Showing willing

Volunteering is an essential part of many degrees, and a brilliant way of gaining experience
Volunteering at a real-life institution provides students with a deeper understanding and appreciation of collections, events and everyday museum life as well as the kind of hands-on practical experience that cannot be gained in the academic environment.

Jennifer Donovan began volunteering at the Cardiff Story Museum during the final year of her undergraduate archaeology degree because she felt the experience would stand her in good stead for not only an MSc in Care of Collections at Cardiff University but also a career in the heritage sector.

“Most of the knowledge I gained on my course was theoretical and taught through lectures and seminars, and volunteering enabled me to develop practical knowledge,” she says. “For example, my course did not provide much opportunity to physically handle objects, while volunteering allowed me to gain valuable handling and packing experience.”

Donovan began working as a learning and engagement volunteer, transcribing oral history recordings from the museum’s monthly reminiscence events and facilitating craft activities for children and museum visitors. She later worked in collections, packing objects for transportation, dealing with pest management, preparing documentation and updating the museum object database.

Donovan advises students looking for volunteering opportunities to have a firm idea of exactly what they want from the experience.

“The museum staff I worked with were happy to give me tasks that benefited my studies and my career path. Volunteers should discuss with their course supervisors what it is they wish to achieve during a placement. It is also important to understand that volunteering does not always involve new and ‘exciting’ tasks, especially in a small or understaffed museum.”

Yunhan Zhang also helped out at the Cardiff Story Museum, as part of a Museum Studies MA at the University of Leicester.

“The placement offered the opportunity to work in different fields, from exhibition planning to organising learning activities, from assisting collections management to front-of-house and marketing activities,” says Zhang, whose volunteering was assessed as part of the MA course. “This kind of all-round experience was exactly what I wanted.”

Besides enriching what you learn on a course, spending time working alongside professionals and other volunteers is a way to make contacts and start to build up a network of people who can help with the all-important job hunt.

Volunteers, once established, can also find themselves taking on wider responsibilities, gaining wider experience and even securing paid work.

As a volunteer at the University of Aberdeen Museum, Chris Dobbs, then a student on the university’s Museum Studies MLitt course and now at the British Museum, assisted with a project to audit the scientific collection. He worked alongside the honorary curator and supervised a team of new volunteers.

“I believe the fact that I was committed to a postgraduate degree with the institution – as well as having volunteered for a period before it started – allowed them to trust me with such an independent and supervisory role,” he says.
Dobbs also undertook a month-long, full-time placement at the Gordon Highlanders Museum, which counted towards his final grade.

“I continued to volunteer at the museum after my placement finished and I was entrusted with a far wider variety of tasks, aiding the curator with all curatorial and exhibition tasks, even developing a number of new displays.”
Josie Roberts
Josie Roberts, a learning officer at the Jewish Museum, London, studied on the part-time Museum Cultures MA at Birkbeck, University of London.

What made you choose the course?

I was able to complete it part-time in the evenings over two years, which allowed me to continue working; this was the only way I could pay the fees. Doing an internship was a fantastic opportunity and a real boost for my CV. I did three months in the learning department at Kenwood House in London, and it was a valuable experience which I would not otherwise have had.

What was the highlight?

I was really surprised by how diverse it was; projects could be very practical or very theoretical, which both equipped me academically and allowed me to apply the thinking to my current job. For example, I completed a module called Senses Scapes, which explored how the senses are evoked in museums. I focused on access for visitors with autism and I gained knowledge and experience that I now use in my role as a learning officer. The modules were so open, you could go down any path.

What advice would you give people considering postgraduate study?

Look at courses that cater to your needs and make them work for you. I tried to choose modules and projects that I knew would guide me into museum education, but also that would not limit me for the future if I wanted to change. This way you can step out of your comfort zone and try new things.


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