Amgueddfa Blog: Volunteering

Nearing the four-month mark since I stepped into National Museum Wales for the first day of my Professional Training Year (PTY) placement from Cardiff University, my goal of achieving new experiences in the world of marine invertebrate research is definitely underway. This is now taking form in the way of the Magelonidae, the shovelhead worms, a family of polychaetes with many unanswered questions hovering around them in regards to their ecology, taxonomy and behaviour.

Through starting with live observations in the museum lab in July of Magelona alleni, a rather chunky species of magelonid, my project has developed into some exciting discoveries regarding not only the feeding of these amazing worms, but also how they poo, hence the title of the blog post! As boring as worm defecation sounds, this is not the case when you watch how these amazing animals decide to actually get rid of their dinner (there will be more about the details of this in my next blog post when we have finished working on this interesting behaviour).

These findings have led me down a road of using many new techniques to be able to present my work in a professional and scientific manner. This includes scientific drawing using a camera lucida attachment on a microscope, photography in the way of time-lapse captures, film and image stacking, image editing, reviewing relevant literature, statistical analysis, dissection and SEM (scanning electron microscopy) to name but a few.

In addition to these skills I have learnt much about day to day tasks the museum carries out, including learning methods of curation for an impressive collection of marine invertebrates, holding over 750,000 specimens and having the opportunity to partake in sampling trips to collect more animals for the further development of my project and other projects around the museum. I have also settled into the role of tank maintenance for not only the shovelhead worms, but also some of our resident anemones, hermit crabs, starfish, sea potatoes and prawns. I have even tried my hand at outreach on one of the museum’s stands during the evening event ‘After Dark at the Museum’ with Cardiff University, which saw nearly 2000 people (mainly families) enjoy a hands on experience.

One crucial advantage that I feel I have obtained over these last few months is that I am starting to enjoy a great appreciation for the diversity of life in our seas, from the very tiny, such as organisms like diatoms and foraminiferans to the impressively large, like the young humpback whale skeleton on display in the museum, which I get the pleasure of walking past most days. All in all, my experiences so far have been beyond valuable and who knows what the next few months of research here will bring.

Find out more about how I got on when I first started at the museum

This week’s Youth Forum again made me think about museums and what they can do, and how they should be, in a different way.

While looking at art from the First World War had at times been a sensory overload, this time we were trying to understand what it would be like to come to a museum without one specific sense fully intact. How to make museum exhibits more accessible for the partially sighted?

Having always gone to museums with my sight in (near enough) tip top condition, I and probably others tended to presume it was a pretty necessary requirement. If I had trouble seeing the paintings/sculptures/artefacts, then I don’t think I’d want to go. Because if seeing is believing, and I couldn’t see what I was supposed to be learning about, then surely I wouldn’t learn very much and would end up feeling quite left out, even though this obviously shouldn’t be the case.

And it doesn’t have to be! The paintings and sculptures that we looked up were a bit of a mix, ones that more well-known and some that were completely new. Among the ideas that we came up with, for example, involved the painting Bad News, by James Tissot, incorporating the playing of military marching music alongside the painting to evoke the solemnity and sorrow of leaving your family to go off and fight in another corner of the world.

Similarly, for Entrance to Cardiff Docks by Lionel Walden, lighting effects could imitate the lights of the port and the surrounding buildings, with sound effects of ships coming into port, water slapping against the quay, sailors shouting to each other. We could have smells to add to the experience (although maybe not the fish!). Instead of rough sailors accompanying Manet’s San Maggiore by Twilight, it would be the gentle, joyful peel of Italian church bells.

In front of a painting of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, Thomas Apperly and Edward Hamilton by Pompeo Batoni there could be a table with the objects and chairs laid out exactly as they are in the picture, as if the subjects had just finished the sitting and left only a few moments ago. David Nash’s intriguing sculpture Multi-Cut Column could have smaller imitations made of it, that people could actually pass around and touch, something rarely allowed in any exhibit. 

I realise there would be some technical issues in making sure it wasn’t distracting or taking away from the other exhibits, and that maybe not all these ideas will actually become a finished product, but I hope that at least some of them do work out. Because who wouldn’t want to experience this? It might be a bit like theatre, the art being brought to life, stepping into the painting. While I’m definitely thankful I’m not visually impaired in any way, I’m also thankful I took the time to try and understand the experience of those who are. 
 

  • Our next Audio Description Tour will take place on 8 December and will be of our Natural History collections.

Before starting my degree in English Literature and History at Cardiff University in September 2015, I was conscious that employers look for experience as well as qualifications, especially in senior management roles in the heritage sector. Knowing this, I wanted to get some volunteering under my belt to enable me to get a head start in museum work and the heritage sector after I graduate; the Events Volunteer Work Placement at St Fagan’s National History Museum seemed the perfect opportunity to do this.

Over the past year, our role as the placement team was to come up with a way of recruiting volunteers for specific events, and we trialled our scheme at the St Fagan’s Food Festival on the 10th and 11th September 2016, to much success. We were also given experience working on the front of house with other museum employees, which was a great insight into how museums are run, and how important visitor relations are. Another placement volunteer and I also designed a tote bag for use by the events volunteers; the museum staff were so impressed that they hinted at working with us on something similar in the future, an opportunity that would not have existed without the work placement.

