Volunteers’ Voice: Object handling

Volunteer Coordinator, Rob Davies, explains how museum volunteers are learning how to deliver object handling sessions.

For the past 6 months we have been working with Museum’s Consultant Charlotte Dew to create, develop object handling sessions for visitors to the museum which will be delivered regularly by our volunteers when we reopen. We’ll also be able to provide booked object handling sessions for groups.

Volunteering handling1
Six session plans were devised, looking at parts of our collections that could lend themselves to a handling experience. These included everything from spoon carving to shepherding. A diverse range of objects and sessions will allow repeat visitors to enjoy and learn something new each time they visit.

To ensure that visitors are provided with the best possible experience and the volunteers feel comfortable, confident and happy too, Charlotte and I have developed a training strategy. As this was the first time we had delivered this type of training and project, we planned our first session as a workshop to inform our actual training sessions. By using this model, the volunteers showed us what they needed to be taught and where help would be best placed. Two training sessions were devised; in the first session we covered the basics with some role play, the second session was focused on role play and having a go. It was important to instil confidence in the volunteers and prove to them they could do the role. This meant getting hands on with the objects, teaching the basic handling rules, i.e. two hands, hold over the table, don’t hold the handle etc.

Volunteering handling2
There is still a long time to go before we reopen and our volunteers will be able to provide handling sessions for the general visitor. In the interim period, volunteers will continue training and rehearsing. Some volunteers are also carrying out individual research into the some of the objects for handling. When the Museum re-opens in 2016, visitors will have a chance for the first time to have a go at touching some of our objects, which we hope will enhance their experience.

Volunteers’ Voice: Student Volunteering Week

We celebrate Student Volunteering Week with a post by Katie Wise who talks about the benefits of volunteering and the opportunities that her experience at MERL has brought.

Katie Wise at MERL fete

Katie volunteering in the tea tent at the MERL Village Fete

As a student on a humanities course, one thing I have a lot of is time. What’s a good way to spend it? Instead of pigging out watching Netflix, I decided to volunteer at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). Volunteering is the best way to gain experience, develop skills, meet new people and discover a new passion.

When I started volunteering at MERL in September 2013, I began by researching one of the objects in the collection and although I had, and still have, little interest in wagons, it showed me just what I could achieve. It also gave me a chance to blog about my research and add a new section to my CV. After that I started volunteering on reception which is a great way to develop communication skills – greeting visitors and dealing with phone enquiries. I have had a lot of customer service experience and I’m super organised so this role was perfect for me. For both of these jobs I was only giving up 2 or 3 hours per week so I still had plenty of time for my studies and to relax.

I also got lots of opportunities to help out with events that were run by the museum. These included small workshops, such as bread making or crafts, and large events such as the May Fayre. This was an amazing event to be a part of as each volunteer and staff member worked together to put on a great day for a huge number of visitors and it was so satisfying to see everyone having an amazing time. Even just being on washing up duty, I felt like I was an important part of the team and had contributed to the event.

Due to the financial situation museums are under, some places use volunteers as ‘free labour’, only interested in keeping costs down. However, I have never felt like I have been taken advantage of in this way and MERL are definitely interested in the development of their volunteers and helping them achieve. My skills and interests were used to find a role that suited me and that I would enjoy and they are always willing to help me to develop skills, build up my CV and give me incredible opportunities.

You never know what volunteering can lead to. I was very lucky as a temporary weekend post at MERL opened up and, as I was already volunteering in that role during the week, I was suggested for the post. As I had museum volunteering experience, I was also able to apply for another museum job which I have been working in for nine months now. When I started volunteering, I never imagined that I would have two paid museum jobs by my second year of university.

From volunteering I have gained research skills, IT skills, communication and customer service skills as well as experience working in large and small groups. I gained paid work and have discovered my passion and the career I want as well as having lots of fun. All this is definitely worth giving up a couple of hours a week and I would strongly recommend it.

Volunteers voice: Meet Rhiannon

Hello, I’m Rhiannon Watkinson the new Assistant Volunteer Coordinator here at MERL. Having been in the post a little over a month now, and no longer getting quite so lost in the maze that is the museum, it seems time to introduce myself.

I’m a Reading local and have just returned to the area after completing a Masters degree in Nineteenth Century Studies in London and am loving working in museum that I was taken to as a child. I have previously worked at The Florence Nightingale Museum in Lambeth where I was involved in the presentation of an art installation entitled ‘And the Band Played On…’ which was focused around waxworks of wounded soldiers. I also volunteer for the National Trust as a room guide at Grey’s Court so know first-hand the joys, and unfortunately sometimes issues, that volunteers face.


