My experience in virtual volunteering: how this growing trend can benefit people and museums

During the Covid-19 pandemic, virtual volunteering has experienced a rapid growth in popularity on a global scale. Many museums have begun extending their networks by creating new digital roles that have allowed volunteers to give their support from the safety of their own homes. But in what way is this new form of volunteering beneficial to museums and, accordingly, to society?

In this article I will try to answer this question by reflecting on my work as a remote volunteer.

About a year ago, I started my experience as a Collections Digitisation Volunteer at the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) located in Stowmarket, Suffolk. The role was virtual and open to international applicants, which represented a great way to collaborate on the museum’s initiatives directly from home. Joining the Collections Team was certainly an opportunity to become more competent in the museum field, especially for those interested in improving their career development. But it was also an occasion to give assistance to the Staff members of the MEAL and do something meaningful for the whole community.

Abbots Hall, at the Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk (Photo by Martinevans123)

The voluntary role was part of the ongoing “Search for the Stars” project consisting in the enhancement of a free, public, digital catalogue of all the museum’s collection objects which fully reflect the diverse social history of Suffolk. The main goal of this programme is, in fact, to provide an online community resource where historical objects and the stories connected to them can be shared with as many people as possible. In this regard, the museum hopes to take the collection to the public as well as to bring the public to the museum on the grounds that in the rural area many people struggle to make a physical, on-site visit.

Another aspect of this approach concerns the improvement of the collections management. Therefore, after an initial training on the use of the museum database volunteers started helping the team get all the collection records online. We had to transfer data from index cards to the web-based collections management system, along with checking and updating the records already included in the database. This type of work required a lot of patience and accuracy, but it was extremely useful to explore in detail items of great historical value such as steam engines, farming tools, documents, clothing or home furnishings. It was hard to get bored throughout the whole process since there was always something new to learn and dive into. Plus, making collections accessible through website turned out to be an effective way to introduce the objects to the public and divulge their history. As a result of the cataloguing work, since the beginning of the pandemic the MEAL has registered an upsurge in the number of records viewable online; in fact, from only 606 live records this time last year there has been a jump to 7,867 of records publicly available.

Some highlights from the museum collection (Photo by Museum of East Anglian Life, CC-BY-NC)

Along with expanding the digital archive of the museum, we also had the task to identify objects with potentially gripping stories which had previously been overlooked — the so-called “star objects”. On the basis of our own knowledge, interests and creativity we had to highlight, research and write about some of the key-objects that seemed to be particularly suitable for future exhibitions or further studies. More specifically, we had to analyse objects that could have a link to two main projects which the museum has been currently working on.

The first one is called “Fake News in the Age of the Horse”, a travelling exhibition relating to the spread of information and ideas before digital technology, with a focus on rural East Anglia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The purpose is to use the collections to reveal the means through which news and gossip travelled to villages and hamlets, connecting communities before the advent of the digital age, and accordingly to challenge people today to think critically about the reliability of contemporary stories and histories.

The second and more ambitious project refers instead to the future transformation of the institution into the first national Food Museum, a gateway for understanding the food inheritance of the region. In this respect, studying the collection objects allows to throw light upon stories of agricultural labourers and artisans alongside the stories of remarkable innovations and inventions in farming, to highlight the role of Stowmarket as a growing market town and also to convey the day-to-day experience of cooking and eating in the home. In addition, it allows to look back at a horse-powered economy and forward to the sustainability challenges that could be faced in the future.

Learning about both projects before starting the research work provided all volunteers with a clear insight into what the museum vision was and what type of information was worth sharing with the public. The aim is to give people a free access to the historical reports posted online, to foster a deeper connection with the museum collection, and to motivate present and future audiences to look into the rural history of East Anglia. Even in this case we received training on the methods, tips and sources to use when researching and writing about the “star objects”. Looking up the stories behind the collections contributed to the reassessment of items that had previously been overlooked — not only were the main functions of the objects highlighted, but also the social and historical context in which they were used, including the people involved and the events that were somehow related to them.

Thanks to this virtual volunteering, hundreds of passionate and knowledgeable people from every part of the world have come together for a common purpose. The constant support from the Collections Team and the curator of the museum, who have always made sure to update us on the progress of each activity through regular emails, monthly updates and newsletters, has encouraged us to do our best when carrying out tasks. But most of all it has made us feel part of a big family despite the distance and the online working.

Some members of the volunteering team (Photo by Museum of East Anglian Life, CC-BY-NC)

This sense of belonging and the great enthusiasm for helping the museum accomplish its goals have made the experience really fulfilling. As remarked at the beginning of this article, it has represented a precious chance to grow professionally. But it has been even more than that since the remote aspect of the role has enabled the museum to reach people locally, nationally and internationally, becoming a point of reference for the worldwide community. This has significantly impacted on the museum’s performance, generating a remarkable increase in engagement with the projects — since the first lockdown in the UK, over 156 new volunteers have joined the MEAL, with 80% of these falling in the 20–34 age group, compared to 50% of volunteers in this age group prior to Covid-19.

In light of the above, virtual volunteering can really open museums to new growth opportunities, especially in terms of visibility and community engagement. On one side, it enables anyone to be personally involved in the museum programmes on a global scale — even though remotely. It inspires people to learn what museums are like from the inside and raises awareness for a specific cause. On the other side, this form of volunteering ensures audience development by promoting public understanding of the cultural heritage of a territory, and facilitates the connection of museums with wider and diverse audiences.

Chiara Brancato

BA Classics; MA Classical Archaeology; Post Master’s Vocational Course in Management of Cultural Heritage; Qualification in the Promotion of Cultural Heritage for Enterprises and the Territory.

Chiara Brancato is an Italian budding museum professional, a volunteer at the Museum of East Anglian Life and the creator of the Instagram page @artandcultureaddict. Through her studies and work experience, she grew a passion for art, history, archaeology and traveling. Her biggest career goal is to work in museums on an international level, possibly in curating. She sees museums as unique places where intercultural dialogue, social cohesion and tolerance are made possible.

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