The Tank Museum

Engaging prisoners as volunteers
The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset, starting working with the probation service to offer volunteer opportunities for young offenders with community punishment orders, a type of sentence that requires them to give something back to the community through unpaid work.

This developed into a three-way partnership with Weymouth College and Dorset Community Service Unit, offering individuals engineering and basic skills qualifications in return for cleaning and conserving the museum’s vehicles.

The partnership, which won an award at the 2005 National Justice Awards, has now ended, partly because of a lack of space, but the museum’s £5m redevelopment plans include new facilities to host volunteer-led conservation projects as well as its engineering training programme for groups of young offenders.

David Willey, curator at the Tank Museum, says every partner has to benefit in order for this type of scheme to work. For the museum, it means access to a volunteer workforce, as well as all the political and advocacy benefits that come with working with socially excluded audiences.  

For the offenders, volunteering might be the first time they ever been trusted or given responsibility for something. Willey says it also provides access to role models, such as other volunteers and museum staff, who they might not have otherwise met.

Despite the project's successes, Willey says there have been lessons. For example, when it first invited volunteers from the probation service in, staff and existing volunteers were quite hostile, with many asking why these law breakers were being given the opportunity when there was already a waiting list for volunteering opportunities.

For the second round, staff and volunteers were taken to a prison to talk about the issues and help build up their confidence in working with offenders.

Willey also has some apprehensions about how the museum communicates its work with young offenders to members of the public: “I’m sure many people would say it was a great idea, but what concerns me is that it doesn’t get twisted and seen in the wrong way.

"We have to make sure we let people know about it in a controlled way, as I could see someone start causing a fuss.”

The museum also needs to consider what its policy will be if something does go wrong. “There is always a risk, but at what point do you say that risk is not worth taking?” says Willey.

This case study is based on a longer article in Museum Practice on working with prisons and prisoners

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