Rhiannon knows the way to the volunteers’ hearts!

The best way to describe my job is to tell you all the things I most enjoy about it which centres around the different groups of people I get to work with. The best thing about working as a volunteer coordinator is the sheer variety in my day! Rob and I are responsible for not only MERL volunteers but those from the other University of Reading collections; such as the Ure Museum and the Cole Museum to name just two. I am already involved in training tour guides for the Cole Museum which is one of my favourite parts of the week; not least because I’m learning so many weird and wonderful facts about the animals on display there. For example, I bet you didn’t know that Giant Spider crabs have skeletons of such breadth that they would collapse if they tried to walk on land!

            MERL volunteers performing at Reading Library

MERL volunteers performing at Reading Library

Another volunteer group that I am enjoying working with are the Swing Riot group. During my time here I have been to several rehearsals of their self-penned play about the Berkshire Swing Riots, even stepping into a role when required! I was thrilled to get to see the play in its full glory with props and costumes (my favourite being an especially fetching knitted judges wig) when they performed recently at Reading Library. It is great that volunteers are still getting the word out about our local rural history even though the museum is closed. I’m also looking into us staging more performances of the play so keep a look out for that in the near future.

Having student volunteers from the University of Reading is extremely important for the museum and having been a student myself not so long ago I am really keen to give them the best experience possible. Some new student volunteers are helping with the Astor Project which will allow people to digitally search for items from Nancy Astor’s archive that we have here at MERL. As well the volunteers work being hugely useful the snippets of information thrown up through Nancy Astor’s correspondence are fascinating. We’ve seen letters asking for everything from support for the Tasmanian Temperance Society, requests to open village bazaars and correspondence about a meeting ominously entitled ‘Moral Hygiene’.

I’m really looking forward to meeting even more volunteers over the coming weeks and enjoying even more of the variety that my job has to offer. Finally, a big thanks to everyone, staff and volunteers, for being immensely welcoming and making me feel at home at MERL so quickly.

Volunteers’ Voice #16: Young people as volunteers

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator

Our lovely Vintage Night student volunteers

Our lovely Vintage Night student volunteers

As part of the Our Country Lives project we are launching a series of projects to encourage young people (aged 11-25) to volunteer and engage with MERL. The age range is vast, with a wide variety of skills, abilities and interests within this target audience. You may ask: why are we targeting this group in particular? Well, through extensive research we have identified that our only visitors within that age category are usually those who come to study, students who volunteer or visit as part of a school trip. We can certainly continue to provide this educational resource, but we want to broaden our horizons and become more of a destination, not just offering a studious environment but also a place to go for extracurricular activities and leisure.

To prepare ourselves for this I have been researching young people within the museum sector and have come across a rich range of resources, related experiences and friendly colleagues who want to share stories and tips. In October I attended a seminar at the National Portrait Gallery called ‘The Domino Effect’, which heralded the conclusion of a three year project where they have been working with NEETS on photography projects. I have also been talking to colleagues at the ‘Collaborate SE: the South East regional Network of Museums working with young people.’

A series of projects and strategies have been planned, but not too in-depth as we want these projects to be formed by the young people themselves. (We were all young once, but does that mean any of us really know what young people want anymore?) Our plan is to have two forums split by age category. Each one will be supported by a member of staff and will function democratically. Last year we piloted this idea with a student panel who organised our 1951 Vintage Night for Museums at Night, which was a very enjoyable experience and a great success. Members of the forums will have numerous projects they can participate in: from consultation regarding our new galleries to planning events for their peers to attend. For young people who don’t fancy the idea of joining a forum we’re also setting up a youth volunteering programme, which will work around school hours and provide a chance to volunteer across the organisation.

To launch these exciting new projects we’re holding an open afternoon on Takeover Day, Friday 21st November, 4-6pm, at the Museum of English Rural Life. This will be a great opportunity for anyone interested to come along and talk to volunteers and members of staff about the type of opportunities they could get involved in. We hope to see you there! For more information, email merlevents@reading.ac.uk

Volunteers’ Voice #15: What is a community?

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator, shares his thoughts on what ‘community’ means to a museum

Last Monday I attended the Sharing Day for Reading Engaged, an Arts Council England project where Reading Museum and the Museum of English Rural Life are collaborating on numerous aspects of our work from retail to volunteering. It was an interesting day where I spoke about the volunteering elements of the project and how volunteers have supported the delivery of some of the project’s aims.

