Any excuse, that is all it takes, any excuse to return to the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC) at the Museum of London and I will jump at the chance. I have written about the LAARC many times, it is the largest archaeological archive in the world, it is the heart of the Museum of London, it houses London’s history in bits and pieces in boxes. It is the most deceptive building I know, uninspiring on the outside, but there is London’s history throbbing and humming inside. I have had many happy times within the walls, there is always something amazing to see, some work to be done, some cool stuff to learn. How could I not want to return at any opportunity?
Aside from the people who get paid to work there, you will also find a small army of volunteers beavering away who work for free, just for the opportunity to handle broken pottery, smashed glass, scraps of ancient leather and all manner of the weird and wonderful detritus left behind by Londoners of the past. These items, lost, buried and forgotten, then rediscovered and reclaimed by modern Londoners who are left to make sense of it all.
It is the 30th anniversary of Volunteers’ Week (1-7th June 2014), a celebration of the contribution that volunteers make and a perfect excuse to write a blog about volunteering at the Museum of London, that was my pitch and it certainly seemed to work. I am returning to join up with ViP 13, the archive’s award-winning Volunteer Inclusion Project. It brings people from all walks of life into contact with real archaeology, volunteers get to learn new skills and improve their knowledge, meet new people and experience something different. The museum benefits from improved storage of artefacts and greater access to objects.
My first volunteering stint at the Museum of London was as part of ViP 12 in 2013. One year on, I am now a permanent collections care volunteer at the museum and these blogs have been inspired by the hands on experience and knowledge I gained over those few precious weeks. But the ViP is a short defined period of volunteering, it is seen as a first step, you are meant to leave at the end of it! You can’t come back the next year and do it again, so short of dressing up in a disguise and giving myself a new name this is the only way I will get back on the ViP.
Aside from writing a blog, I have an ulterior motive, I want to see if the programme is as good as I remember it to be. I had an amazing time in 2013 and loved every minute of it. Was my experience just a fluke, a one-off? Or are the next batch of volunteers having an amazing time too? I am really looking forward to meeting up with them to see how they are getting on.
I will stop you there for a minute. The first half of this blog was written during Volunteers’ Week, I was all on schedule to publish it on the Sunday of that week, a timely comment on volunteers, a celebration at its proper time and place. Somehow I ended up writing a completely different blog which I published instead, you can read that here, it was called ‘Volunteering and Me’.
Now, a few weeks on, I am looking back at the list of questions I had compiled to ask the volunteers. It was hard to ask them, as I was set to work as soon as I sat down that day. It seems writing a blog gives you no special privileges in the eyes of a certain volunteer manager. My notes are scrappy and disjointed, I went looking for differences, to see if anything had changed since I had been in their shoes a year ago, but instead I saw so many similarities.
Volunteers of different ages and backgrounds, as I knew there would be, some just at the start of their education, some at the start of their careers, others looking to change careers and others for whom a career is not top of their priority list, for them it was all about enjoyment and learning. They all have a love of history and a thirst to know more, just like my group. As I tackled my first bag, pottery tumbling out in front of me, my memories bubbling up, I started to lose myself in the task at hand. The clink of pottery, the sorting and site codes, my blog put to one side, the questions forgotten. I always forget how much I enjoy this simple task, matching pots, sorting history, the remnants of lives glimpsed through the touch of my fingers.
The group are warm and friendly, even when faced with an interloper, as I knew they would be. I recognise the same jealousy and proprietary nature over finds, the comparison with the groups working on other days, the number of bags repacked and boxes filled eagerly, checked and compared. The questions and questions and questions, where should I put this? Have I sorted these into good groups? What is the site code? What is the context? What is this, it doesn’t look like pot? One constant is the volunteer manager, patient, organised, always ready to answer the questions he must have heard many times before, always ready to help. Facilitating the group but not dominating it, a gentle hand, steering, guiding and supporting.
I did managed to ask a couple of questions for my blog, and the answers were exactly the same as I would have given a year ago. The best things about ViP? The simple fact you get to be hands on with archaeology and that you are doing a real job. I think for me what makes it stand out is the access to knowledge and curators and this was reiterated by the new ViP batch of volunteers too.
