Volunteers’ Voice #9 – Planning ahead

Volunteer Coordinator, Rob Davies, shares some tips for planning a volunteer programme…

At the beginning of each year I sit down and think about what the New Year will hold for the volunteer programme and the volunteers. I make three lists:

  1. Beyond my wildest dreams
  2. Let’s be realistic here
  3. What can the volunteer programme do to further support UMASCS (University Museums & Special Collections Service)

I don’t show anyone these lists but they stay at the back of my mind whilst planning and forward thinking. With an already busy 2014 ahead, not just for the volunteer programme but for MERL and UMASCS as a whole, I contemplate and prepare.

In the list below I have highlighted some of the planning methods I use which might help you prepare your own volunteer programme for the New Year…

  • Think about what you did last year
    • What worked?
    • What didn’t work?
    • Will you do it again this year? How it will be different?
  • Do you have any partnership projects on the horizon? How will they affect your volunteer programme?
  • Are your volunteers happy? Have you asked them? What more can you do to make their volunteering a more pleasant and enjoyable experience?
  • How much budget will you have this year? How are you going to make the most of it?
  • Have you thought about the staff? Are they happy with their volunteers? Is there anything you can do to support them further?
  • Create a timetable highlighting busy periods for your organisation and volunteers. My timetable marks out events where volunteer support is needed, learning activities and major projects. I also mark in days of recruitment and career fayres, important meetings (not just for volunteers but for myself) and anything else that may take a lot of time.

Whilst planning and thinking about the above, I always have two words in bright bold letters on my white board; they are coincidentally Scar’s motto from the Lion King “Be Prepared”.  Always think ahead of each project, activity and day, be ready for whatever may come your way and always have the kettle on. If you’re planned and ready, the volunteers will enjoy their time with you, they’ll deliver more and stay with your organisation for longer.

Be prepared

Volunteers Voice #8: Plot plans for 2014

Our two gardening volunteers, Tony and Roger, spent the last year transforming our plots into bee friendly areas, designed to encourage bees into our garden and to show visitors how easy it is to support them. Tony and Roger have kindly written a post for us about what they have in store for 2014…

Following the use of plants that are attractive to pollinators last year, (read our last garden blog post for more info) it has been decided to double the area of direct-sown hardy annuals.   Last year, the plot nearest to the main entrance to the gardens was planted with bee-friendly half-hardy annuals.  These have to be raised under heated glasshouses and, although the effect can be more carefully planned, it is a costly exercise compared with direct sowing of hardy annuals.

Bed planted with half-hardy annuals

Bed planted with half-hardy annuals

The second plot was sown with four different mixtures of hardy annual flowers sold by Thompson and Morgan, the plot being divided into four beds with the following mixtures:

  • Annual early flowering mix
  • Wildflower honey-bee flower mix
  • Wildflower mix
  • Butterfly mix
Bed sown with mixtures of hardy annual flowers

Bed sown with mixtures of hardy annual flowers

There was a huge range of species found within these mixtures and, when in full bloom, the whole plot sometimes seemed to be humming.  To be honest, I cannot for the life of me prove that more butterflies landed on the butterfly mixture bed or that fewer bees landed on the butterfly mixture than on the bee-mixture bed.  But come on, ye of little faith!   Of course the little fellahs know what they are doing.

Those of you who ventured outdoors in April may remember that the seed was sown in drills about 10 cm apart (making hoeing and weeding easier) and then covered with horticultural fleece.   This had a dramatic effect on germination, providing warmth and conserving moisture whilst allowing water to penetrate.  Many seeds had begun to germinate in 10-15 days and as soon as most species were pushing against the fleece we took it off and gave them their freedom. If you are even a moderately interested gardener, do try a packet or two in any sunny corner that you don’t really know what to do with.   They come in packets of 1 gm which is enough to cover one per square metre.  I offer a tip, however.  If you go onto the Thompson and Morgan website you will find these mixtures hard to find.   Go to their search box and type in “bee mixture” etc. as listed above.  The same problem arises with their catalogue and a here a telephone call seems necessary.  Never mind, they are very charming!

Caring for bees

This year, in addition to growing plants that attract bees, we are planning to create examples of the habitats where bees like to build their nests. Visitors will be given a bee trail to follow which will lead them to all the places in the garden where bees might be nesting, so that they can see what they can do in their own gardens to encourage bees to take up residence.

Tony Hales and Roger Sym

If you have any horticultural questions, Tony Hales has kindly offer to answer your questions. Post a comment below or leave a question with staff at reception.