During the day we had a discussion about the idea of community and, more specifically, about what a community is. A community can mean and represent many things, from a community group to a community who all live on the same street. This notion of community got me thinking about our volunteers and how our diverse volunteer team are all part of a community, and indeed how UMASCS as a whole is a community.

Theoretical discussion aside, volunteers and community groups can often go hand in hand. I recruit volunteers through community groups, and even whole community groups often come in to volunteer on particular projects for us. When I was looking to widen our volunteer team to reflect the population of Reading, I looked first at local community groups and spoke to them. At first (although not always) they can be hard to contact or to convince them to be involved with your organisation, but once you have built that relationship it can be overwhelmingly productive and last for a long time.

Our Sewing Bee with the Slough Roots group.

Our Sewing Bee with the Slough Roots group.

At the Museum of English Rural Life we recently worked with ‘Slough Roots.’ Originally, this group was interested in the Museum because of plant cultivation and the varied plants and herbs we have in our garden. We developed this relationship and soon found ourselves working with them on a quilting project, influenced by our extensive collection of fabrics and our large collection of sewing machines. Following on from this, we are about to embark upon another similar project inspired by our fabric collection. Another community group we work with is our local Women’s Institute; the W.I have played an active role in our previous Village Fetes and in the past supported an exhibition at MERL. I have a volunteer who speaks at W.I. meetings about MERL and our Special Collections, and in turn I have recruited many volunteers from the engagement we have them.

Community groups and volunteering can be synonymous and they are never far away from each other. If you work with volunteers you are going to work with your local community and community groups. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that a community can also be on a much larger scale and not just around the corner from you. For us, as a Museum with a national focus, our Director summed it up by stating: ‘The entirety of Rural England is our community.’

Volunteers’ Voice #14: Volunteers and Our Country Lives

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator.

As you will know, we have recently been awarded a significant grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund for our redevelopment project Our Country Lives. I do not exaggerate when I say that volunteers made an enormous contribution to this success and they will play a very important role in the delivery of the project as a whole over the course of the next three years.

Volunteers helped with visitor evaluation at last year's Fete.

Volunteers helped with visitor evaluation at last year’s Fete.

Volunteers supported the delivery of round one in many ways; for instance by helping us with the vast undertaking of our visitor research, from collecting through to collating the data. This helped us form a good idea of who our current audiences are and why they visit. Volunteers also attended consultancy and planning meetings, making valuable contributions to our thinking and our plans.

With the delivery of round two of the project our volunteers will again be essential. They will support many elements of delivering the project, from assisting with the care of the objects during this time of major transition to the support of and participation in community projects.

You may ask why we as an organisation felt it was so important for volunteers to play a role in this major grant application and delivery of the project. The truth is, volunteers play a crucial role in the day-to-day running of the University Museums and Special Collections Service. This project will have a major impact upon many areas of our service and we feel it is vital that volunteers are included.

With any major project work it is always necessary to update and talk to your volunteer team regularly. If they begin to feel that everything is happening behind their backs and they are being left behind, a feeling of discontent will grow amongst your team. I will include updates in the volunteer newsletter, send specific updates via email and hold regular team meetings. I will encourage them to read (and hopefully contribute to) the Our Country Lives blog where there will be regular updates.

At this time of great change it is important for everyone involved to go forward as one, ensuring the project will be an even greater success.



Volunteers’ Voice #13: Volunteers’ Week 2014

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator.

This week is the time of the year we stop to think about and celebrate volunteering across the country, whether you are a volunteer yourself, an organisation who works with them, or indeed is entirely run by volunteers, this is the week in which we say thank you on a national scale.


Throughout the University Museums and Special Collections Services we have about 120 volunteers who regularly give up their time to support us. Without them we would struggle to complete major archive projects on time, we wouldn’t be able to deliver major events and our output would be significantly smaller. I am extremely lucky that my role is completely focused on our volunteers as it means I get to work with a wide variety of people, I learn about a myriad of projects and I am never sitting still.

Here are all the reasons I love volunteers:

I love volunteers because they are passionate and want to be here. Sometimes, during a wet Monday morning, work can be the least exciting place but when our volunteers walk through the door they instantly cheer the place up. Their warmth and cheeriness inevitably rubs off on to us.

I love volunteers because I get to meet and work with a variety of people from across the local community, such as students, people looking for work, people with a special interest or people who have retired. Everyone volunteers for a different reason and I think it is great that we as an organisation can offer so many diverse opportunities, from gardening to archiving.

I love volunteers because without them we wouldn’t be able to deliver nearly as much as we do. Volunteers help us deliver large projects, helping as teams on our archive projects such as the Macmillan and Longman project. Volunteers also provide valuable support on the front desk welcoming visitors and helping out on the shop. The visitor experience is also enhanced through our volunteers, as they can go on a tour with a volunteer tour guide and learn more about the collections and see behind the scenes.

