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

Our Country Lives update: Volunteering opportunities

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives.

Since last week was National Volunteering Week, I thought it would be worth dwelling on the volunteering opportunities for this week’s update. Volunteers play a massive part in the operation of MERL, from staffing events to carrying out vital work on the conservation of objects, cataloguing archives and welcoming visitors on the front desk (see Rob’s post for more on why we love our volunteers).


A lot of our Mezzanine objects are going to have to be moved around later this year (Click the picture to see it move!).

Volunteers, of course, come from many walks of life and give up their time in museums for different reasons. Some volunteer as a way to build up their experience in the hope of one day working in a museum for money, a position I was in only a year ago. Others volunteer to meet people, to fill their days, or simply because they have a passion for our collections or subject matter.

Volunteers played a huge role in our recent Summer Fete.

Volunteers played a huge role in our recent Summer Fete.

We will hear in the next couple of weeks whether our HLF bid has been successful, and if so we are especially going to need the help of our volunteers, both old and new. It will be a unique volunteering experience as it means having a hand in a major Heritage Lottery Fund project, which is going to change the face of MERL and how we do things. If the project goes ahead then we will have to close for building work, but during this period we are going to need many able hands to help move our objects around the Museum, erect dust protection, deconstruct the current displays, record where every object has been moved to, as well as ensure nothing has been missed or broken. Later in the project we will also need help putting all of the objects back, erect the new displays, research the collections and catalogue objects and archives which will be displayed in the new Museum. We also have a range of exciting new projects for which we really want your help both setting up and being involved in (more on these in a later update!).

In conclusion, we will need all the help we can get, and we are dedicated to helping our volunteers get what they want from us. We will be putting out a proper call for what we need nearer to when we close the Museum, but until then please keep checking in on the blog for more on what Our Country Lives will be about.

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

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.