Because we want to be there: reflections on volunteering at a museum

In this guest post, Anne Lord shares her experience at Colne Valley Museum, which relies entirely on volunteers. A volunteer herself, Anne reflects on the challenges and successes of the museum’s collections management work, including a current HLF-funded collections digitisation project. This post is adapted from her presentation at Collection Trust’s conference in September 2017.

When I was asked to speak at the conference, the question was worded: “Essentially, what do you think makes your volunteer work effective?” And my answer would be: “Because we want to be there.” The comments in our visitor book certainly reflect that, with constant references to our enthusiastic/knowledgeable/friendly volunteers, personally thanked sometimes which is nice.

I think the Volunteers Co-ordinator has the most important job in our museum, because without our volunteers we’d close, simple as that. Ours is a local heritage museum created by the local community to preserve the village history for future generations. The weavers’ cottages in the valley were being pulled down in the 1960s, and it was felt important to retain at least one of them.

Colne Valley Museum
Colne Valley Museum

In 1969 the first cottage was donated by the Golcar Socialist Club who were moving into bigger premises, and despite early misgivings – “Ee lad, it’ll never catch on i’ Golcar” – the adjoining two cottages were obtained over the following two years with local support.

An appeal went out when the museum was first created for “anything that would have furnished a Victorian cottage” and people brought in all sorts of things; they were trundling mangles down the road. 47 years on we still get phone calls along the lines of “We’re clearing out granny’s attic…”

So, the museum began as an entirely volunteer-run organisation and is still that, which means we have many roles to offer, from managing to the more mundane and everything in between. Volunteers are encouraged to try out any and all of these, so that they find their place.

You have to find out what people want from volunteering. They might have joined in order to help keep the museum going, but they also might want to learn a new skill, or pass on their knowledge. They may be lonely and see it as an opportunity to make friends, to occupy spare time if they’ve recently retired, or because a friend, already a volunteer, bullied them into joining. One of our volunteers is caring for a husband who has dementia, and she comes to us once a fortnight “just to have a laugh with real people.”

They can shadow stewards, listen to the stories, help out in the tea room, learn or share a skill such as weaving, spinning, clog-making, demonstrate traditional baking skills in our Victorian kitchen, join the maintenance team, etc.

Volunteers can come along to our weekly collection team meetings where (after a coffee and chocolate biscuits – an essential item – and cake is even better) they can be polishing brass, sorting out boxes and boxes of nighties, writing descriptions, photographing items, finding artefacts for an exhibition, setting up a display, or slicing up cardboard cartons to take to the tip. What we hope is that they’ll become more interested and then perhaps expand into other roles. It’s so easy to pounce on a new volunteer and say, “Oh good. We’re short of stewards. Come with me.” But if they’re not comfortable with talking to the public, they’ll just slide away.

When we became embroiled in the Heritage Lottery project we were able to use many of the transferable skills the team members brought to the table. For example, we have someone with great IT and photographic knowledge, which has proved a great help with the digitisation of the collection, an aspect of the project which is very exciting. We have lots of new equipment and Chris Chinnock, who was commissioned to photograph what we think of as the “awkward” items in the collection – especially the machinery and the costumes – is training our volunteers to use the equipment to photograph the more manageable items. We also have several photographic collections, as well as numerous documents relating to both local history and textile matters. So, we’re going to make lots of items from these collections available via our new website. We have several black/white photographs of local scenes and mills hanging in our tea room and they always create interest and comments. Chris has become very enthusiastic about our project and is offering to come and help us in his free time, which is lovely and also very reassuring!

We aim to create a Community Heritage Resource Centre, which will give greater access to the museum’s collection, especially for those tracing their family history. Many of our documents and photographs will be digitised.

Victoria Mill in 1905
Victoria Mill in 1905

Our funding officer had previously worked for Action Halifax!, a regeneration programme, which was a huge bonus. We had a retired local authority planning officer who knew all the words needed for the planning applications, as well as the right people and talked to a heritage officer ahead of our application, who was very supportive and became very interested in our project. A member of the local film society, who was also a qualified electrician, was able to be very precise about the installation of a projector, AV screens, etc. The lady who takes care of our collection has a great deal of retail experience in stock organisation and is a whizz at display and exhibitions, having been in charge of window display for several high street stores. And a couple of company directors, an accountant and two retired deputy heads didn’t come amiss either!