At the start of the day, when I first joined the group, they were in the middle of a workshop led by the Roman curator, Caroline McDonald. It was a fascinating talk and a real bonus to hear about the development of Roman London, the rise and fall. How the archaeology surrounding us at the LAARC bullet points our knowledge, ‘Boudicca’s Destruction Horizon’, how the dark earth and scorched artefacts tell the story and weave the narrative of a time lost to our memories. These talks and workshops are a feature of every week of the ViP, they balance out the hard graft and set the artefacts into context. They work so well because you are not being lectured to, curators give up their time and share their knowledge. I really enjoy listening to the volunteers ask their own questions, query their own understanding of events, ultimately it is a conversation, there is ebb and flow.
We also got to see some amazing artefacts, passed round, up close and personal, not on normally seen on display. One of the Roman metal vessels found in the bottom of a well in Draper’s Gardens amazingly preserved, a roman ring decorated with a key as fresh as the day it was made, an amazing hob-nailed shoe, such a personal living item. It is moments like this that set this volunteering programme apart and make it so special.
I have strived to find the differences between this group’s experiences and my time, there were a few simple changes but nothing negative. This group have access to the site diary written by the archaeologist in charge, I have never seen one of these before and I am desperate to get my hands on it. I love sifting through the minutiae and daily challenges of working on an archaeological dig. It links up the Londoners of the dim and distant past, with Londoners of my past and now read by Londoners of the present. It somehow seems to make the connections stronger, I feel we are matched in our work and endeavours, those who made and used the pots, those who dug them up and now those who sort and care for them.
At the end of the day the volunteer manager draws my attention to an entry in a site diary from Swan Lane in Upper Thames Street written in 1981.
17th – Arrival of Keith (volunteer)
18th- non-arrival of Keith (volunteer).
I absolutely love this, what a perfect thing to see in Volunteer’s Week. I am not sure why Keith never made it back following his first day on site, but you know what? I am glad he didn’t, because it highlights something people don’t always talk about. Volunteering isn’t always easy.
It may seem very noble to volunteer, volunteers have lots of spare time on their hands, don’t they? No they really don’t. Volunteers find time to volunteer but it isn’t always easy, sometimes they have to pay for travel and they are not reimbursed. One of the student volunteers tells me some of her friends couldn’t understand why she was working for ‘free’. Dealing with other people’s perceptions can be difficult, that rang a bell with me. I had family who thought I was mad to give up work and volunteer instead. These decisions are never straightforward, there is always lots to consider, it isn’t always easy.
If volunteering is this difficult, why do people do it? Well the reality is you are never working for free, giving your time with the expectation of nothing in return. You volunteer in the expectation of being paid in kind. The Museum of London pay their volunteer placements with new experiences, knowledge, access to archaeology, new friends and memories. In return we give them our time, energy, enthusiasm and commitment. For volunteering to work there needs to be equilibrium in this barter system, we both need to get something out of it. The secret of the success of the Vip is volunteers gain far more than the Museum of London, that is why volunteers never want to leave and they always come back for more.
This blog was supposed to be posted in Volunteers’ Week, but when I think back to the site diary from 1981, you realise that volunteers have been around the Museum of London for a very long time, it is not enough to celebrate that one week a year, it needs to be something that is talked about at every opportunity and celebrated everyday.
I came to the LAARC with all these questions, was it as good as I remember? What are the volunteers enjoying? What do they think of the LAARC? The reality is I already knew the answers to those questions, I think I just wanted to come back and pack a bit of pot. As I struggled with the last big bag of pot sherds of the day, everyone pitched in to help me sort and label, perhaps I was a little rusty after all. That shared moment, the chatter and clink of pots, the questions and confirmations are all I need to know about ViP from year 1 to year 13 and beyond. It is special and it touches the lives of all who take part.
As I stapled my last bag, I noticed the stapler had a ViP 6 sticker on it, I love this reminder of those who have gone before. As I said at the start of the blog this is meant to be your first step with the Museum of London, the ViP always finishes but it doesn’t mean your work with the Museum of London is over. You often meet other volunteers at the museum and what always comes up early in the conversation is “I was ViP 10” “Oh, great, I was ViP 8”. The ViP is your training ground, your shared introduction to the Museum of London, the start of your love affair and like those first moments when you meet someone special you never forget it.
I am proud to say I am ViP 12 and I am ready to cheer ViP 13 for their wonderfully warm welcome. This blog is for you and all the ViP’s that have gone before, it is for all the volunteers and the fantastic volunteer managers too. This blog may be a bit late for Volunteers’ Week but it is for all those volunteers who need to be celebrated, not just for one special week a year, but every day.
With thanks to Adam Corsini and ViP 13
If you want to find out more about ViP and take part in ViP 14 keep an eye on the website