MERL at the MA conference #2: Our Volunteer Coordinator’s view

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator, writes up the session he led on ‘overcoming fears of working with volunteers’at the Museums Association conference…

I was one of a small group of colleagues from MERL who attended the MA conference earlier this month. I was there to lead a session entitled ‘Overcoming your fears of working with volunteers.’ The session was devised to extract concerns about working with volunteers, explore them and discuss how to combat those worries.

We began with some group work when each group was given a few children’s comics to create and visualise their fears of working with volunteers. This encouraged conversation and discussion between colleagues, as well as giving me a foundation to bottom out people’s worries and concerns.

One of the fears that arose was: “How do you address volunteers who do not dress appropriately for their role?” My answer to this was to use role descriptions and state in those that there is a dress code required to fulfil the role, also use training and induction to install a dress code. If a volunteer persists to dress unsuitably then you are within your rights to ask them to alter their dress code for the role.

From this point another discussion arose and that was the use of volunteer agreements. There is some debate in the voluntary sector over the use of these. A volunteer agreement is a signed document between the volunteer and a member of staff, stating that they are aware of what is expected of both of them. At the University Museums and Special Collections (UMASCS) at Reading we do not use volunteer agreements as I prefer not to enter anything that may be considered contractual; however there is lots of advice on how to write a volunteer agreement without using language that may possibly implicate a legal contract. We do, however, have one agreement form used by archive volunteers who may be volunteering with confidential data. This form states that they are aware of the nature of the material they are handling and that they are not at liberty to talk about it. The conclusion of this discussion was that the use of volunteer agreements are at times necessary for the role required.

Another fear that arose was: “Volunteer supervisors and managers are concerned about the length of time a volunteer stays within an organisation and sometimes it is hard to let go.”  My response to this issue was to suggest creating volunteer projects set within time restraints therefore managing expectations. I also suggested the use of role descriptions to manage time limits and volunteer responsibilities.

After my interactive element of the session, I invited Amanda Lightstone, Opening Doors Project Coordinator from the University of Cambridge Museums, and Gemma Waters, Museum Development Officer from Cumberland House Portsmouth, to talk about their experiences of working with volunteers. They provided anecdotal presentations about their work and explored good practice regarding recruiting and retaining volunteers.

I like to think the session left everyone feeling enthused and invigorated about working with volunteers!

If anyone has any concerns or worries about working with volunteers in Museums, I’d be happy to answer your queries below or you can contact me at r.j.davies[at]reading.ac.uk


Volunteers’ Voice #7 – Tour guides

Volunteer Coordinator, Rob Davies, talks about working with volunteer tour guides to make guided tours at MERL more interactive and engaging…

I had a meeting with my volunteer tour guide team last week which prompted me to dedicate this post to volunteer tour guides. Tours are an excellent way in which museums engage with visitors, bringing the collections alive and making the visitor experience all the more memorable. MERL has an excellent volunteer tour guide team who really are an asset to the museum. Volunteer tour guides are students, graduates, post graduates and members of the local community.

The team provides general 40 minute tours around the museum on weekends and for booked groups during the week. A special part of the weekend tours is a visit to the object store on the mezzanine floor, which is otherwise closed to visitors. This is where we keep all the objects that are not on open display and it’s a great opportunity for visitors to see behind the scenes. When I joined MERL in July 2010 there were only three guides who were providing all the weekend tours and they were using a set script. The small team was struggling and needed support. I set up bi-monthly meetings with the team which still continue.   I recruited new volunteers from the student body and the local community to boost the withering numbers of the team. At these meetings we discuss any problems, organise the rotas and it is a good excuse for a bit of socialising between the team.

The script had originally been devised by a consultant to highlight the main themes of the new galleries when MERL moved to new premises, and was designed to provide background information about the collections. From talking to the tour guides I realised the script was no longer working for training purposes or for the visitor experience. It was hard to allow for interaction between the tour guide and their group, or to tailor a tour to the interests of  the group.  So we decided to take a new approach. In order to personalise the experience, new volunteers are now encouraged to choose objects they would like to talk about within their tour.  The Museum is divided into sections and they choose a set number of objects from each section. They then research the stories behind their chosen objects. Each guide gives a slightly different tour but this means that the tour guide is interested in the objects they are talking about and that translates into enthusiasm and passion which hopefully rubs off onto the visitors.

The tour guide team on a CREW training day

The tour guide team on a CREW training day

To assist with the facilitation of training new guides and the implementation of the new tours, we used CREW who helped us to explore new ideas, increase our confidence, mould us as a team and think about where we as a team are going.  Since then we haven’t looked back; the team has continued to grow with new guides being trained at the start every academic year, which continues to boost the team bringing new life, ideas and providing visitors with more exciting tours.

