Friday, 22 July 2016

The Value of Volunteers

The APAC Annual Symposium 2016 was held on 4th July at Bristol Old Vic.  We were very lucky to have the run of the theatre, which is currently undergoing renovations for its 250th anniversary.  The Old Vic is the oldest continuously running theatre in the UK and it was a fantastic experience to have a symposium based there.

We kicked off the day with a heritage tour of the building, which was led by a long-standing member of staff who knew every nook and cranny of the building.  It was fascinating to hear his passion for the theatre and how the Old Vic has become so ingrained in the community of Bristol.  They are currently working on an HLF funded refurbishment of their front of house spaces to make them more accessible, comfortable and to return visitors to the experience that their Georgian counterparts would have had.  To do this, the Old Vic is partnering with the University of Bristol Theatre Collection and the Bristol Records Office, both of which hold records on the theatre, and using volunteers extensively to piece together the heritage of the building.

Our tour guide, Andrew
This was an excellent backdrop for a day looking at the value of volunteers in the performing arts archive and museum world.  We had decided to run the day on the topic of volunteers because this is something that affects most of our members, whether they are volunteering themselves or managing a volunteer programme or considering how they could use volunteers to help with their work.  Many funding bodies now require a certain level of engagement with volunteers, for example, HLF is insisting that the Bristol Old Vic project attract a certain number of volunteers and that they come from a background of no or low engagement with heritage or theatre.  So it is a hot topic and one that can easily slip through the net of conferences or symposia.

A pretty nice place to have a symposium!
The first speaker, Eleanor Moore, was a great introduction to the topic as she works for the South West Museum Development and is focused on how to create sustainable volunteering programmes.  She could tell us straightaway where to go to find guidelines on best practice for volunteers and outlined really clearly what the benefits are for volunteers of different ages and how you can appeal to them when recruiting.  One particularly interesting point was that inter generational groups of volunteers work really well.  This is something that I have not tried and I would be really interested to experiment with.

Eleanor split volunteers broadly into three categories.  Those seeking:

  • Achievement - they will enjoy something project based with tangible outcomes
  • Affiliation - they will appreciate being part of your institution and team or community
  • Power - they will respond to being given responsibility

I found this really interesting to consider as I tend to fit the volunteer to the project rather than the other way round but it would be far more beneficial to consider the individual and what they would enjoy working on and respond well to.  Eleanor mentioned the necessity to set clear outcomes for volunteers, to make sure that they know what they are contributing and why and what they should expect to learn.  I usually try to do this but find that it can easily get lost in the day to day business.  I am intending to work with my new Archive Assistant, who will manage the volunteering programme, on this to ensure that our volunteers have a really valuable experience with us.  HLF has published some volunteering good practice, which can be found here.

There are conserved benches on either side of the top level in the theatre, which now
have no view of the stage but have been retained to show the audience what it
would have been like to come here in the 18th century
The rest of the symposium was spent hearing about various places' volunteering programmes, either in the planning, implementation or completion phases.  Some of the interesting points that came out were:

  • At Bristol Old Vic, all of the Front of House staff now have heritage training so that they can answer enquirers from the public.  This is a fantastic idea as they are on the front line and can't always refer people to the Archive!
  • Catherine White from City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds pointed out that as a volunteer manager, you are a facilitator, not there to boss them around.  We should be grateful for their time and dedication and work with them.
  • Inviting volunteers to all staff briefings or team meetings will let them feel included and part of something larger than their own project.  This is great for morale and for giving them an insight into the profession if they are considering taking up further training.
There was a lot more of note during the day but too much to write here.  I thoroughly enjoyed the symposium, espeically once I knew that it was going to go smoothly.  It is the first symposium that I have organised and it is always stressful when everything is on your shoulders.  The Old Vic and Theatre Collection teams were wonderful and made sure that the day went without hitch.  We are hoping to make a return visit in a few years to see the refurbishment complete!  In the meantime, I think that a lot of us will be returning to our collections and coming up with ideas on how to engage more volunteers in better and more fulfilling ways.  Now we know that there is a lot of documentation on best practice and a massive network of colleagues to call on, who are running amazing projects, there is nothing stopping us!

Thursday, 21 July 2016

M&S and ITV Archives - a jolly day out

A few weeks ago I organised a trip to Leeds for the Archive Trainees group and we visited the M&S company archive and ITV's archive. I took the opportunity to visit contacts at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Northern Ballet too and it was a great day for seeing the attraction of the north and the collaborative nature of work outside of London.

The lovely Leeds train station

At the M&S Archive, a group of around 20 trainees were given an introduction to the company archive and a fantastic insight into how a business archive works alongside a permanent exhibition space and being open to researchers.  They have a partnership with the University of Leeds, on whose campus they are based, which allows them to facilitate research and student research, which sounded like a really productive and healthy relationship.

A lovely board in the exhibition inviting public responses to M&S

One idea that I really loved was that there are archive ambassadors throughout M&S, who advocate for good record keeping in all areas of the company.  This is so useful when the archive team is obviously relatively small compared to the whole of M&S and not located in the head office.  The Archive also runs really interesting programmes working with dementia patients where they use their archive of clothes and related items to spark memories from their past and they also work with schools using virtual classrooms and on-site visits.

A beautiful collage of store fronts displayed alphabetically
by town, shown in the exhibition area

It was really helpful to hear why they archive what they do and what areas of their collection they are missing items, especially in men's clothing.  I was fascinated by all of the technological records that they hold as M&S has been heavily involved in innovation in food and clothing technology.  I would never have thought of this and was thrilled to hear that this is available to research.

We paid a visit to Dusty Bin, oh and ITV
The trip to the ITV Archive was very interesting as the Archive has come into existence as a result of rights management requirements.  This is a different approach to many archives and the group was blown away by the complexity of the rights management situation and how integral it was that this information was looked after.  The tour of the stores was fantastic, there are so many tapes and formats of film!

Just a shot of some reels...
The stores had unfortunately been affected by the Boxing Day flooding in Leeds and they were in the process of fitting an early flood detection unit and new flooring.  It was interesting to hear about a disaster recovery process and get a handle on just how long this sort of process takes.  It was surprising to hear that there is less focus on heritage at ITV than on rights management to make content available.  They are not open to the public for research and so this visit was really useful for showing the trainees how different every archive can be.

I suppose that the best thing about the trip to Leeds was the very fact that these sorts of trips are possible.  I organise around 4 to 6 events for the Archive Trainees group a year, we are an informal group focused on providing visits, talks and networking opportunities for those thinking about joining the archive profession.  We visit many archives and many of the course directors come in to speak with the trainees and volunteers to give them a better sense of how to get into this profession.  Our next trip will be to the Parliamentary Archives in August and, as the group organiser, I am in the lucky position of being able to tag along.  We really are very lucky to be working in a sector where people are so willing to open up their archives to help educate others and welcome like-minded individuals in to discuss the challenges and opportunities our work throws up.