Category Archives: Museums

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The Future of Volunteering

 The future of volunteering

The Future of Volunteering?

Some voluntary organisations have recently argued that there is a financial imperative to embrace new ways of volunteering. It is true that many Museums, assuming they receive any regular funding at all, are seeing cuts to their funding. If you presume that volunteers only create economic value, you could argue that volunteers may be a way to “save you money”. At Chiltern Open Air Museum we engage volunteers to “add value” to the Museum experience. This draws on the argument that volunteers produce value that is not simply economic; they produce private and social value (less tangible benefits for themselves, the organisation and society more widely). When volunteering focuses on the additional benefits of volunteering, rather than seeing it as a means to reduce costs, we make best use of volunteers’ enthusiasm, skills and knowledge.

One of these news ways of volunteering is microvolunteering, defined by Institute for Volunteering Research as “bite-size volunteering with no commitment to repeat and with minimum formality, involving short and specific actions that are quick to start and complete.” Although some organisations argue that there are clear benefits to microvolunteering, I believe that it has some critical flaws. It is suggested that the short duration and repetitive nature of microvolunteering allows organisations to target the demographics missing from their volunteer base, for example allowing parents with limited free time to volunteer. Unfortunately, this assumes that volunteering is the best use of time for those people who don’t currently volunteer. With Museums trialing new engagement strategies (see for example the Natural History Museum, who are advertising “visiteering” – a portmanteau of “visiting” and “volunteering”), I believe that they are eroding the foundations of both those activities.

The concept of “gamification” also emerges in microvolunteering: the idea that engagement can be encouraged by applying game design techniques. For example the Natural History Museum advertises: “You will be set a challenge relating to the collections”. This builds on the trend for phrasing activities as competitions, and emphasising the instant gratification that occurs with the successful completion of the “challenge”. By phrasing volunteering as “a game” or “a challenge” we are excluding those volunteers whose motivations are not aligned with this way of thinking, like those who are volunteering for social reasons or out of a sense of charity. At Chiltern Open Air Museum, we have found that value is created by consulting and working with volunteers and integrating them into a community.

It is argued that the “many hands make light work” principle applies: is it better for 100 people to give 5 minutes of their time, or for one person to volunteer for a day? When volunteering focuses on longer term aims, the relationship between the volunteer and the organisation is strengthened, and the volunteer is enabled to develop skills which cannot be cultivated when the focus is short term. While the economic value of the two situations above might be roughly equivalent, I would argue that the private and social value are much higher when the length of volunteering is increased: expertise and confidence take time to grow.

We need to become advocates of volunteering best practice before people’s expectation of volunteering is significantly altered by this trend towards microvolunteering and gamification. If we allow people to see volunteering as bite-size, informal and challenging, this does not bode well for the time when the “missing demographics” become our “core demographic”. We must ensure that volunteering opportunities have value and that the experience is meaningful.

George Hunt
Visitor Services Team Leader


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2017 New Year’s Resolutions

COAM-Autumn-2016-600px

The end of a calendar year is often a convenient time to reflect and review your progress, and set New Year’s resolutions, if you are so inclined!

Here are 6 things that I think the Museum should be proud of from last year:

  1. The number of people visiting the Museum each year has risen again, now at a fantastic 54,000 visitors. The most common reason that visitors give us for their visit is family or friends; the Museum is clearly for many people a place to be explored in company.
  1. In 2016, we welcomed 28 new volunteers and have developed ways for our volunteers to feel informed and consulted. Our Young Volunteers Club has also continued to grow, and it is great that we are seeing Young Volunteers wanting to stay on to help after reaching the upper age limit.
  1. Significant maintenance was carried out to a number of historic buildings. These repairs help preserve the buildings and mean that they continue to be authentic representations of their previous lives. It was also great to see the Henley Garage re-erected as a home for the Museum’s historic bicycles.
  1. A number of staff members have done more to raise awareness of our work, for example by sharing examples of best practice from our Museum at national conferences and local forums, on themes of education, fundraising and volunteering.
  1. We are building a network of local corporate supporters; we were delighted to welcome back three different organisations to volunteer for the second year in succession, who helped us to make improvements to our site and prepare for our Halloween Spectacular.
  1. 17,500 school children visited the Museum in 2016; it is encouraging that our formal learning programme is so popular. Last year has also seen some adaptation of some workshops to be suitable for families and uniformed organisations.

All these achievements are to be celebrated, and many more besides, as they demonstrate improvement in the three purposes which are named in the Museum’s mission statement: enjoyment, inspiration and learning.

We should also look for improvements for 2017. Although I’m not really one for setting New Year’s resolutions, it is important to remind ourselves of what we are working towards and why. I believe that we can ask ourselves three questions to make improvements to the things that we do at the Museum:

  1. How relevant are they?
  2. How authentic are they?
  3. How will we present them?

These questions can be asked of anything from choosing the artefacts we display in our buildings, to deciding how we will run events and activities. Personally, I will be asking these questions of the stories that we tell in our historic buildings; there are some really engaging stories of past occupants that we could tell better and ways of life that we could share more widely. I am really looking forward to using this opportunity to work with volunteers, and help them share their passion for this fantastic Museum.