Volunteers’ Voice #6 – Student volunteers

At the beginning of a new University term, Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator, talks about student volunteers at the University Museums and Special Collections.

It is the start of the academic year which for us at the University Museums means we have an influx of eager students willing to volunteer. With the current economic climate and the competition for work, volunteering is considered an excellent means of gaining crucial skills that will make you more appealing to employers. There are plenty of events where students can find out about opportunities. I was recently at the Reading University Students Union Volunteering Fayre, an excellent day that encouraged students to volunteer at a variety of organisations.

At the University Museums and Special Collections Service we have a long history of working with student volunteers. Students make up about half of our volunteers, they are fun to work with and provide new ideas and an open mind. I know there is talk within the sector of students being unreliable volunteers, in my experience they are very reliable and if they do prove unreliable in certain programmes then I think it is an issue with the volunteer programme and not the students.

A student volunteering at the MERL Village Fete. Stuart went on to work as a Museum Assistant at MERL before leaving to study for a PhD.

A student volunteering at the MERL Village Fete. Stuart went on to work as a Museum Assistant at MERL before leaving to study for a PhD.

Students quickly immerse themselves into our volunteer programme, volunteering in a host of roles including marketing, gardening, learning activities, large events, tour guiding and I even have the odd student volunteering with me! They are provided with training, support, an idea of the roles available to them within the arts and heritage sector and plenty of opportunities to meet fellow volunteers, such as parties, socials and group visits. We support many students into employment after they have graduated, providing references, giving career advice and sign posting students in the right direction.

The University also provides a fantastic scheme called the RED Award; this is an award aimed at encouraging students to volunteer and play a role in their community. This award is well worth the time because it officially recognises volunteering and is part of the final certificate students receive on graduating.

Of course students often disappear during the holidays and leave a hole in my volunteer programme; I fill this with students returning home to Reading who have a lot of time on their hands. Volunteering during the holidays for students is often a more enjoyable for them because they don’t have to deal with the stresses of studying, plus it gets them out of the house!

At the University we have been offering Museum Studies modules for several years from this term there is now a new Museums Studies undergraduate course which can be combined with Classical Studies or Archaeology. Students on these courses in particular enjoy the opportunity to get more involved with the museums and collections at Reading. The more experience a student gains during their time at University the higher the possibility of them gaining employment in their chosen sector or going onto further study within their area of choice.  One of my previous student volunteers, Charley, volunteered on various archive projects throughout her three years as a student. This experience helped her find employment and she is now working for Fishbourne Roman Palace. Many others have gone on to study at postgraduate level or to work in the sector.

It is our responsibility as an organisation to support young people in gaining this experience. Students and young people bring enthusiasm, energy and new ideas to an organisation and should be openly embraced.

Volunteers’ Voice #5 – Gardening at MERL

In this month’s Volunteers’ Voice, Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies gives some background on some gardening at MERL and enlists the help of our two of our gardening volunteers to explain how they have helped create bee-friendly habitats in the MERL gardens…

We have an outstanding volunteer gardening team who come, rain or shine, to tend to our gardens. We have a series of plots which have a different theme every year. In the past we have had a war-time garden, white borders and a myriad of tulips.

Tulips and  volunteers March 2012

Tulips and volunteers March 2012

Our volunteer garden team also have worked on the National Lottery Project ‘A Green Welcome’ which has transformed our dull uninviting front garden into a welcoming and wildlife friendly space. We worked with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) on this project, they are an inspirational organisation who work with volunteers on sites across Reading. I certainly learnt a lot from them, in particular how to make hurdle!

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

This year we opted for plants that encourage bees. With the national decline in the bee population, we have themed our plots not only to attract and support bees but also to encourage visitors to the museum to do the same.

Below, two of gardening volunteers, Tony and Roger have described the work they have done but also talk about the Bee World project which is being coordinated by the Friends of the Earth.

The “Bee World” is an idea that is being promoted by Friends of the Earth. According to their website, Bee Worlds are havens of wildflowers in urban and rural spaces. They provide essential food and shelter for bees, and help reverse the trend of declining bee populations in the UK. To find out more about Bee Worlds, you can download a Bee World Information Pack from the Friends of the Earth website, or borrow a copy to use during your visit to MERL.

Our Bee Project at MERL has been set up to show you what you can do in your own garden to help bees – whether by leaving a part of your garden to nature’s care, or by growing a variety of flowers and vegetables that provide food for bees. Remember, bees are like people, they need somewhere to live, and regular meals.

