What volunteering has taught me

Volunteering memories
Volunteering memories

One year ago I wrote a post about volunteering and what it meant to me. I wrote it in celebration of ‘Volunteer’s Week’, it was an emotional blog and it feels very strange to read it now, one year on. It is of course the perfect time to update that blog as we once again celebrate all those who give up their time and energy for free. I have now been volunteering for two and half years for different museums, first at Bromley Museum then the Museum of London, Horniman Museum and RAF Museum. This year, 2015, feels like the year my volunteering has ‘grown up’. I feel like my apprenticeship is over and I am taking some control over what I do and when. This post is five things that volunteering has taught me.

1 – You don’t have to say yes to everything –  For the first time I have turned down some new volunteering opportunities, I have learnt you can’t keep saying yes to everything. As much as you enjoy volunteering, you can’t do it all. There has to be a volunteering balance just as there is a work-life balance.

2 – I have learnt there is fine line between volunteering and feeling useful, and volunteering and feeling used – I began volunteering at Bromley Museum in October 2012 but I have finally decided to stop, which was an incredibly hard decision. Perhaps feeling used is the wrong phrase, but over time it became clear to me that I was not happy about the direction Bromley Council was taking the museum in, and any efforts they were making to include volunteers in the decision-making process were completely superficial. I have learned that as much as I loved volunteering at Bromley Museum, it is okay to say no, it is okay to walk away.

Saying goodbye is incredibly sad, the soon to close Bromley Museum
Saying goodbye is incredibly sad, the soon to close Bromley Museum

3 – Volunteering can make a difference – The reason I began to blog was because I was inspired by my volunteering. The blog I wrote about the Science Museum and their autism mornings has been read around 5,000 times, I wrote it in 2013 but it is still read regularly and few weeks ago I got this comment on the blog

“Hello there, this post has inspired me to keep up with the early bird project I have been asked to organise for Tullie House museum in Carlisle where I work. I was at first daunted by the huge responsibility I have been given but now have outlines for additional activities and gallery set up to start in two weeks! Thank you”

I firmly believe more museums are talking about autism, and more museums are supporting people with autism because I started to write about why it is important. There was already great work going on but sometimes you just need to shine a light on it and you need to show people how little changes can make a big difference to families like mine.

5 – It is so important to do a ‘real’ job – You have to feel you are making a difference not just doing something that has been thought up to keep you busy. At the Museum of London I have worked on repacking archaeology in the archive which has freed up more space for more archaeology! I have also been working on cleaning the Henry Grant photographic archive, making sure the photographs are well looked after and preserved for the future. It is a job that a conservator would not have the time to do, but one day a week, working as a team, the collection care volunteers get to learn about taking care of photographs, we get to enjoy looking at the pictures and enjoy the camaraderie of working side by side along with the satisfaction of seeing a job well done.

Lots of repacked boxes making space in the archive
Lots of repacked boxes making space in the archive
Working through the Henry Grant archive, from this .....
Working through the Henry Grant archive, from this …..
To this!
To this!

Finally I have learnt above all else that volunteering is about people. More important than the place you volunteer, the volunteer job you do or the things you learn, is the people you meet and the friendships you make. Today is the funeral of a volunteering friend of mine from the Museum of London. I am not going to tell you we were best friends, I am not going to say I knew her so well, because we weren’t and I didn’t. But I don’t think I have ever met anyone like her. The irony was she had such an energy about her and a joy for life even though she knew she was ill.

When I heard she was ill I didn’t know what to say but she somehow tackled it and put me at my ease, she made me feel I could never say the wrong thing, she made me feel I didn’t have to tip-toe around her. I will never forget the day we worked together at the Museum of London in the paper conservation department. We normally work as a team but that day for the first time it was just the two of us. I remember feeling a little nervous, What if I talk about the wrong thing and say something insensitive? I have this amazing ability when I need to avoid topics of talking about nothing but them.

We sat next to each other at a small desk working through the Henry Grant photographic archive, with a dirty pile of photographs next to us, we dusted each one off and placed them in clean secol sleeves. I can remember some of the things we talked about that day, but a lot of it has gone from my mind already. What I do remember as clear as a bell is the way we chatted and chatted and never seemed to stop. I remember finding her incredibly easy to talk to, I remember laughing and laughing about some silly thing but now I can’t even remember why it was so funny.

For one day the crew of the HMS Belfast
For one day the crew of the HMS Belfast

I have been thinking of the times we volunteered together, I remember chomping on chocolate biscuits at break time, clambering over the HMS Belfast learning about asbestos but still finding time to take selfies wearing sailors hats. I remember the night she won volunteer of the year and how we all cheered and cheered.

That is what volunteering is to me tonight. It is about friendship, it is about meeting people you would never normally meet. If you are really lucky it is about making friends with someone who is special, who you won’t forget even though they are no longer by your side.

It was a privilege to meet and get to know my volunteer friend. I will miss her, but even now I am smiling through the tears because I am thinking of her passion, enthusiasm and energy. So I won’t be sad because I know she wouldn’t want me to be. This blog is for you, you lovely, lovely lady.



  1. Great words and helpful advice. I both manage volunteer and I am a volunteer and have been throughout my career. I hope to my volunteers I am that chatty friendly person who puts them at ease and that as a volunteer that I am doing a helpful and worthwhile job.

    • Volunteer managers have such an important job, the amount of work involved in looking after a successful volunteer programme is huge! I am glad you found the post useful. Tinc 🙂

  2. Working with volunteers for me is always about the people – i have made so many friends through them volunteering with me. Having worked alongside your volunteer friend I too echo your thoughts and memories of her. For all those people who just don’t “get” volunteers, or think they are too time consuming all I can say is that they are missing out on some of the best experiences and memories they will have and that’s the sad fact.

  3. Archaeology has a strong tradition of volunteering and public service, and where a lot of us came from. The rise of ‘professional’ archaeology squeezed out volunteers for a while, no more shovelling before the bulldozers got there. There being some good health and safety reasons as well economic reasons for this… A realignment sees archaeology showing its true colours, that happy buzz of sharing exciting finds and camaraderie is vital. The professionalization of archaeology even drags the volunteer and amateur sector along in its wake, the Chartered Institute for Archaeology (CIfA) with the right experience will accept the volunteer and amateur archaeologists into its fold.

    At the MoL we are grateful for the great team of volunteers and meaningful and useful work done to enhance the collections and the museum experience. We are grateful for the support we receive from the Arts Council for England that creates the volunteer infrastructure, as have been grateful to the HLF, MLA and Getty Conservation funding in the past. While we have lost friends along the way, its actually their work and enthusiasm that we can continue to build on.

    I personally think this has to be a two way street, and while I work in a museum I also volunteer for a museum, and that is an interesting experience seeing it from two directions!

    Anyway enough of my ranting…..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s