A year of volunteering – history in my hands

I am publishing this post today, 10 October 2013, as it is an important day to me. It marks one year exactly since I started volunteering. Lots of anniversaries have come and gone in the last week. A year since I quit my job, a year since I started blogging, (a birthday too!).

Anniversaries are a time to celebrate, a time to reflect. It was in this spirit of celebrating and reflecting that I found myself in a bar next to the Museum of London last week, raising a glass and a sausage roll or two to my fellow volunteers. How did I end up here?

I have put this post on the back burner, finished it at the last minute. How do you put a year into words? If I asked you to do it now, where would you start? Methodically month by month, week by week. Or would you chart the highs and lows. Some moments might stand clear and vivid, some you struggle to recall.

I made some momentous changes a year ago and I remember how I felt, nervous and worried, but relief was there too. There was a big dose of optimism and intent. Our memories are so strange, there is an ebb and flow to them. I have realised writing this blog it is good to hold moments, days, events, thoughts, in our hand tightly and stick them down quickly otherwise they drift off. Feelings and thoughts become harder to pin down. I have to write this post now or it will never happen, months pass, another year gone. How do I feel now looking back at a year of volunteering.

I was worried I would waffle on in this post (like I am already doing) so I thought I would stick to the facts, pick out my top five moments. Unfortunately I realised very quickly I couldn’t stick to that, a year of cool stuff does not fit into five moments. So I have settled on seven. It seems a good number. This is not an explanation of a year, a list of steps and routes on a journey, it is shut your eyes time, let the memories float up, the ones that rise to the top are the keepers.

So here it goes, the best bits, the things that have made the last year so memorable.

Memory 1 – “A few of our favourite things” – Micro-Curator

I started to volunteer on a weekly basis at my local museum in Bromley. I had been there a month and a new temporary exhibition was being created. “A few of our favourite things” was giving staff and volunteers a chance to go down to the store and pick any item they liked to go in the exhibition.

My local love - Bromley Museum
My local love – Bromley Museum

When I got this opportunity I was incredibly excited, until I realised I didn’t have a favourite! I had barely begun to understand what the museum had let alone make the life and death decision to claim a favourite. Going down to the store to choose was amazing, but childlike glee quickly became replaced with worry. What if I choose something and no one likes it, no one comes to see it. Maybe a visitor will look at my item and scoff, ridicule its inclusion. I dithered, I floated about and then I saw it. A picture by Mary Cossey of Crystal Palace Park, black lines, no colours, simple, children and parents, families in the park.

Sunday in Crystal Palace Park, timeless, beautiful. © Bromley Museum
Sunday in Crystal Palace Park by Mary Cossey, timeless, beautiful.
© Bromley Museum

It was an instant connection, I loved it, timeless, beautiful. I take my kids to that park, I have a picture on my fridge of me aged 5 at that park with my Mum and Dad, it could be us under the cathedral like branches. A scene like this should be a riot of colour, green leaves and bright coats. The absence of colour just draws you in.

Installed, I was happy. Then one day I saw on the Museum twitter feed they had received some lovely feedback on the exhibition. Next time I was in I asked about it. A visitor had emailed in, he loved the picture and wanted to know who the artist was. Where could he get a copy? When I heard this I can’t describe my feelings, I was pleased, kind of proud, my choice was right. I was elated to have shared something beautiful with someone else. A connection to them. It was a microscopic peek at a curator’s world, the guardians of objects, the story tellers. I loved it, fabulous, memory no 1.

Memory 2 – People, People, People

Once I had been with Bromley Museum a while I began to hear more and understand more about their Heritage Lottery bid. The opportunity came up to apply to join a volunteer panel consulting with the community on the Museum’s plans. I was worried whether I could fit everything in. A few short months before I had quit work to make more time. Now I was parceling that time up and giving it away. I went for it, I got it, I set out and consulted.

You can never have enough tea! These are all for me.
Another meeting. You can never have enough tea! These are all for me.

One of the reasons I left work is I realised I was sitting behind a computer more and more, my human interaction was becoming less and less. I was retreating into a shell. This year has been all about people. I have had to talk to people, lots and lots of people. It is not something I find easy, but I have got stuck in. Questionnaires, conversations, reminiscences, working with people, meetings, projects, it has pushed me.

It is a simple thing, an overlooked thing, but I have learnt so much from the people I have met. They have opened my eyes. People have come with me on my year of adventure and it has made for a much richer experience.

Memory 3 – Back to school

As part of Bromley Museum’s Heritage Lottery bid and the consultation process, the opportunity arose to take objects from the Museum to my daughters class. What I envisaged as a quick hands on session turned into two hours, two classes, sixty kids. Each class had a 20 minute talk, then I took 10 children a time for 10 minute handling session. It was frantic and fun.

Where have all the children gone? It wasn't that bad.
Where have all the children gone? It wasn’t that bad.

I had never done anything like this before. We talked about the range of museums out there, they particularly liked the Potato Museum in Idaho. We talked about what museums were for, why we needed them. We talked displays, glass cabinets, hands on, computers. What is a reconstruction, what is a replica and what is real.

I took a range of objects, real Roman tiles, replica Tudor hats, a real air raid warden helmet from the Second World War and a replica gas mask. The aim was to get a sense of what objects and period excited the children and interested them. I would feed this back to Bromley Museum. While I was working with 10 children and the hands on objects the other 20 kids were designing their own museums, with their own objects.