George Hunt
Visitor Services Team Leader

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Wolf Brother author Michelle Paver visits COAM

Wolf Brother author Michelle Paver helps literacy come alive at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Author of Wolf Brother, Michelle Paver came to Chiltern Open Air Museum in May to launch a new Wolf Brother literacy theme day. She chatted with school children about how she created her stories telling them tales of her own experiences meeting wolves and tasting seal blubber! Pupils from Booker Hill School in High Wycombe and Rickmansworth Park School took part in the launch day with Michelle and described the day as ‘a wonderful experience, full of excitement, anticipation and belief’.

Michelle’s page turning Wolf Brother book has sold over a million copies and is the first in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. The Wolf Brother story is set six thousand years ago.  Evil stalks the land, and only twelve-year-old Torak and his wolf-cub companion can defeat it.  Their journey together takes them through deep forests, across giant glaciers, and into dangers they never imagined.

Michelle Paver at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Michelle Paver with the Deer Mage at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Staff at the Museum have created the atmosphere of the story using a replica Mesolithic camp site and woodlands on the Museum’s grounds. Using actor educators, who remain in character through-out, the Wolf Brother story is brought to life, enriching children’s imaginations and immersing them in the story. During the theme day children are asked to ‘walk into the story’ and ‘live in it’ as they meet characters inferred from the Wolf Brother plot.  Through these meetings children gain some understanding of what it was like to live during the Stone Age era. They meet with the Deer Mage in his secret camp and create a totem to protect themselves against the huge evil, killer bear who is hunting Torak. They also meet with a Stone Age hunter who shows them the high value and significance placed on each part of an animal. Finally, they create a Stone Age replica weapon or a ‘journey stick’ as they travel through the Museum grounds and woodland following in the steps of Torak’s wolf cub and his ‘wolf speak’ descriptions.

Michelle Paver signing Wolf Brother books

Michelle Paver signing copies of Wolf Brother

Museum Education Officer, Cathy Silmon who has 22 years working in primary education, believes that when a story context is explored and brought to life, children feel empowered and that this ‘empowering’ then makes a real impact on the quality of their writing.

School children holding up copies of Wolf Brother

Some of the school children that met Michelle Paver at the Wolf Brother literacy theme day launch

Feedback from schools who have attended literacy theme days at the Museum has been fantastic;

The day after the trip the kids were amazing, retelling the story of Little Red Hen, even children who normally say nothing were talking and adding their own bits… We are expecting great work from them in the coming weeks.’

The Museum offers literacy theme days exploring Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian, The Little Red Hen, Goldilocks, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, The Three Little Pigs and Owl Babies. All are cross-curricular theme days that combine both history and literacy.

The Wolf Brother literacy Theme Day is now available to book.

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Measuring Volunteering

At the end of June I attended a workshop called Measuring Volunteers: From Inputs to Impact. This was hosted by Museum of London, Docklands – a museum I hadn’t been to before. As someone who works at a collection of historic buildings, I thought they could have made more of their fantastic building – I only found a few plans on display of their imposing early 19th century sugar warehouses. However, the other displays were excellent and gave an engaging history of trade in London. It was interesting to see that their visitors on a Tuesday morning were school groups and mums with small children!

It was great to talk to other “Volunteer Managers” (or “people who work with volunteers”). They came from museums large and small, as well as museums that don’t exist yet (like the Postal Museum – which I’m quite excited about) and cultural/community organisations. This really brought it home to me how different volunteering organisations are – there is no “one size fits all” solution to creating a good volunteering experience.

It was reassuring to hear that other places have a similar approach to us. We currently do very little to measure volunteering, mainly looking at number of volunteers, the number of hours those volunteers give and the activities they do. These can be viewed as inputs into our organisation and we looked at the potential pitfalls of equating these with a financial value or working out a return on investment (a ratio of the “financial value” of volunteers to the “cost” of involving them).

A different and probably better way would be to measure the results of volunteering – the outputs (immediate results – e.g. more guided tours, more presentable site), outcomes (the effect of the immediate results – e.g. higher visitor satisfaction) and impact (higher level strategic results – e.g. more return visits, better understanding of Chilterns history). The difficulty of this approach is that the outcomes and impacts are often intangible or unquantifiable, or at least harder to measure.

We also need to take a step back and consider what our reasons are for measuring volunteering, as this will influence our approach. Across the museum sector, organisations measure volunteering (often in input terms) to justify and apply for funding. If we measure the results of volunteering we can aspire to change peoples’ attitudes towards volunteering by showing its value for the organisation, for the individual and for society more widely. Ultimately at COAM we need to measure volunteering as this will allow us all to develop the organisation to better achieve our mission statement:

“Telling the story of the unique history of the Chilterns through buildings, landscapes and culture for the enjoyment, inspiration and learning of present and future communities.”

George Hunt
Visitor Services Team Leader


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