Guest post: Teresa Fox-Wells on volunteer power at Borough Museum & Art Gallery, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Today’s guest post comes from Teresa Fox-Wells, Heritage & Learning Officer at the Borough Museum & Art Gallery in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Last year she wrote this case study about making the most of volunteers’ talents, and now she explains how her Museums at Night event is evolving:

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At the Borough Museum and Art Gallery in Newcastle under Lyme we are beavering away preparing for the biggest evening of our year, Museums at Night – this year our event is ‘Return Of The Leeches!

Families stare at a Victorian doctor's jar of leeches

Stan, one of our volunteers in his role as Dr Mayer. He worked so hard to get leeches that we ended up with two lots! (c) Newcastle Borough Museum

This is the third year we have run the event and each year it gets a bit bigger. In our first year we were delighted with just over 100 visitors and somewhat shell shocked last year with well over 300 visitors!

There is a certain element of “victims of our own success,” as the event now takes noticeably more planning and considerably more staffing. However, everyone involved really believes in the event and the support from our volunteers is absolutely crucial.

They have been more actively involved in the planning stages this year and, best of all have even recruited new volunteers to help out on the night. In the first year we had 3 staff and 8 volunteers working on the night, last year we had 5 staff and 12 volunteers.

This year we have 6 staff and an amazing 19 volunteers! I say amazing as although we make sure that every volunteer has a thank you card and a little something to show our appreciation, their main incentive to give up their time is purely because they believe in the event.

Three smiling volunteers

Beryl, one of our volunteers, in a very fetching hat together with some young helpers (c) Newcastle Borough Museum

They feel that the night is a fantastic way of showcasing the museum, attracting new audiences and having an enjoyable night in a fantastic atmosphere that’s as much fun for those staffing it as for those visiting.

This year we had some teething troubles in the planning stages as last year it became obvious that our little museum was not designed to accommodate 300 people in a matter of hours and, as the building has evolved over the years from Victorian home to museum, the lack of a clear route around the museum caused some confusion and wasn’t ideal from a health and safety perspective.

Staff and volunteers met to discuss the best way around this – and the only effective solution was to have extra staff actively managing visitors and ensuring the one way system we set up worked. (We had tried signage in the past but unfortunately arrows only seem to have an impact in Western films!)

To be quite honest I didn’t think we would be able to find enough people willing to give up their evening. I had planned to make some changes which would ensure a safe route around the building, but would have the knock on effect of not being able to allow access to some of the areas we had opened to the public in previous years.

However, the volunteers were not keen on this as they really enjoyed the response from the public of being able to actually go inside the historic displays so they set out to find new recruits!

So this year we have not only our band of devoted volunteers but a whole new group which includes some relatives of current volunteers and encompasses a much wider age range than is usually found in volunteer groups, from the 8 and 13 year old girls who are going to help out ‘rag rugging’ and wool winding in the World War II room to the teenage boys who are going to share the responsibility of the Brampton Bear mascot costume!

It just goes to show that nothing is impossible if you are fortunate enough to have a team of people who truly believe in something and who can use their passion to encourage others to dress up in funny outfits and bring the museum to life!

A cast of smiling characters

The volunteer crew from 2011 (c) Newcastle Borough Museum

P.S. The group picture of all of us was taken by my husband in his volunteer role as a Victorian photographer. People were very happy to pay for a photo in period costume – a great money spinner!

A woman in Victorian dress and veil with a framed photograph

Teresa in her favourite role as Miss Mosley, who originally lived in the museum building when it was a Victorian house

Teresa Fox-Wells is the Heritage & Learning Officer at the Borough Museum & Art Gallery and is responsible for their formal and informal learning programmes and events. She says, “I wanted to be a Victorian when I grew up so this job is the next best thing!”

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Thanks, Teresa! If you’d like to write a guest post about any aspect of event planning or marketing for arts and heritage venues, please contact me on 01273 623336 or email rosie@culture24.org.uk.

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