The best reaction to an object was a piece of twisted metal. The session began, I asked them would they put it in their museum. Answer – ‘No’. I told them it was part of a V2 rocket that fell round the corner killing Mrs Ivy Millichamp on 27 March 1945. The last civilian to die from a V2 rocket. Suddenly they knew it should be in a museum. They realised you had to tell the story of an object.

These two hours gave me sleepless nights before hand, but they were amazing. Seeing 60 kids touch, handle, play, laugh, wear objects. History living in the classroom. Unforgettable.

Memory 4 – The Museum of Sunglasses

As part of the school session in memory 3, the children designed their own museum complete with café, toilets, in some cases swimming pools! They had to act curator pick one object and tell it’s story. I came back a few weeks later and collected their work. It was simply brilliant, a Museum of Sunglasses, a Museum of Tennis, a Museum of Space, a Museum of Eating, a Museum of Precious Jewels. The objects picked out, Simon Cowell’s glasses, a diamond enclosed in a dinosaur fist, John McEnroe’s tennis racket (broken, naturally).

From the Museum of Eating, pizza made from great Chef Peter Monmoy
From the Museum of Eating, pizza made from great Chef Peter Monmoy

Some of this work has been scanned and will be sent with the Heritage Lottery bid. I negotiated some space in Bromley Museum, went in on a Saturday, mounted the pictures, put them up as part of the exhibition on the Museum’s future plans.

We should definitely go for a swimming pool in the new museum!
We should definitely go for a swimming pool in the new museum!

Every time I see them I smile, I am so proud of their work and those kids. My daughter wants me to go back next year, if the Museum let me I might just take her up on the offer. I already have a project in mind!

Memory 6 – Glueing, cutting and sticking

I have helped with the school sessions, half term and summer children’s activities. No stress, I am not leading or planning. I help set up and tidy away, I help cut and stick, I admire and encourage the children with their work. I tweet their amazing creations. I love it. They blow me away every time. I have seen Egyptian paddle dolls, windy day wands, mammoth scenes, the list goes on. I always ask where the kids are going to put them when they get home. I love the kids who give their beautiful artworks as gifts to grandparents, mums or dads. I imagine their work sitting pride of place. I have my pictures to look at and they always impress me.

She looks like she is ready to go Clubbing!
She looks like she is ready to go Clubbing!
So much work has gone into this
So much work has gone into this
I love these, I never got a chance to make one :-(
I love these, I never got a chance to make one 😦

Memory 6 – Hands on the Museum of London

Time to look, really see and try and understand
A piece of beautiful Roman glass

I will keep this memory short as I have written lots of posts on what I have been up to since I started volunteering for the Museum of London. I have given them my time and they have given me the most amazing gifts in return. I guess it is hard to pick out one thing above all others, but it has to be touching history. They have opened the doors, the stores and the boxes and let me touch, feel, see, sniff (in January they are going to let me clean too!). They have tried to teach me to really see the possibilities, the stories in front of me.

I love it with all my heart. The smallest most plain piece of roman pottery, it whacks you in the face. It says – look up, look around, think, see, read and try and understand. I never want it to stop.

Tiny piece of wonder
Tiny piece of wonder

Memory 7 – Blog on

This blog. I started a year ago, for months I did nothing. I began volunteering at the Museum of London for a 9 week project and I started to write every week inspired by the work we were doing. I have been encouraged since then, people have shared my words, I have been touched. I wrote a post, it was difficult to write, it was a bit personal. I wanted something good to come out of it. The response has been amazing. Thank you to all those who have read, shared, commented and encouraged. Doors have opened, opportunities have come my way and I am grabbing every one. I have blogged in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, on trains, tubes and buses. When I couldn’t sleep, when I was really tired, sitting in the garden and surrounded by history in the British Museum. Now I have started I just can’t seem to stop. I used to worry, what would I write about? Now I have my head full of blogs to come. I can’t wait to write them.

I am old school, I like pen and paper
I am old school, I like pen and paper

So there we go, a year in 7 memories. Doesn’t feel much now I have finished, but believe me it has been an incredible year. I never dreamed it would be like this when I said goodbye to my old work colleagues a year ago.

I think I have 2 more things to say. Call it advice if you want, you don’t have to take it.

1 – Go and volunteer, give it a go, you won’t regret it. At work, at home, with a friend, on your own. It is the best thing I have ever done.

2 – Give it your all, don’t hold back. Life is too short, a cliché but a true one.

I began this post at the Museum of London “Volunteer thank you evening”, glass of wine in hand I looked around. This small band of volunteers work for nothing, give time freely and I have never seen so many committed, passionate and enthusiastic people (and it was not just a case of free booze!). Everyone I spoke to love what they do. How many of us can say that? I know I can.

I hope you will join me for another year. I figure it will be more of the same. History, museums, pots, old stuff, photos and words, lots of words. It is much more fun with a friend. Who knows what I will write about on my anniversary next year?

Tincture of Museum

One comment

  1. Nice one, very thoughtful. As you know asking people is a substantial commitment , which mofl attempts to ‘repay’ by the way we treat and hopefully honour and cherish volunteers, and it can’t be about doing things we can’t afford to pay somebody to do.

    Personally, I can’t ask people to volunteer in a museum without doing it myself, so I write this as a museum volunteer, not the one I work for another one.

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