Category Archives: Volunteering

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Museum Inspires Author

Vix J Cooper, known as workshop leader and farm volunteer Jane at the museum, talks about how her time at COAM gave her inspiration when writing her book Crazy Pets and Secrets Revealed. She says…

My senses are always given a treat by the wonderful landscape at COAM through the different seasons. This, plus time spent in the buildings, listening to visitors recounting their past experiences, and having a go at traditional technology and techniques is not only informative but inspires some of my writing too, such as regarding the impact of WW2 and traditional washing methods.

It feels a privilege earning the trust of the museum’s animals and getting to know their particular habits, likes and dislikes. The cats are usually the first to greet me when I’m on feed duties. They’re nicer than the cat in my story Crazy Pets and Secrets Revealed, despite them crunching rabbit by my feet in Borehamwood! The cows tolerate my random singing when I’m grooming Clementine, and the hens normally respond to my clucks. Often, after I’ve finished a morning feed, I’ll sit on the step to Borehamwood with a cuppa and watch the birds and clouds, rain or sunshine dancing across Hill Farm barn roof, or fallen leaves racing around the site.

Lambing by moonlight is magical with shadows of the clouds, trees and animals roaming. I’ve learnt to work out “who goes there” from the different eye shapes glinting and moving across the site for farm and wild animals. The quiet of the night amplifies masticating mouths, rumbling stomachs and belches of the sheep, as well as the hooting of owls and barking of deer. My own family groan when I, or the car, reek of iodine and worse when it’s lambing time. Post-midnight showers can become almost routine before crawling into bed after lamb – or kid – late shifts. While the ewes are reliably well-behaved, the same can’t always be said of the goats who can have me doubling up with laughter over their antics: Dotty refusing to go in the field so we engage in a tug of war with me holding onto her horns and her walking backwards; Crystal taking me for a walk, dragging me at the end of her lead or standing up on her back legs to eat foliage up a tree; and Dora climbing in the wheelbarrow I’m trying to get out of the field after refilling the hay feeder.

With many Coopers in the world, I added Vix to J Cooper because I admire foxes for their adaptability and I thought Vix, short for vixen, would be different. I originally wrote Crazy Pets and Secrets Revealed for children aged nine and above, but adults do buy it and anyone connected to the museum may just enjoy reading it to discover what and who inspired some of my characters and bits of the storyline. I’m currently writing a follow-up with the main character Hugo. I’ve also written a story, aimed at 3-7 year olds and currently with my illustrator, which should be published about September time. Traditional landscapes, plus my roles as workshop leader and forest school practitioner were certainly influential for this book. I’m restless if I go a day without writing, and special places such as COAM both sooth and exhilarate me.

Crazy Pets and secrets Revealed can be ordered from Amazon & other bookshops.


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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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The Pleasure of Volunteering

The Pleasure of Volunteering – A New Volunteer’s Endorsement

It’s a bitterly cold winter’s day. The sky is grey and the increasingly heavy rain is threatening to turn to snow.  The icy wind’s tentacles feel their way through every gap in my clothing. I am working alone.

A relatively new volunteer on the Museum farm, I am working at the side of a field today, adding the binders to a nearly completed laid hedge. My hands in my saturated work gloves are cold and the rain is creeping through those not so waterproof parts of my old rain jacket.

One year previously I would have been sat in my warm and dry office feeling pity for the wet and cold workmen on the building site opposite. But today I am happy. In fact, I am far happier than I was in my office going about my stressful managerial role. I am enjoying myself in these inhospitable conditions. Thank you Fate that gave me the early retirement opportunity to stand here on such miserable day!

So what attracted me as a volunteer and why am I happy to be wet and cold in a muddy field today? I had previously worked with another voluntary group that occasionally helped the Museum farm with specific projects. This gave me an insight into the Museum and its people. I had noticed the enthusiasm and dedication of the staff and other volunteers and their welcoming nature, and thought that one day I would like to become a regular volunteer.

The opportunity came and I took it. Over six months on, I am thoroughly enjoying my small role and remain enthused by the positive environment. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. There are no targets or expectations other than your own. You can dedicate as little or as much time as you want. Of course volunteers want to do a good job and be effective in their own way. One word of warning though – it’s addictive!

Volunteers-COAM-400px

Volunteers can choose to bring their own skill sets to their role. They often volunteer in areas they have an interest in such as building construction or gardening. Others, as I have chosen, do something completely different to their skills and interests. And what is so encouraging is that the staff and other volunteers give you the time, patience and encouragement to help you learn new skills.

Working in a cold wet field on my own today is entirely my choice. The task needed completing and the farm is short of volunteers today. So I just get on with it. But I am not unusual. Far from it. The Museum has many volunteers working on the farm, maintaining the Museum’s buildings and gardens that will also be out working in all conditions to help run and maintain the Museum – and enjoying it!

Although there is no pressure, volunteers are very committed to the Museum and are usually more than happy doing something they might not really want to do. And when it’s done, they feel great!

Volunteering is critical for the successful operation of the Museum. Without volunteers there would probably be no Museum as funding would not cover the value volunteers bring. And this value cannot be brought. As well as skills and experience some volunteers bring, others just bring enthusiasm, dedication and determination.

So it is a win, win situation. Volunteers get to do something worthwhile which they enjoy and the Museum gets the additional resource it needs to maintain an enjoyable visitor experience.

So if you are interested in volunteering, to get an idea of the opportunities, visit https://www.coam.org.uk/get-involved/volunteering/ Maybe you will be joining me in the rain one winter – or on dry and sunny summers day!

 


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