South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries

Case Study 7 - First Hand Scheme

CS7-using-developing-volunteersThe challenge

We wanted to make museum collections more accessible to visitors, and when we heard about the British Museum’s ‘Hands On’ scheme, we felt this could be ideal for us.  We also had excellent relationships with the Highbury Trust for adults with learning difficulties, many of whom love the museum and we were looking for meaningful volunteer roles for them.  The two seemed a possible perfect match.

What we did

CS7-using-developing-volunteers3We decided to pilot the idea first, going for three handling boxes (one on each of three desks).  Through consultation, we found the best times for handling sessions were 1-3pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays (later we included 1-3pm Thursdays and Fridays).  We wrote a careful advertisement for working with handling boxes which was sent to the local newspaper and radio, put on our website and in volunteer bureaus in the city.  We also held an open afternoon in the museum.  We wanted to recruit 12 volunteers initially and had twice that number of applications, so we held short formal interviews to select the best volunteers.  All those with learning difficulties went through exactly the same process.

Volunteers had to commit to at least six months of at least two hours per month, though some did more.  Formal training (1.5 days) included general volunteer induction plus learning about the objects and how to handle them and how to communicate with visitors.  One person, whose learning difficulties made him less suitable for working on a handling box desk himself, was given a welcoming role, and he now directs visitors to these desks when they arrive.  His enthusiasm and love for the museum shine through and are a great addition to the overall museum welcome.

The pilot was so successful that after six months we advertised again to double the sessions to four per week.  As a result of the feedback from the pilot, volunteers felt two boxes per desk would work better.  All volunteers were therefore given an extra half-day’s training as there were new objects to learn about.  The pilot volunteers acted as informal mentors to the new volunteers which worked really well.

Resourcing and management

CS7-using-developing-volunteers2When the pilot first started, there was significant investment of time in getting it started, including making up the boxes, advertising, interviewing, training and monitoring success.  This was much easier the second time around.  Once up and running, a rota was established and volunteers were encouraged to arrange their own swaps, minimising input required by paid staff.  After the first pilot, one of the original volunteers undertook all the administration, which was also invaluable in minimising paid staff time required.  We used Hub money to buy the desks and branded tablecloths, making them easily identifiable and unique.

High points/ successes

Comment books in the boxes clearly show the extent to which volunteers engage with the collections. We keep a list and 4,000 people to date have engaged with these boxes. 

Our approach has brought us a much wider range of volunteers than previously, in terms of age, socio-economic backgrounds and learning abilities. 

We also now have a Handbook so the scheme is not dependent on one or two individuals to run, but can be organised by anyone using the guidance set out in the Handbook.

CS7-using-developing-volunteers1Low points/ concerns

In the absence of a Volunteer Coordinator on staff, the management of the volunteers fell to individual departments. This could sometimes make managing the volunteers difficult and impacted on curatorial time and workload. This was alleviated by one of the volunteers taking on additional administrative roles and working with the general admin staff as part of the Front of House team as opposed to the Curatorial staff.

How can I find out more

Contact Alison Cooper, email: alison.cooper@plymouth.gov.uk ; Telephone: 01752 304761.


Date of activity described in case study: Started in 2010 but on-going; no planned end-date
Case study review date: Q3 2012