I love volunteers because they bring so much to an organisation. Not only do they bring time but they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience which benefits us. Whether this is through knowledge of a particular collection, experience of marketing or managing, or even being a dab hand at knitting, everything a volunteer contributes strengthens us.

Knitted wigs

Our volunteer, Jan, knits sheep for our shop, and also knitted wigs for the judge in our recent (vounteers’) production about the Swing riots

Finally, I love volunteers because they make me smile.

Find out more about Volunteers’ Week

Volunteers’ Voice #12: A tale of rural protest in Berkshire

Written by Kaye Gough, Volunteer.

Well, we did it!  After months of discussions and script conferences; research teams trawling through local archives; rehearsals, sourcing costumes and music, the MERL Players presented two performances of our tableau Performing Protest: Riots against technological change in the 19th Century to full houses at the Museum on Saturday 22nd March.

The team perform the play in the Museum

The team perform the play in the Museum

I have been researching the Swing riots since 2010 after talking to a Museum visitor who asked to see a threshing machine.  She explained that her ancestor had been transported to Tasmania in 1831 after being brought before the Salisbury Magistrates and charged with destroying a threshing machine.  My curiosity was aroused; history has always been a passion of mine and volunteering at MERL has given me the opportunity to pursue this hobby.  I discovered that the Swing Riots, an important agricultural protest movement, appears as a minor footnote in our history and yet had a major effect on rural communities throughout the south of England, including Berkshire.


The ‘MERL Players Company’ formed after the CREW Presentation Skills course in 2012 developed various events designed for children from Family Tours to a Victorian Christmas. We created different characters to illustrate aspects of rural life and focused on local history relating to Huntley & Palmers and Victorian Christmas traditions. At the beginning of 2013 the Swing Riots was discussed as a potential subject to include in a planned outreach programme to present to senior school and community groups. We were fortunate to have experts on the subject in Rob Davies, our Volunteer Supervisor and Keith Jerrome, a fellow volunteer guide to lead us on our Swing Riots journey.


Everyone jumped into action to relate the story of William Winterbourne (alias Smith), who was hung at Reading Gaol, and the protest activities within the communities of Kintbury and Hungerford.  Keith and his team carried out important background research at Berkshire Records Office; we read books on the subject; Anne discovered a folk song on the Swing riots (Owlesbury Lads). Ilka Weiss, a stage designer with international theatrical experience gave us valuable advice during rehearsals which helped us finesse our performance. Costumes were kept simple, with everyone wearing black with hats, shawls and caps for identifying characters. Jan Butler, another MERL Volunteer, did an outstanding job creating and knitting superb wigs for the judge and two barristers – all from an old Arran sweater! Clive became a powerful Winterbourn, Keith relished his role as the Reverend Fowle and Jeremy a commanding Judge.  Sadly, we had cast members fall ill at the last moment – but in true theatrical tradition ‘the show must go on’ and ‘understudies’ stepped in.

It has been great fun and now the show goes on tour at the end of the month! We are delighted to have been invited to present our performance to The Hungerford Historical Association on the evening of 28th May in Hungerford Town Hall – who knows, the next stop may be the West End!! Seriously, we welcome invitations to showcase this important story in classrooms, village halls or care homes!!   Bring it on!!!


Volunteers Voice #11: Reviewing your volunteer programme

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-ordinator.

As in all aspects of an organisation, it is always a useful exercise to review your volunteer programme. This isn’t a review of the volunteers themselves but an overall review of the entire programme. A review enables you to take a step back from your day to day work, take a look at where you and your programme are heading and what improvements or changes need to be made. It is also useful from a strategic point of view and provides you with all those hard facts and figures needed for reports.

A review should cover everything from documentation, training, staff and of course asking the opinions of the volunteers themselves. We are constantly developing and changing, pushing further, growing organically, and reflecting the world around us. It is important that your documentation is up to date and accurate, reflects changes in your organisation and future goals you aspire to. I go through our four volunteer policies and our volunteer handbook with a fine toothcomb to ensure that details (e.g. phone numbers, members of staff) are still correct. I also change photos in the handbook to freshen it up a little.

Volunteers at Ufton Court

Volunteers and staff on a visit to Ufton Court

Of course, at the heart of any volunteer programme are the volunteers themselves; their welfare and happiness is crucial. Through experience I have found the best way to collate an accurate snapshot of volunteer happiness regarding the programme is an anonymous survey that should take between 5-10 minutes to complete. The survey asks questions about communication, support and training, as well as some open questions. This helps me look at the programme from a volunteer’s perspective and highlights any problems that need to be solved.

