This post first appeared on the QMUL History Futures blog.
For the latest in my series of posts about work in the museums and heritage sector I visited Jim Hutchinson, the man in charge of volunteering for Imperial War Museums, London.
Jim, could you just place the Imperial War Museums (IWM), London in context please? Well the first thing I should say is that our three London sites – Churchill War Rooms, IWM London in Lambeth and here on HMS Belfast are in a highly competitive market. Our visitor numbers are good though – the Olympic ‘bounce’ is still being felt. This is one of the reasons that our need for volunteers is buoyant. While the Heritage sector has never been a quiet little number, however, money from central government has been even harder to access over the last few years. It obliges IWM to be creative and innovative. The heritage sector as a whole has been impacted by shrinking government and local government funding support – which in turn means there are less curator entry level jobs. In this tough operating climate volunteering still remains an important way for aspiring museum professionals build their CVs and experience. In addition, after being involved for more than six months, volunteers can apply for internally advertised jobs which is another big benefit of a closer volunteer connection with IWM.
So how can students get involved? There are two schemes students might consider for volunteering with Imperial War Museums. The main option for students are ‘student volunteer placements’. These are short term placements at one of IWM’s London branches. Subject to capacity at the time of application, students can get placed in areas such as collections, conservation, learning and access, marketing, research and information and the War Memorials in Britain online collection. We even occasionally get placements in press office. One student at IWM North in Manchester did this recently before going on to a Masters course. You can read about her experience in our newsletter (available here). There are around 25 volunteer placements each year but we always get more applications than we can accommodate, sometimes up to 60, so maybe I can give you some tips about how students should present themselves?
Some priority tends to be given to placement applicants who are seriously looking to enter the museums and heritage profession. Placements can last a minimum of four weeks and a maximum of six months but more usually average around twelve weeks on a two to three days a week basis. Programme’s run between April to September and October to March. The next closing date will be in late July for the next October programme round.
As well as prioritising students who are interested in careers in the museums sector. We also look for people who have reached a certain academic level and we also consider the amount and type of knowledge applicants bring. People who have been engaged with the sector before and with the IWM in particular will also benefit. For all of these reasons it can be tough for first-year students to get shortlisted particularly as we consider that they may be able to apply later in their course.
The focus of IWM is conflict since 1914. Obviously students covering this on their courses will probably have a better grasp of the issues than someone who has been focused on ancient Rome, for example, though, if they have read outside their course and have a relevant interest then they should still apply by all means.
The other programme we offer is the mainstream long term volunteer programme for adults and, again, these serve our London sites. Requirements vary as projects begin or complete but openings can include Collections support; engaging with visitors; Friends Desk operations; tour guiding; a range of specialist office support roles and warship conservation. There are both weekday and weekend roles and volunteers are expected to visit at least once a month for up to a year.
What kind of things would students get involved with on the student placement? We have regular opportunities for students to work on our photo archive for example especially as we are digitising our collections. We have large amounts of First World War material. Some of these photographs are loosely sorted in boxes but we need to review them for duplicates and standardise the tagging and the terminology we use to make them easier for online researchers to access. A contrasting programme could involve conservation. For example, on HMS Belfast student volunteers recently helped to restoring the old electrical workshop. Involvement in the Warship Conservation role would be ideal for someone considering going on to a conservation course masters.
Volunteers have also been closely involved with our ‘Lives of the First World War’ website which creates a digital memorial to more than 1 million British and Commonwealth men and women who served in uniform and worked on the home front during the First World War. To enable these collections to be accessible they have to be digitised, catalogued and records created for each of the items. Photographs are also often accompanied by letters from family members or work colleagues and these also need to be digitised. This involves extracting key data regarding the subject of the letter and adding it to spreadsheets. This captured data can then be imported into our collections management system called AdLib and a link made between the record for the letter and the corresponding portrait photographs.
Another programme might involve research in the public learning area. This summer 3 student volunteers will be evaluating a new interactive service that is part of the museum visits and this will involve interviewing both members of the public and volunteer members of the relevant teams. I should also mention again the press and PR placement that a history student took at IWM North in Manchester recently. The student worked with IWM during the First World War centenary year and helped promote our exhibition there, monitor its reception in the press and helped with numerous broadcasts airing from the museum. Her experience with us should help her get on to a postgraduate masters course in public relations because in the long term she wants to work in public relations focusing on the museums sector.
How can students make the most of their placement? We get really good feedback from students who have been on placement but to make the most of the placement students should consider that it is a two way street. I would recommend that students embrace the fact that some of the work maybe routine; they should take the opportunity to observe what sector professionals are doing, see the kinds of skills they are deploying and make sure they leave the placement knowing what kind of skills gap they may have; they should get curious; they should be positive; ask questions and they should do this not just on placement but before the placement to make sure it is going to be right for them. Incidentally students should not be afraid to say no to a placement offer because we can always look at alternatives in due course. If they do not succeed on being placed I would recommend they consider our mainstream volunteer programme or more occasional ad hoc opportunities we can sometimes have for students to get involved.
If you are a student and interested in applying for an IWM student volunteer placement the next application round closes on 24 July 2015. For more information please visit the web site at www.iwm.org.uk and email for an application form to the Volunteer Programme Office at VolunteerLondon@iwm.org.uk.