Amgueddfa Blog: Volunteering

Hi, I’m Thea, a sixth form student from Shropshire who decided to create this short video as part of my work experience at the National Museum Cardiff.

I had heard about Who Decides? before I became involved in the exhibition, so I was very eager to find out more. After working with the public opinion cards, speaking to the people involved in the museum and doing some short interviews, I created an animation that I thought would best reflect the aims of exhibition and the feedback it had received.

I am passionate about art and against the idea that art and museums are ‘elitist’ or should be for the ‘privileged’ rather than the majority, so I wanted to focus on this issue in the video.

Working with the Wallich

The exhibition itself was incredibly eye opening for me; the museum had decided to work with the charity The Wallich to involve people with experience of homlessness in the process of designing and creating the exhibit and gives the public the chance to choose some of the artwork on display. I haven't seen an exhibition that has ever taken this kind of approach, so I found it intriguing to see how others reacted to the idea.

I hope this refreshing approach to curation will be an archetype for future exhibits and museums because it challenges what we usually connote with galleries and exhibits and hopefully encourages more people to visit exhibitions and museums.

Who Decides? is on show at National Museum Cardiff until 2 September 2018. You can also contribute to Who Decides? by voting for your favourite work to be ‘released’ from the store and placed on public display.

....... quite literally in some cases!

Last week saw us head up to Berwick-upon-Tweed to sample for species of marine bristle worms, the shovelhead worms (Annelida: Magelonidae). The aim was to collect enough of these burrowing animals from under the muddy sand at low tide that we could contribute to our collections and additionally place some in our laboratory tank for live observations.

After closely examining one species of shovelhead worm at the museum (Magelona alleni) for the majority of the first seven months of my professional training year (PTY) from Cardiff University, and successfully finding out some exciting new behavioural traits (in press), I find myself wanting to expand not only my own knowledge, but becoming eager to contribute more to our overall understanding of these fascinating and somewhat enigmatic creatures. The more science we uncover, the more well known these species, who perhaps do not receive the same attention as some of the bigger vertebrates, become. I see this as a crucial factor to raise awareness for a preservation of the natural world in our future.

With this mantra circling around my head, my enthusiasm was bursting as we drove to the beach on our first day of sampling. Low tide was just before 8am, meaning leaving our cottage, full gear in tow, at around 6.30am. No problems, I thought. I’m ready for that chilly Northern January air. Bring. It. on. Assembled with so many layers that we lost count, we clambered out of the car ready to get onto the beach, undeterred by the eerie super moon and snow battering our windscreen as we drove to our destination that morning. We were looking for two species of Magelona in particular, Magelona johnstoni and Magelona mirabilis, known to occur in abundance in this location, where George Johnston first describer of the the latter species lived and collected worms (you can learn more about the fascinating life of George Johnston and what he accomplished at these sites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Johnston_(naturalist), http://www.raysociety.org.uk/userfiles/File/Johnston%20essay.pdf).

Our first dig looked promising, revealing many of the now familiar milky white, almost stringy, teeny tiny strands of magelonids. As we gently prised them out of the sand and put them into test tubes, by using seawater to gently wash the surrounding sand away in our hands, it occurred to me my hands were starting to go a little bit numb in the icy water. I thought I obviously wasn’t quite as seasoned at this as Kate, my museum mentor. Luckily we had hand warmers at the ready to dive our hands into after each dig. However, as we dug more and more both of us felt our hands turn to popsicles, and let me tell you, anyone who has ever tried to get a worm that is only a few millimeters in length into a test tube does not want popsicle hands. Over the next few hours our feet slowly turned into matching ice cubes, until we had to call it a day. Luckily for us, we had the same scenario to play out all over again the next morning.

 What I haven’t mentioned yet is that despite the somewhat crisp weather, we saw some of the most breathtaking sunrises, with only the odd oystercatcher and redshank to accompany us. Along with this, we were further rewarded by the pure amount of magelonids present in such small spaces, meaning our collection was plentiful and we could take the animals back to our make-shift laboratory at our accommodation for identification, which is when you really start to see what the fuss is about with these worms. The stringy white appearance you see from afar turns into an elegant, ethereal-like animal under the microscope, with complex morphological features. Perhaps, most notably, long, flowing palps that arise near to the animal’s mouth. The number we collected means observations in the laboratory can now be started for new research. George Johnston’s description of the abundance of the animals here sure hasn’t changed much in well over 100 years. Ultimately, the moral of the story is that sometimes, the more changeling the environment, the more recompense. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll be worm hunting in the Artic!

Catch up with some other tails of a PTY student

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.