Alongside a written review I invite volunteers in for an informal chat. This isn’t mandatory but some like to chat face-to-face. It’s also important to gauge feelings and problems of staff as well as those of the  volunteers. I hold one-to-one chats with members of staff who work with or manage volunteers, where I encourage them to be as open and honest as possible. Again, this provides me with a different opinion of the volunteer programme and highlights any problems that I may not be aware of. It is also important for staff to feel they are supported with managing their volunteers and volunteer projects. Once you have completed the review, don’t sit on your results, act on them!

Volunteers’ Voice #10: Performing Protest: Riots against technological change in the 19th Century

written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-ordinator

On Saturday 22nd of this month a team of my volunteers are delivering Performing Protest: riots against technological change in the 19th Century. It is a performance-based event about the Swing Riots in Berkshire, which occurred in 1830-31. The event is part of Reading Science Week, in turn part of National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), a ten-day national programme of science, technology, engineering and maths events and activities across the UK, aimed at people of all ages from March 14th to 23rd.

The Swing Riots was a national crisis which engulfed the English countryside and resulted in the imprisonment, transportation and in some cases the execution of those involved. The introduction and rise of the threshing machine took vital winter work away from farm labourers, without which many families faced starvation. This sparked riots, and attacks were led against the threshing machines.  In this event, we will explore the causes, events and aftermath of the Swing Riots both locally and nationally.

Volunteers at MERL have been practising hard for the event

Volunteers at MERL have been practising hard for the event

The event has been put together by my family tour guide team who were responsible for our Victorian Christmas event. After the success of the Christmas event and the family tours, we sat down and considered “what shall we do next?” A member of the team, Keith, has a strong interest in working class history and suggested we look into the Swing Riots. “Many have heard of ‘The Tolpuddle Martys’, the Six Men of Dorset transported to Australia for forming a trades union in 1834. Four years earlier hundreds of agricultural labourers were gaoled, many transported and some executed after what has become known as The Swing Riots.”

As a team we sat down and planned the event, thinking about our audience, our aims and the methods to achieve them, it was clear from the beginning that this event was going to be very different from our previous work, so we decided upon these key themes to base our performance upon:

  • To educate our audience about the causes, effects and aftermath of the Swing Riots
  • To use the local story of the Swing Riots in Berkshire as a vehicle to tell the national story
  • Use the museum as a stage for the performance
  • Appeal to new audiences
The Family Tour Guide Team, who previously brought you such hits as 'the MERL tour', and the 'Victorian Christmas tour'

The Family Tour Guide Team, who previously brought you such hits as ‘the MERL tour’, and the ‘Victorian Christmas tour’

With these in mind we have developed a script keeping as close to historical accuracy as possible.  A team of volunteers visited the Berkshire Record Office for research and volunteers have been using the local library and the MERL library.  Several of the team have read the book From Berkshire to Botany Bay by Norman Fox.  What we have been unable to put into the script we will put on the presentation boards that will be on display during the event, along with a leaflet to complement the performance.

In case you missed it, a promotional trailer and poster have been produced by the volunteers with my assistance and the support of MERL’s Marketing Officer.  Protest_poster_small

Rehearsals are now in full swing (excuse the pun)! We’re meeting twice a week and I am really pleased with how much progress we have made. The entire team have really immersed themselves in this very exciting and often overlooked period of our history, and I think we have all developed strong opinions on the matter (with historical arguments to support them!).

Working with volunteers to devise and create an event of this type on a big scale has been both rewarding and at times stressful. I’ve had to harness their enthusiasm and push it in the right direction.  I quickly realised that I needed a clear plan and structure in my mind in order channel their  knowledge and creativity. Of course, there have been days where I’ve had to re-think the structure and sometimes throw it out of the window!

The value of working with volunteers is huge, as their ideas and enthusiasm underpins the event, creating a real buzz and enjoyment to it. They have taken on the roles of researchers, script writers, costume-makers and actors. I really appreciate the time and effort they have put in to every aspect. When the opportunity arose to enter the event into the NSEW competition I leapt at it and hope that we might be lucky enough to win something for this Science Week event with a difference. It would be an amazing reward for their dedication! In the meantime, we hope that visitors will buy tickets and enjoy the event.

For further details and tickets, visit Performing Protest on the MERL website. Book now to avoid disappointment and join us for an entertaining and thought-provoking event.

Read more about the event in our recent press release