Volunteering in Heritage
This blogpost is written by Kacey Stonnell. Kacey is a SALC Employability Champion and in this blog post, Kacey will answer the ultimate question of Why Would I Work for Free?
When I first started volunteering at an art gallery and a museum in my spare time, my friend’s first reaction was, “I would never work for free!” I would then spend ages trying to explain that, “this would look good on a CV,” or, “it’s so hard to get your foot in the door and this might help me get a career in heritage,” and “it’s amazing for developing my employability skills”. All of those reasons are why I started volunteering, I just didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.
I signed up for volunteering on a whim. After about a week of doing nothing to fill my time in my gap year, just following my A levels I saw an advert for a local National Trust Museum which needed volunteers. I filled out an application to be a room steward and turned up for training, absolutely terrified. I had probably been there once in my entire life and the other stewards were basically experts in the history of the home, the family, and even the local area, and I was completely new to it. It took me a few weeks before I spoke to a single visitor confidently, but after that, it became so much fun. I would count down the days until I was next in. There was so much satisfaction from socialising with so many different people from the staff to the volunteers and the visitors. There are so many memories I have made from laughing all day with volunteers and staff, arriving early to help open in the morning, and encouraging children to ask questions and get involved, but my favourite memories, quite selfishly, are the ones where visitors would ask why I was doing this. I would tell them that I wanted to get some experience before I went to university, but also that I just really loved being there, and countless times people would say they could tell. I suppose it was having strangers tell me that I looked happy, enthusiastic and that I was helpful and passionate, that gave me the boost I needed to see volunteering as a career pathway.
Having that visitor-facing role in a museum really allowed me to gain an insight into how exhibitions are geared towards the public, and how to keep people of all ages engaged in the museum. After a while, though, I wanted to be more involved behind the scenes of a museum. So, I applied to be a researcher at Haworth Art Gallery in my town. Again, I’d probably only visited it a couple of times and I really didn’t know enough about the gallery, despite living around the corner. Here I learned how paperwork and documentation were organised, and how artefacts were stored and maintained. I even had the chance to handle these objects and eventually, I had the opportunity to contribute to an exhibition display. The staff allowed me to choose items from the stores I had been working through that could be displayed for the visitors. I was able to conduct my own research on one of the original benefactors of the gallery and provide information on him, and I was even shown how labels and lighting are organised in an exhibition room. All the training, experience and coaching I received ‘for free’ quickly allowed me to feel the benefit of volunteering for my own career development.
I think back to my first day volunteering when my volunteer coordinator at the museum said, “you’re meant to get as much out of this as we get out of this”. Volunteering is this mutual exchange. Yes, it might seem like working for free, but in reality, there is wealth gained in experience, and volunteering is such an easy first step into heritage industries that means you really will gain something valuable from it.
Through my volunteering, I was invited to join my local Board for Heritage and Culture and think about how to bring more culture to my local area. It was my volunteering that gave me access to the skills and experience needed to be part of a growing movement.
I would recommend to anyone looking to get into any career (not just heritage), and to look at what volunteering opportunities are available for you, whether that be in your local area or somewhere in the city. These places value your time and often will reimburse you for travel expenses and offer free coffee, tea and biscuits – which is a rather good deal.
I worked for free because it gave me the tools I need and the connections I want to move forward in heritage. If you have a few spare hours in the week, go out there and volunteer because you deserve to have that hands-on experience too!
Thank you Kacey for this beautiful encouragement. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, head out to the Volunteer Hub to search for available opportunities.