A lovely blog about volunteer millers at Sarehole Mill.
Sarehole Mill will open again for the season on Saturday 12 April 2014. Please see http://www.bmag.org.uk/sarehole-mill for more details.
I used to think I had the best job in the world, education & outreach officer at Birmingham Archives & Heritage; a sublime mix of delving into the past through archival documents and photos and working with young people and community groups to document their lives and our changing city.
Then in January I answered the call for volunteer millers at Sarehole Mill. Suddenly every waking thought was about millstones and wheel revolutions, about chutes, tuns, hoppers and damsels and I found myself in a new world of the old. Now of course it all makes sense; a seamless path from researching and recording stories about Birmingham’s history to real life hands on experience.
I am part of a team of volunteers learning how to operate the mill following it’s major £450,000 restoration and refurbishment project. Sarehole Mill is one of only two surviving working watermills in Birmingham (…
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“Where’s the big stuff? I want to see the really big stuff”. It was a familiar request; visitors to gallery sixteen at Birmingham Museum are often a little thrown when they peer in to the glass cases for the first time and wonder what on earth they’re looking at. Small pieces of shiny metal, many of them studded with red gemstones – what are they? Who do they belong to? Where are they from? Why has such a fuss been made in the media about this find?
Photo: Two Staffordshire Hoard gallery volunteers at the 2012 Volunteer Party
So what do volunteers in the Hoard gallery do? Well, there’s a bit of housekeeping for starters. First thing in the morning we set the gallery up: we turn on the lights, set up the ipads and, last of all, fire up the short documentary which is a great introduction to the Hoard. Visitors often ask if we know the script of that film off by heart: we do! There is a small amount of paperwork, a gallery check to make sure all is working, clean and tidy for visitors and then…we wait.
There is never much of a wait before the first visitors arrive. The Staffordshire Hoard remains very popular, and totting up the numbers is another volunteer responsibility. We regularly log over 300 visitors, even on a rainy weekday. There is rarely a dull moment in the Hoard, and our visitors are always so interesting, as well as interested. For me this is the best part of volunteering: the opportunity to talk with such a diverse range of people. I started volunteering in the Hoard in January 2012, and since then I’ve learned as much from the public as I have from books and documentaries. I’ve been privileged to speak with jewellers who understand the intricate complexity of the filigree work; with metal workers who have explained how the swords would have been made and even an expert in marine life who enlightened me on sea horses off the south coast of England.
But you don’t have to be an expert at anything to appreciate the Hoard (I’m certainly not!) or to engage our full attention. There is still so much mystery surrounding the find and, as I often tell visitors, everyone’s interpretation is as good as anyone else’s when it comes to the Staffordshire Hoard. One of the really nice things about working in the gallery is hearing the ideas about how the gold came to be stashed there, and why. It seems unlikely that we’ll never know, but a very happy ten minutes can be passed debating it.
The day passes very quickly as a conglomeration of chatty, enthusiastic school trips, overseas tourists and mooching couples pass through the gallery. And there are quiet times too, during which we go around with a cloth and wipe the fingerprints off the cases. At five o’clock a call comes over the radio advising that it’s time to start closing down the interactive exhibits, and Terry Herbert utters his final ‘why me?’ of the day. The lights are turned down, the doors closed and it’s time to head home.
If you are planning a visit to the Staffordshire Hoard – and why wouldn’t you? It’s fab and free! – please take advantage of the volunteer interpreters in the gallery. We can’t promise to answer all of your questions, but we’ll have an interesting time together trying!
Staffordshire Hoard Volunteer
For more information about the Staffordshire Hoard please visit: staffordshirehoard.org.uk
Hi, I’m Lucy Blakeman and I’m the Documentation Manager at BMAG. I started my museum career at the Barber Institute of Fine Art, working with the Education Manager. To gain more Curatorial experience I also volunteered at BMAG in the Art Department with Tessa Sidey and then in the History Department with Phil Watson. Having gained experience in several different areas of museum work, it became apparent that I was leaning more towards documentation and after 2.5 years volunteering I took my first paid role as a Documentation Officer at BMAG and haven’t looked back!
My experience as a volunteer has helped me see the value in volunteering from a personal perspective as well as from an institutional perspective. I now take on volunteers of my own as I feel it’s essential to my work in at BMAG, as well as providing keen up-and-coming-museum-professionals with the experience they need to get museum jobs.
I have 2 long-term volunteers that work on Documentation projects with me – Misaho, who has also written a blog about volunteering today, is one of them and has been coming to BMAG for 3 years now. Her work is of an exceptional standard and she is dedicated and professional, which is exactly what we need. Without Misaho I wouldn’t be on target with our collections audit, we wouldn’t have solved many of the documentation anomalies that have occurred over the years, and her expertise in Ancient History is a real bonus in solving these.
I also work with four of the Friends as part of their 80th Birthday celebrations this year. They have been inputting funding data and accurate credit line info for all the objects that the Friends have helped us acquire over the last 80 years. Working closely with the Friends has been a lovely experience – several of them have been a part of BMAG for much longer than me, and although I may have taught them a few new skills, they have also taught me a great deal.
Documentation is one of the most important aspects of collections work and without the help and hard work of volunteers we wouldn’t have the level of documentation that we currently do. I can’t thank volunteers enough for the work that they do.
Thank you very much all you fabulous volunteers!
My name is Misaho and I have been volunteering for the Documentation Office of BMAG for 3 years now. I was always interested in history, arts and culture, and wanted to work in the museum sector.
I applied for postgraduate Museum Studies course in distance learning from the University of Leicester because I wanted to gain the practical experience of a real working environment at the same time. The great thing about being a volunteer while studying was that it helped me greatly to understand academic theories as practical ones. Also I was able to ask questions and get lots of advice and tips from my supervisors and the staff to do my assignments!
Currently, I am helping the Museum’s on-going auditing project at the Museum Collections Centre. I check the existing objects with the database records and update any changes. I take responsibility for resolving numbering issues that arise and also make new entries to the database by researching the objects.
I have also been able to gain experience from other departments such as the Conservation Department and the Events Team. This has made me understand the various types of jobs available in museums. The Museum also gives me opportunities to attend training courses and these have been very useful.
I’m now looking for a job as a documentation officer. It is difficult time to be looking for a museum job but I hope that I succeed, and until then I will continue to develop my skill and experience professionally as a volunteer.
Hello, my name is Kim Lane and I’m a Leicester graduate who studied Museum Studies. I completed an 8 week placement at BMAG in July for my course and have been here ever since as a weekly volunteer!
During my placement I was asked to update the documentation for the 1940s costume collection in preparation for a community engagement project called ‘Make Do and Mend’. Thus, I continued this project as a volunteer and am currently helping to run the ‘Make Do and Mend’ sessions at the Museum Collections Centre.
The Birmingham City University Fashion Design students have been asked to make an outfit for the new history galleries in the style of 1940s make do and mend. This involves working with the university students, as well a group called BARRA who provide the students with a ‘real life’ account of make do and mend during wartime and after for many people.
For me the best part of volunteering at BMAG is being able to access the museums collections, and being able to provide a service for the public through the museums collection.