Case study: volunteers

Maurice Davies and Helen Wilkinson, 15.04.2011
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery uses volunteers to offer object handling opportunities

In 2009, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery launched a new volunteering project called First Hand, which used volunteers to staff desks with handling collections in some of the galleries. The project was inspired by the British Museum’s Hands On project, which is well established, with hundreds of volunteers participating.

Alison Cooper, assistant keeper of art at Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery, says the project aimed to add an extra dimension to the educational experience on offer and also to expand the kind of people who worked in the museum as volunteers.

“Before, most volunteers were students or retired people,” she adds. “We’ve got many more volunteers now – and we’ve got a diverse mix of people who work together, not on separate projects."

The museum recruited the volunteers through an open application process, with advertisements, open days and interviews. Cooper says: "The project costs were initially very low, although we have now used some Renaissance funding to buy special tables and cloths. One of our volunteers who wanted to get more involved now comes in half a day each week to do the project’s admin, so that means it’s taking up less staff time.”

Feedback from the volunteers suggests that the main benefit for them so far has been increased confidence, though some younger volunteers are hoping it will help them in finding employment.  

The project has also had another unanticipated benefit. The museum already worked with the Highbury Trust, a local organisation for adults with learning difficulties. One of its clients wanted to take his involvement with the museum to another level and applied to become a volunteer on the First Hand programme. The museum interviewed him but felt that he would not be able to talk to visitors about the collections effectively. Instead, they created a new role for him.

He now works as a greeter in the entrance hall and tells visitors about the handling sessions taking place that day. His work would not be possible without the Highbury Trust staff who transport him to the museum and are there to offer support. Cooper is enthusiastic about the opportunity: “He’s grown in confidence massively and just loves the museum.”

This case study is taken from the Museums Association's Culture Change, Dynamism and Diversity report, written by Maurice Davies and Helen Wilkinson. Click here to read the report