Bee friendly plot

Bee friendly plot

Here are some of the things we have done to help bees in the MERL garden:

  1. Half-hardy annuals. After the first of three beds of roses, Bed 1 nearest to the main entrance to the gardens was used to grow flowering plants that were bought from White Tower Nursery at Aldermaston. These are mostly half-hardy annuals (raised under glass and planted out as soon as spring frosts are over) plus a few perennials. They all have one thing in common: they are attractive to bees of many species.
  2. Hardy annual mixtures. Bed 2 was divided into four sections and annual flower seed sown directly into the ground in early April. They were covered in permeable horticultural fleece to conserve moisture and maintain warmth in the early days of the spring. Four mixtures of annual flowers were grown: “Wildflower Honey Bee-friendly mixture”, “Butterfly mixture”, “Fragrant mixture” and “Fairy mixture”.Germination was excellent and by mid June many of the species in the four mixtures from Thompson and Morgan had begun to come into flower. The results were quite startling in the range of species, flower type and colour (we have still not identified many of them yet!). This wide range of species is a most important factor in supporting the population of various pollinating insects since the flowering period of so many species differs. The length of time that they were in flower was very satisfying and the later part of the summer weather was just what they needed. These beds in particular seemed to be alive with insect life for the whole summer. It is also a very inexpensive way of covering odd sunny corners of gardens with colour and interest. At the same time, they provide pollinating insects with a source of nectar and pollen during their most active period.
  3. Vegetables. We also grew runner beans, french beans and broad beans as examples of vegetables that bees pollinate. Difficult weather conditions this year meant that the early broad beans germinated badly in the wet part of the early summer and had to be sown again. The next sowing merely provided an excellent food source for black aphids as the hot weather tightened its grip. Detergent spray was used with a suitable level of outrage but ensured only cleaner-looking aphids. That’s horticulture!

You can see more pictures of the bee friendly beds at MERL on our Flickr page

Volunteers’ Voice #4: Summer Volunteers

written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator.

It’s summer and for us at MERL it is a very busy time for us. Our varied host of family activities means that we are very busy with a large footfall of visitors who would otherwise be at school. This is an excellent opportunity for younger visitors to explore the museum and we provide an affordable, friendly and safe environment for families. However, this does provide an added strain on the staff and volunteers of the family activities programme.

Thank you to our summer volunteers!

Thank you to our summer volunteers!

In preparation for the summer activities I recruit a team of volunteers specifically for the summer; of course, I invite regular volunteers to participate as well but in order to relieve the strain on them I have the summer activities team ready too. When the summer is over I always ensure there is another project or role that the summer volunteers can feed into if they would like to continue volunteering with us.

We have a large student body within the volunteer team, which is thanks to our obvious connections with the University of Reading but also down to the current climate where volunteering is seen as part of student life. This is great during term time but leaves a hole when it comes to the holidays, and I counter this hole with other students returning to Reading for the summer – it is a continuous cycle.

The summer team is comprised of student and community volunteers, reflecting the volunteer programme as a whole. These volunteers are often people who have experience of working or volunteering with children or those who wish to gain such experience. It is a great opportunity for people to experience learning and family activity sessions within a museum environment, volunteer alongside museum professionals and develop excellent skills.

I would recommend inviting the volunteers to meet each other first, cover what each session will entail, plan arrivals and ensure that everyone is aware of the health and safety practice. All this will help ensure that the activities go as planned.

Without the strong and enthusiastic team of volunteers we would not be able to deliver such an extensive range of holiday activities. Volunteers will also be integral to our future plans for MERL in Our Country Lives, in particular because of the invaluable input and opinions of volunteers on what we can do with the museum.

Volunteers’ Voice #3 – Visitor research

by Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-ordinator

Last week we launched our first wave of visitor research at the Museum of English Rural Life as part of the Our Country Lives project. Each wave of visitor research will last for a week, during different parts of the national calendar and we are attempting to capture the museum at different stages of the year.

Visitor research is a big task to undergo, and for a museum with a limited staff it is quite a stretch and therefore we rely upon volunteers. Volunteers are excellent at conducting visitor surveys, not only can they provide manpower but the range of volunteers means we will have excellent people skills within the team.

Training is essential for volunteer projects and conducting visitor surveys is no different. To effectively fulfil the survey requirements, they need to be conducted with ease and efficiency.  In the training I covered:

  • Why we were conducting the survey.
  • What we were hoping to achieve from the survey.
  • The different elements of the survey.
  • How to approach visitors and explain the survey.
  • How to deal with a tricky visitor or question.
  • Which part of the museum to conduct the survey in and who is the member of staff on hand to support the volunteer team.