Doing the work placement has been hugely beneficial to me; I now have experience in both behind the scenes and on the face of the museums events and day to day running, and I have learnt how many different aspects and people it takes to pull off a big event like the Food Festival. Every team member is valued, down to every last volunteer. It has also taught me transferable skills such as teamwork, time management, and customer service.

One major advantage of the work placement is that it has opened many doors for me; having now volunteered for the National Museum Wales, I have gained an excellent contact and reference within the volunteer department. I am planning on continuing volunteering with the museum once the work placement is finished, and that is made a lot easier by my past experience on the placement.

We met in the Museum’s car park, not quite knowing what to expect. Our 50+ Group had been asked if we fancied cataloguing more than a thousand books from the library at the Oakdale Workmen’s Institute as part of the re-interpretation of the building and all four of us had been intrigued by the request.

Sioned greeted us with a warm welcome and we were taken to the library in the ‘new’ building to meet Richard, the librarian. And so began five extremely enjoyable Thursdays.

The books had been packed into boxes and our task was to fill the spreadsheets with name, author and publication date. We noted the condition of the book and if it had come from another library or institute (e.g. Nantymoel or Aberkenfig).

Delving into each box, not knowing what we might discover, was like plunging into a box of chocolates. Mining and engineering books were obviously very popular in Lewis Merthyr Library – were they borrowed by young men keen to further their careers? There were many books on mathematics, science and architecture – all well-used according to the date stamps on page three. And then there were novels by popular authors like Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens – read and enjoyed in a time before television and computers. A few books, with risqué titles, were obviously well-thumbed and our work stopped as we contemplated why they appeared to be more popular than ‘Advanced Algebra’ or ‘Modern Mechanics’.

It was a fascinating insight into a random selection of books, some dating back to the 1870s, and we are so grateful to the Museum for including us in this work. Richard was on hand to answer questions and solve mysteries – why did so many Welsh preachers write books about themselves? Who bought them? And who decided to write ‘The Life of the White Ant’ (and did anyone ever read it)?

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our five days ‘work’, have learnt new skills, met lovely people and, also, become better acquainted after visiting all of the eateries in the Museum for lunch. If there’s any more volunteering on offer – please put our names on this list.

The re-interpretation of Oakdale Workmen’s Institute is supported by the Armed Forces Community Covenant Grant Scheme.

Jack is 21 and lives in Carmarthenshire, South West Wales. He is a keen sportsman and is particularly interested in rugby. Jack goes to Ammanford College three days a week and both Jack and his father felt that Jack would really benefit from incorporating some work experience into his weekly routine. Jack lives in a very rural part of Wales and this adds to the challenge of accessing work opportunities. The family contacted WorkFit to see if we could help. WorkFit is a project run by the Down’s Syndrome Association to support people with Down’s Syndrome aged between 14 and 25 to access volunteering opportunities, work placements and paid work by removing barriers to employment.

Jack Volunteer at the National Wool Museum

 

Jack is enjoying college and getting a lot out of his studies but he wanted to start using his skills in a work environment. After his vocational profile was completed, it was clear that Jack was ready for a challenge; he is a very sociable young man, fit and eager to learn.

We felt that Jack would benefit from a role where he was able to try different tasks and learn different skills and approached potential placements with this in mind.

We approached the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre. Ann Whittall, the manager of the museum, is always looking for volunteers to help out. She was happy to consider Jack but agreed that the free Down’s syndrome awareness training was going to be essential for the museum to be able to properly support him. It was great to see all the museum’s members of staff at the training.

Feedback from the training session included:

“Think of tasks, break it down to simple steps, and make visual aids if needed. Be aware of the need to show Jack the process.”

“Informative and proving how much less daunting working with someone with Down’s syndrome can be.”

“Very positive – also in understanding needs of visitors with Down’s syndrome and considerations of ways in which we can improve their visitor experience.”

“Excellent – I wish I’d had this training years ago when I had a young person with Down’s syndrome in my school registration class.”

Jack has been volunteering at the museum since November 2015. His tasks include organising the woollen display and helping in the retail and reception area; helping with activities in the children’s area; assisting with the inter-active displays; and cleaning the café and museum. Jack has also helped out during the seasonal events at the museum and particularly enjoyed putting up their very impressive Christmas tree!

At first, most of Jack’s tasks were indoors as it was the winter. He is looking forward to getting on with outdoor work during the spring and summer. This will include ground maintenance, weeding, planting and helping with outdoor events.

Jack has also been working on independent travel as part of his experiences at the museum. He has been supported in learning to walk from the village to the museum. This is a small but very important development for Jack.

Ann Whittall said that “working with Jack has been a great experience for all the staff here at the National Wool Museum. It has been great to see Jack gaining confidence, coming to the museum on a weekly basis and developing in his role. Jack is now happy to work independently, supported by his colleagues at the museum. The support and initial training provided by the WorkFit project was particularly helpful in setting us up to provide Jack with a good work experience opportunity.”

Jack said “I really look forward to going to work at the museum on Fridays. I have learnt new skills and tried jobs for the first time. I enjoy all the jobs except using the hoover.”

WorkFit will continue to support both Jack and the National Wool Museum and are looking forward to working with Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales to find other opportunities across the organisation.