Volunteers Week: when we meet again

Under normal circumstances we’d be getting ready for national volunteer week in June with cake and a cuppa, but these are not normal circumstances. Barnsley Museums Volunteer Coordinator, Ben Marsh, reflects, in a rather different Volunteers Week 2020, how far volunteering has come, what has been achieved and what the future of volunteering might look like going forward for the service. 

Volunteers Week is usually a time of coming together and celebrating, often with a cuppa, a sandwich and a slice or two of cake. We would normally meet one another, laugh and look back on all volunteers have done. This year of course is very different and while volunteering across Barnsley Museums, like many other arts, culture and heritage sites, has temporarily stopped, Volunteers Week and the opportunity to say thanks is never more needed as a reminder of the amazing work of volunteers, and a chance to look forward to things to come. 

=alt"volunteer picnic"
Volunteer picnic at Cannon Hall during volunteer week 2019

The start of the story

April 2018 Barnsley Museums appointed its first Volunteer Coordinator to look at all things volunteering and how to take the already existing passion and enthusiasm for volunteering forward in a meaningful way, building and expanding on the great work of existing volunteer groups, such as the Friends of Cannon Hall. 

From there, work began re-framing the value of volunteering to all involved, volunteering has the power to improve a person’s sense of well being and the health benefits of having access to physical activity and social interaction are well documented. Partnerships were forged with local schools and colleges to give young people a chance to gain new skills for their futures. All of this was embraced by the service and volunteering grew and grew across all parts of the team. 

=alt"young volunteer pointing to statue in Cooper Art gallery"
Princes Trust volunteer placement at the Cooper Art Gallery (one of the five heritage sites managed by Barnsley Museums)

Just pre-lockdown we had seen record numbers with an all-time high in volunteer involvement with over 18,000 hours logged for a single year. Volunteers support us in nearly all aspects of our work, undertaking archival research, helping to maintain the Newcomen Beam Engine, welcoming visitors to our sites and ensuring our parklands and gardens are kept in beautiful condition for all to enjoy. We had established our first SEND volunteer group, supported numerous school, college and university work placements and created our first volunteer tour guides in collaboration with the De Morgan Foundation. We delivered training in archaeology, object handling, traditional hedge laying and for our staff developed their skills for working with volunteers. 

In return volunteers told us about their experiences and what they believed they gotten from volunteering with us. The positive impact was overwhelming, from meeting and making new friends, team working outside the office to learning skills and gaining a sense of purpose, volunteering has impacted lives, here is just one example. 

Casestudy: Conversation with Rhiannon, archives volunteer

Rhiannon became a volunteer with Barnsley Archives as part of the Cannon Hall Parks for People project, researching the history of the grounds. She found the opportunity through Barnsley CVS supported volunteer programme back in November 2018, since then Rhiannon has been heavily involved in the project which recently culminated in her presenting her findings to over thirty people at the volunteer’s celebration picnic in August 2019.

=alt"archive volunteers present research finding in garden to listening audience"
Rhiannon and archives volunteers present their research findings

The volunteer coordinator met Rhiannon at Barnsley Archives earlier this year and discussed her thoughts on volunteering, what it has meant to her and allowed her to do. Starting off with what drew her to archives volunteering, Rhiannon wasn’t sure it was what she was looking for when it was first suggested but said she knew ‘it was what I was looking for when I got here’, being involved in a variety of tasks that allowed her to both work as part of a team but also on her own as she needed allowed her to expand her comfort zone, socialising with other volunteers, knowing she was in an environment that ‘friendly and safe to reach out in but knowing I could withdraw as well.’ 

Talking about how the volunteering had gone and what is had helped her do, she felt the time had flown by since November and described herself across that time as feeling more purposeful, ‘not drifting through life’, as she has something to be productive with every week and do something that ‘connects her to the community.’ 

Rhiannon also said in this time she felt more confident in looking for work, that the regular coming and doing things had built her ability to apply skills which boosted her confidence when applying for jobs. Overall volunteering has had a ‘strong positive impact on life’ and Rhiannon hopes to be able to continue after the project and if she finds work. What has been really rewarding is having those around Rhiannon also see this, Gill Nixon from Archives who coordinated the project said, ‘it’s amazing to see such a change, I am so proud of her.’ 

‘When I first met Rhiannon, she seemed a bit unsure about her future and what she could do. She had done a degree in Classics and didn’t really know how she could use that in any way.  

Her initial 16-week goal was ‘to become confident with structured volunteering’. At the end of the 16 weeks, when asked how the programme had helped her, she said, ‘The Volunteering Coordinator found me an absolutely perfect opportunity and supported me in getting started’. The only thing that would stop her continuing was ‘a random meteor strike!’ 

I saw Rhiannon’s confidence increase greatly as she volunteered, and she excitedly shared stories of what she had discovered in the letters and journals from Cannon Hall.  It was so good to see how the support given by Archives, in addition to a role that interested her, had led to her feeling she was doing something purposeful.  

Rhiannon’s positive experience encouraged me to refer other volunteers who also have an interest in history to the Archives department.’  

Sarah Davey, Supported Volunteering Coordinator, Barnsley CVS 
=alt"volunteer group in Cannon Hall walled garden"
Archives research volunteers visit Cannon Hall in 2019

What happens next?

Perception of volunteering has without question changed in the last couple of months and on a national level has seen volunteers placed centre stage in the combined response to a global pandemic, people who may never have thought themselves as volunteers took up the call. From simple acts of kindness, such as checking in on neighbours to coordinating food delivery to staff in hospitals, volunteering has come to the forefront of people’s minds and actions. 

For Barnsley Museums, we know things will look different when we can open the door to volunteers again, social distancing, increased safety measure and new approaches to how people engage with arts, culture and heritage will have impact. The new uptake of volunteering that has been seen may well continue past the current Covid-19 response as people look to where else they can make change in their community and get all the benefits of volunteering, bringing new skills and further diversity among those who were with us before.  

=alt"volunteers working in Cannon Hall parkland"
Volunteer group working in Cannon Hall park and gardens

It also worth mentioning here the hope that not only will Barnsley Museums see this return and growth but so will Barnsley’s heritage sector as a whole and continue from strength to strength. Two things we know for certain though is we are thankful to all volunteers who support us and that we are looking forward to the day when we can share a cuppa, sandwich and a slice or two of cake again.  

Interested in volunteering in the future with Barnsley Museums or elsewhere? Visit Barnsley CVS to find out more https://barnsleycvs.org.uk/

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