who in those days didn’t rove from hangar to hangar but spent their shifts in specific locations, mostly sitting. A lot of them were in their 80s and some were even older. I don’t imagine many of them would be willing to return, now that they’re expected to be on their feet most of the day. It’ll be interesting to see how the new program works out … I’ll drop by now and then, and I’m certain the former volunteers’ underground network will be watching as well.

I still think, at some point, museum management will professionalize the tram program, as it did with the boneyard tour program, but at least for now it’s had to recognize the necessity of volunteers. That must drive the executive director, who notoriously hates volunteers, crazy, and that, in turn, pleases me no end.

© 2021, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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4 thoughts on “Air-Minded: Volunteers Returning (Maybe)

  • Apparently it’s not just the museum that’s put a hold on boneyard tours. Per the pimaair.org website, the USAF has suspended the program. Previously, if you wanted to visit the USAF’s famous boneyard, you signed up for a tour with Pima Air & Space Museum, the only organization allowed to conduct tours. The USAF started imposing serious eligibility restrictions in 2018-2019, to the point where visitors had to sign up 14 working days in advance so the USAF could vet them for terrorist ties or whatever. It was pretty clear the USAF wanted to get out of the tour business altogether, and the pandemic has given them the excuse to do so. I’ll stick my neck out and predict that boneyard tours aren’t coming back.

  • I have been trying to think of an ulterior motive and can’t think of a valid one – it could be that he wants to brag about how many people he has working for him (or put it on his CV); or he doesn’t like people who are more knowledgeable people than him around; or he doesn’t think it looks good to have those older men working/volunteering there. There has got to be a reason. A couple of weeks ago, I had a similar experience with bureaucratese when a new bureaucrat here referred to modernizing legislation when in fact he was talking about going backwards (although not inappropriate for here).

  • MTM, the more I think about it, when the executive director started down the path he’s currently on, he initially set his sights on volunteers running their own programs and teams. Each volunteer team (walking tours, tram tours, etc) had a volunteer leader (I was the walking tour team leader for three years), in charge of education, standards, and scheduling. He eliminated team leaders and assigned their former functions to a paid staff member. We used to have a quarterly newsletter with scholarly articles contributed by volunteers writing about aviation topics in their own areas of expertise. Ditto a monthly volunteer presentation program you had to sign up for a year or more in advance. The presentations were attended by fellow volunteers, aviation enthusiasts from the community, and representatives from the National Air & Space Museum in DC, who recorded them and interviewed the presenter afterward. I have two two items in the Smithsonian archives: my hash songbook and my volunteer presentation and interview on the F-15 Eagle (not sure which one I’m prouder of). Anyway, these programs were eliminated as well … he wanted volunteers to be mere employees, reading from scripts written by management, and in very short order he went on to turn against volunteers altogether (though unable to do without them entirely). As far as I know from visiting other air museums around the country, which I did often before the pandemic, our executive director is an outlier in the museum business.

  • What a cultural and historic loss for all. I’ve taken many pics at our local Sacramento air museum and blogged about the good sized, varied and well presented collection, all or nearly all military. And learned a lot from the mostly ex military docents as well. It is probably 100% open by now so I may go back again. Just started checking out your aircraft pics. Thanks.
    ‘Tod’ recently posted…ERCO Ercoupe Light Sport Aircraft: Antique Flying ArtMy Profile

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