However, the process did have its challenges. Talk about learning to dance on a shifting carpet! We’re the Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers of the Colne Valley, I can tell you. Just finding a day and time when we could all meet was Hell’s Delight.

Most of us are retired so we take long holidays. Our children have weddings and christenings. We have grandchildren who need looking after in the school holidays, hospital appointments, arthritic knees. We are not in the office five days a week; we have lives that need living. Our project leader has struggled with a serious illness almost from the beginning of the project and we are all supporting her like mad because we want her to finish this project with her name on it, because she deserves it.

We’ve had to learn new skills very rapidly. Things like “cash flow prediction” were really taxing – some of us haven’t had a meaningful relationship with percentages since the days of O level! We have learned how to communicate effectively, so that others know what everyone is doing and when and how we are doing it. If anyone has to be absent for two or three weeks, then someone can take over.

I have been proud to be one of a team which has been so supportive, forgiving and encouraging of each other whenever we have felt at a loss or under pressure, and the very strong co-operative spirit that has emerged over these past few years (yes, years!) has been quite something.

We do strive to include our volunteers in all our decision-making. We have a management structure – a board of trustees – and then the management team made up of all the team leaders. We have teams for school visits, the collection, organising events and exhibitions, maintenance of the building and garden, shop and shows, and of course a team to manage the HLF project.

We also hold regular volunteer meetings (at different times and days) to which everyone is welcome. These are very casual – coffee and cakes again! Ideas are shared, grumbles are aired, comments are taken note of, and we can bring everyone up to date with current projects and future events. We want everyone to feel included and have a say in how things are run.

We send out regular newsletters, to which anyone can contribute, with the main aim of keeping people up to date. If you only ever come in on the third Sunday to help serve in the tea room, you may well miss out on the other events altogether. This was particularly important with the HLF project because we were closed for 18 months for the refurbishment and reconfiguration of the rooms. We were homeless and communication was difficult.

Christmas at Colne Valley Museum

It’s not always just meetings. We do the occasional pub lunch too. And we always have a bit of a do at Christmas, with home-made items, dialect poetry, songs and silly quizzes, at which anyone can stand up and contribute.

We run a programme of skills-training workshops, either using in-house knowledge or we bring in experts based on what we, the management team, see as a need, while also listening to requests from the volunteers themselves. This training is really important to the museum. We want our front of house staff to be welcoming, know what’s going on in the museum, and be up to speed with the electronic till (we learned this the hard way. There is an oft-told anecdote of one volunteer, no longer with us, who is infamously remembered for standing watching two parents struggle to settle their young children, find out what they wanted and then order and pay for it, who then banged some money on the counter demanding, “do you want this change or not?”. The good old days!)

We need skilled demonstrators who are comfortable talking to the public, and also people who are interested and know what they are doing when looking after the collection and the building. We are in the business of preserving traditional skills as well as the cottages and their contents.

Our volunteers are encouraged to attend outside events such as the West Yorkshire Museum forums and workshops, not just because of the training opportunities, but also to give them a chance to see the bigger museum world and how other people do things, and on the way increasing their skills and therefore usefullness to the museum. Often this helps reassure ourselves that the way we are doing things is OK.

I brought our shop team to the AIM conference in Manchester a few years ago because several of the workshops were about retail and catering. We were just about to open our new shop and tea room. They had a great time talking to and working with other museum people, and they could ask the questions they needed to ask, and get the expert advice they needed.

Work trips are a very pleasant way of introducing volunteers to see best practice in other places, especially if it

Loom chamber
Loom chamber

includes a good lunch, although it can backfire – after a recent visit to the Heritage Quays archive at Huddersfield University, our collection team sulked all the way home because they couldn’t have the state of the art storage units which the university had acquired.

Ultimately there is no “they” in our museum – it’s ‘we’. There is no “They should do this or that…” but rather “OK. This needs doing. How are we going to do it?”. And there are times when decisions have to be made that aren’t universally popular at first and it’s a case of what I call “coaxing people onto the lifeboat.” If we can get this right, then it gives our volunteers a real sense of ownership and a greater interest in what they are doing at their museum.

So that they enjoy coming in “to work.” So that they want to be there.

Otherwise, they won’t.