Working for Imperial War Museums

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 and email for an application form to the Volunteer Programme Office at 


Need skills your course doesn’t give you? Why not volunteer!

How many times have you looked at a job advert that asks for a skill you just don’t have? Or been asked in a job interview about a time you had to work in a team or teach somebody something and you didn’t have a clue how to answer?

As brilliant as your degree is, there will always be some skill that it just doesn’t give you. And that seems to be the time when you see the perfect job for you, only it asks for experiences you just don’t have.

For example, as a scientist how do you show employers you can write really well? Or as a humanities student, how do you demonstrate that you enjoy working with others?  And no matter your degree, how do you show that you have dealt with difficult people? Or helped someone understand a problem?

Volunteering is a brilliant way to fill these gaps in your CV. Whatever it is you feel you’re lacking, you can always find a way to find that skill or experience with volunteering.


Depending what you do, volunteering can be as committed or as easy-going as you would like. You can always find something that will fit around your other commitments, and you can always find something that you will enjoy. And it is a great stepping-stone to getting paid work somewhere.

At Queen Mary, you have a few options when it comes to volunteering. You can talk to QMSU Volunteering to see what they have available, from exciting one-off projects to more continual schemes. QMSU Volunteering do a range of checks on the organisations they promote to ensure that will be good quality as well as safe and secure roles for students. They also have a good working relationship with Team London so if you cannot find an appropriate placement through their service they work with them to do so. You can also check out QProjects – the Careers Centre’s very own organisation to help students do meaningful projects in charities for a set time and gain valuable work experience. 

Whatever you enjoy doing, or feel you need experience in, there will be an organisation you can volunteer for. And of course, you can always chat to a Careers Consultant if you’re not sure how volunteering can help your job prospects.

Making the most of your summer

So the sun is (finally) here and while you may be busy thinking of your forthcoming exams, summer holidays will soon be upon us. So why not take some time to contemplate how to make the most of your summer?

Volunteering – not only can you develop essential skills like team work, communication and leadership, but you can get a warm feeling inside knowing you are helping others! Volunteering also demonstrates to future employers that you are the kind of person who likes to get stuck in and help when there is a problem.

Interning – being an intern is a great way of getting your foot in the door of a company/industry. Doing an internship increases your likelihood of getting hired by that employer when you apply for a permanent job, because you already know the way the organisation works and have proven your abilities.

Working – don’t despair if you have to spend your holidays working to support yourself. The skills you gain from your summer job are not to be underestimated. The summer is also a perfect opportunity to see if you can take on more responsibility or learn about other areas of the business, perhaps by work shadowing a manager for example.

Learning – although you may not feel like doing anymore studying after your exams, these few weeks away from university are a great chance to learn the things you don’t get to do on your course. So you could do a language course, take art classes, improve your IT skills or take up a sport. There are hundreds of online courses (Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCS) which are free and allow you to learn all sorts of weird and wonderful things. And since employers always like candidates who are interesting you will be developing your employability too.

Home or Away? – whether you want to work, play, learn or help, you can find lots of opportunities both in the UK and abroad. If you are thinking or working or volunteering abroad, you will need to think about issues such as money, insurance, healthcare and personal safety.

Useful websites:

Careers Tagged: Use your QM log in details to access a database of thousands of resources. Type in key words like ‘volunteering abroad’ and you can narrow your search by typing in the name of a country or industry.

Go Abroad: Database of lots of different opportunities to work or volunteer abroad. Go Abroad even do some checks on the organisations they advertise.

JobOnline: Hundreds of jobs and internships are advertised here.

Coursera: A website with details of hundreds of MOOCS. Simply search by key word or catergory.

Ways to make the most of your summer if you don’t have a job

Tempting as it is to lie in the back garden (or possibly not given the recent weather in London!), there are plenty of ways to make the most of next few weeks, if you don’t have a job lined up.

1. Volunteer. There will be plenty of opportunities across London and in your local area – a good place to start is and don’t forget QMSU Volunteering have opportunities for this coming summer, including Bow Foodbank and Oxfam among others.

2. Pick up some work experience: ask around to see if you can wheedle some work experience. Your filing and tea making capacities might be tested to the limit, but grit your teeth and get on with it.  It ain’t what you do, it’s what you learn and observe on the way that counts.

4. Study: Local universities and colleges will be offering summer courses galore, so how about working on your web skills, embracing entrepreneurship or learning another lingo?

5. CV: dig out that dog-eared document and update and upgrade it.  If not now, when?

6. (Optional): Polish your halo.

Gill Sharp
Careers Consultant
QM Careers

Student Story: Volunteering with QMSU

To highlight the value of volunteering – how it is great for your CV AND your social life, as well as being rewarding, we asked one of our student journalists to tell us about his experience…

“With the employment market in a pretty dire state, I knew I needed “that something extra” which would make me stand out in the saturated graduate pool. Volunteering was the perfect way to do this.

The skills that employers look for can be gained through volunteering. Whether it is building on your team working skills through cleaning out the Regent’s Canal with a group of other volunteers, or improving your time management by working volunteering around your learning schedule, volunteering is a great way to prepare you for the world of work. AND it looks great on CVs and applications.  In my role at Team Provide, which is a group of students that lead QM’s volunteering service Provide, I have gained invaluable leadership and communication skills. This was mainly through leading groups on various volunteering events, and even recruiting volunteers on campus.

Networking is another highly important factor to consider when preparing for your life as a graduate. Volunteering may be seen as an unlikely way of networking, unless you want to work in the Charity sector. This couldn’t be further from the case. I have volunteered on events where I have met employees from the Bank of England, PwC, Standard Chartered, Shell, Balfour Beatty, and various public sector organisations. They were full of praise for student volunteers, and have reiterated how volunteering makes a candidate more desirable.

Throughout my time as a volunteer, I met so many different students that I would not have otherwise met. Today, some of my best friends I met through volunteering. The various volunteering activities that I participated in were also extremely fun; dashing through the Kensington Olympia with a trolley collecting as many toys as possible was a personal highlight. These toys were then donated to the children’s charity, Barnardos. To sum it up, I was having a laugh with my mates, and all for a good cause. What else can I say!

If you do anything this year, show that you can use your initiative and undertake some form of voluntary work. Provide is the best hub for you to begin exploring different volunteering opportunities in London. Check out the website at and sign up today. Go on, your CV needs you!”

Emmet McCallion
3rd year Business Management