As we happened to choose the middle of a heatwave to start our survey, there were times when there were very few visitors to talk to, so they had a chance to explore the museum and enjoy the garden.

It is vital to make sure our volunteers continue to feel valued. I maintain contact by seeing them as often as I can, listening to their opinions and keeping them fuelled with tea! Without volunteer support we would not be able to conduct this large a visitor survey and we are forever thankful to them.

Volunteers’ Voice #2: National Volunteers Week

written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator.

The year has swung round once again and it is already National Volunteers Week. Every year from 1st – 7th June organisations who work with, involve or are entirely volunteer-run, celebrate all the hard work, dedication, enthusiasm and laughter that volunteers bring.

Volunteer Coordinator Rob Davies gets the opinions of a couple of volunteers

Volunteer Coordinator Rob Davies gets the opinions of a couple of volunteers

I believe it is important to recognise and celebrate volunteers, not only does it show volunteers that we recognise and value them but it also encourages people to continue volunteering. Organisations up and down the country are holding a variety of celebrations for their volunteers, and this year we have opted for a garden party. As the weather is currently providing us with glorious sunshine, I could not resist a garden party and the opportunity to wear my white blazer.

As well as recognising the contribution that volunteers give during this one week of the year, I believe it is important to be constantly thanking volunteers. We also hold a Christmas party and this year we had a choir along with Father Christmas. We also have an annual outing which is always well attended; this year we visited Portsmouth City Museum and the D-Day Museum. Along with these grand gestures we hold tea parties to celebrate the end of projects, provide thank-you and birthday cards, and most importantly we say thank you. There are of course cost implications to these forms of recognition, as during these days of budget slashing it can be difficult and even feel impossible to provide any form of celebration. If you’re looking for a way to fund an event to recognise volunteers here are a few ideas: you could include volunteer celebrations in funding bids that include working with volunteers, visit a free local site for the day, use your organisation as a venue and buy the refreshments only. Think outside of the box, talk to volunteers to see what they would like to do and whatever you do, volunteers will appreciate it.

Our fantastic volunteers in the MERL Garden this week

Our fantastic volunteers in the MERL Garden this week

Volunteers are the life and soul of this country, and without them many services would not be delivered, and millions benefit from people willingly giving their time. Now is your chance to say thank you.





Volunteers’ Voice #1 – Introducing Rob and the MERL volunteers!

written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator.


Hello and welcome to my first post. I’m Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator at MERL. I have been working with volunteers for the past four years in various organisations, from community radio stations to museums.

Rob Davies, VOlunteer Coordinator with Jen Woodams and Kaye Gough, two long-standing MERL volunteers

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator with Jen Woodams and Kaye Gough, two long-standing MERL volunteers


I work with volunteers across UMASCS (University of Reading’s Museums and Special Collections Service) which consists of the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), The Cole Museum of Zoology, The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, the Typography department and the Special Collections –  so the roles and volunteers are vast and varied.

In these posts I’ll be focussing mainly on volunteering at MERLVolunteers are the life and soul of our organisation. Without our dedicated team of volunteers we would not be able to deliver half of what we do. Our volunteer profile ranges from students, graduates and volunteers from the local community. Volunteers carry out a range of roles and work on all kinds of projects, including tour guiding, gardening, archiving, collections support and marketing.


Staff and volunteers at MERL celebrate achieving the Investing in Volunteers award with Sire David Bell, Vice-chancellor of the University of Reading

Staff and volunteers at MERL celebrate achieving the Investing in Volunteers Standard with Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading


In April 2012 we were awarded the Investing in Volunteers Standard by Volunteering England. This is a nationally recognised standard that states we employ good practice within our volunteer programme. We are constantly striving to improve and develop our volunteer programme, provide new opportunities for volunteers and work with partner organisations. I have recently completed an Arts Council England joint skill sharing project with Portsmouth Museums Archives and Visitors Services.

The purpose of this regular feature on the Our Country Lives blog is to share my experiences of working with volunteers at MERL, to highlight the work they do to support our activities and showcase their achievements. The volunteers will be playing a huge part throughout the Our Country Lives project. In the early consultation stages, I will be training as many as possible to help with audience research, so you may meet more of them in the Museum (and further afield!). Their own views will also be important as they are an vital stakeholder group. I may even be able to persuade some of them to contribute to this feature!

I hope you enjoy my posts on the world of volunteering. I welcome your thoughts and feedback so if there is anything you would like me to discuss in future posts please let me know.