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!

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