I began volunteering for the museums in the spring of 2015, when I was invited to join the work of closing down the Museum of St Albans on Hatfield Road. This sounds very gloomy but actually it was very exciting.
Throughout my time volunteering at the museum I have felt well supported in all my activities. When I withdrew from a project I was not made to feel at all uncomfortable. The training given is always of high quality whether by museum staff themselves or outside professionals. I am amazed at the dedication of staff and the hours they put in yet they consistently take time to make sure that volunteers feel valued.
I’m looking forward to the next invitation...I wonder what it will be, something familiar or a completely new challenge...
Wrapped, Packed and Ready to go
Experience: getting to know the team of staff and volunteers, actually handling museum objects, logistics of packing very odd shaped items, accurate recording of objects
Skills gained: making tissue paper pillows and sausages, proper handling of objects
"Who knew the museum had so many postcards of the Abbey?"
In autumn 2015 the museums team began to gather information on all the volunteer’s skills and interests ready to start planning what we might like to get involved in. I was a relative newcomer compared with my fellow volunteers but with the skills I had gained on the packing project, my IT background, interest in social history and eagerness to learn I was looking forward to new challenges. I was soon involved in a great project aimed at keeping social history visible in the city during the closure period.
Experience: trawling the museum catalogue for objects that took my interest (Ballito factory, St Albans CND and theatre posters), discovering the local history section of St Albans Central Library, talking to members of St Albans CND for background information, individual research work alongside collaborative work with museum staff, assisting at the pop-up events
Skills gained: research skills, writing structured notes, photography
"People love to be able to handle museum objects and talk about them."
Not all projects suit everyone. I initially put my name forward for the Talking Buildings project in early 2016. I started some research and was well supported by museum staff but after a while I felt I was not enjoying it and withdrew. I know many people who were involved in this project who loved it and the resources produced were great, it was just not for me.
Often projects seem to build from one to the next and the photography that I did for Objects on Demand encouraged me to join the bigger photography project in spring 2016. Rather than a specific event this is ongoing - given that the aim is to photograph the whole collection and make that resource publicly available I think we’ll be busy for a while.
Experience: quiet concentrated technical work, working alongside other volunteers and sharing our delight at some the objects we photographed
Skills gained: still life photography techniques
"Whilst lace bobbins are very pretty at one point I never wanted to see another one!"
Having been busy with behind-the-scenes work for a while it was great to have an opportunity to do some volunteering with the public again in summer 2016.
Experience: working with a professional on using IT to enhance the museum experience with children
Skills gained: using electronics to bring a map to life
"Children learn so quickly and are so enthusiastic."
Now I hit a new technical challenge, transcribing – despite having worked in IT for many years my typing skills are appalling but I decided to give it a go...
Oral History transcribing
Experience: training to understand the difference between general note taking and transcribing, working out how to balance listening and typing to best effect
Skills gained: slightly improved typing speed
"listening to the oral histories makes you feel you’ve got to know these people"
... and this led me on to learning how to do the interviews themselves in early 2017.
Recording Oral History Interviews
Experience: training to understand how to get the best out of an oral history interview, this is quite different to chatting, keeping quiet yet trying to draw the interviewee on particularly interesting points
Skills gained: using recording equipment, structured interview technique
"Although I haven’t used this skill for the museum yet I have interviewed someone for their family history."
Although I’d had guidance on handling objects for earlier projects I now had the opportunity to learn more about these techniques during summer 2017
Experience: training in good handling techniques, health and safety issues in manual handling, the damage poor handling can cause, different materials need to be treated differently
Skills gained: use of good technique
"It’s important to look after yourself as well as the objects."
With no building to operate from the idea of pop-up sessions was tried again and in summer 2017 I worked with Artist Lyndall Phelps outside the Library and in the Cathedral.
A Curious Conversation - Artist-in-Residence pop-up
Experience: talking to Lyndall about her choice of objects and how they inspired her, talking to the public about both the objects and the artworks created
Skills gained: encouraging people to talk about art
"Different venues make for very different audiences."
Then, in late 2017 I made a leap from art to science with an introduction to bugs and the threat they pose in museums and more general conservation issues.
Conservation - Integrated Pest Management
Experience: training in understanding the damage bugs, damp and dirt can do, demonstration of conservation techniques, working with Alison, conservator, on bug checking at Verulamium
Skills gained: bug identification, microscope use
"I never knew silverfish were so beautiful."
As we moved into 2018 there were lots of opportunities to prepare for the volunteering that was going to be needed when the new museum opened. We needed to know what activities would be running and how volunteers were going to be used. As access to the building became possible we got in to get an idea of the layout. Then it was all hands to the pumps in June 2018.
St Albans Museum and Gallery opening weekends
Experience: WOW! Welcoming visitors, guiding visitors, talking about the exhibits, hearing people’s experiences related to exhibits and the building
Skills gained: people skills
"Being charming is very tiring."
Part of the ethos of the new premises is ever-changing exhibitions. This means lots of work installing and taking down exhibits. My first involvement in this was when the fabulous First Impressions printing exhibition came to an end in August 2018.
First Impressions take-down
Experience: being a very minor part of a team transforming the Weston Gallery, trawling through the post-it comments
Skills gained: feedback method
"A lot of paper is used in this process but how useful is it?"
Another innovation for St Albans is museum “lates”. Not everyone can get to the museum in normal opening hours so special sessions have been arranged. I’ve helped with a couple of these.
Museum Lates – And so she did and Food, Glorious Food
Experience: guiding visitors to events, talking to visitors about the building and exhibits, assisting speakers and performers when needed, getting people involved in activities
Skills gained: people skills
"Lots of effort from staff and volunteers."
School holidays are always a good opportunity to get younger people involved in activities in the museum. Their interest and enthusiasm are quite infectious.
Summer with new artists in residence Flea Cooke and John O’Leary
Experience: working alongside professionals to produce fabulous artworks, ensuring access to suitable resources, supporting the professionals
Skills gained: matching activities to age groups and interests
"The 3D objects and Wall hangings were amazing, and I hope they are kept as part of the museum collection."
Half-term with our Alison, our conservator
Experience: introducing young people to museum bugs, helping them identify bugs and the harm they can do, engaging their interest without scaring them, getting them to look round the museum in a different way
Skills gained: matching my approach to different age groups
"Who says young people are only interested in playing games on their phones?"