My Amazing Year – A Museum Volunteer’s Journey

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Just over a year ago I stepped into the Department of Zoology reception, to join a number of other people who had turned up for the Volunteer training day. We were lead through the winding corridors down to the underbelly of the building and into the closed, silent gallery. Here we were told that due to the vast number that had turned up wanting to volunteer, not all of us might make the cut. There was noticeable shifting from foot to foot as we all cast nervous, sideways glances at one another, wondering what kind of competition we were up against. For a museum that was closed, there was an awful lot of life going on amongst the skeletons and skins, as over the next few days we learnt about the different specimens we would encounter, best practice for handling and lifting and the safest packing techniques. The training culminated with a grand finale, testing these newly acquired skills by throwing our packed boxes (of charity shop finds, not specimens!) over the mezzanine balcony onto the gallery floor below. Although perhaps unorthodox, this training exercise brought home to us the importance of how specimens are packed and that it could literally make or break the specimen on its journey to new stores over the coming months, but also how integral we were going to be in the story of the redevelopment and the move of four million specimens.

Over the next few months, I started volunteering at the Zoology Museum once a week. At the time I was working full time in retail, not my dream career, but after completing my Masters in Museum Studies, it paid the bills whilst I applied unsuccessfully for job after Museum job. I applied to volunteer at the Zoology Museum to gain some hands on experience with collections to bolster my CV. The other people who volunteered did it for far less selfish reasons; they were retired and had free time, they had an interest in Zoology, they were natural history illustrators, they were people who had visited the museum whilst growing up and wanted to carry on being involved in its story. Their reasons were all different and varied, but they all had one thing in common; they wanted to be part of the Museum’s community, and they all wanted to help.

The next year was a seemingly never ending task of packing, making boxes, supporting and solidifying specimens. We packed skeletons, skulls and skins, Hippopotamus to badgers, taxidermy, birds and jar after jar of spirit specimens, which raised ongoing screams and squeals from us as we tried to guess what manner or creatures were floating inside. Each time we proudly announced we were finished safely housing one animal, another one would be placed in front of us; but we relished it. Each was a chance to get a close look at animals we would otherwise not be able to, we were able to marvel at the science of its skeleton, or the art of its taxidermy, and most importantly we were able to make sure that it was being preserved and saved for the Museum and generations of the future.

We became a little gang ‘The Skeleton Crew’, and looked forward to seeing those that we knew were in on certain days. We helped one another, with questions and ideas, and comradery. One thing is certain, I learnt as much from the volunteers as I did from the staff, and when I was lucky enough to become a member of staff as a Museum Technician at the Museum, this aspect didn’t change.

My incredible year.

My incredible year.

Joining the team at the Museum of Zoology has had a life-changing effect on me. After becoming a trusted (I hope!) volunteer, it was noted that this was something that I seriously wanted to pursue as a career and they did everything they could to help me achieve this. An opportunity arose for me to be taken on as a part time member of staff and so I cut my teeth in the museum field. My role changed slightly, but I learnt so much more of the aspects of museum work, from working on the database and auditing with the Collections Manager Matt, to attending spirit specimen training which the Conservators Natalie and Vicky took time out of their busy schedules to put on for us.

It might be the volunteers that have been given the moniker of ‘The Skeleton Crew’, but it is the Museum staff who live up to this name. The amount of work they have managed to achieve with very few people is staggering. For the massive and important redevelopment that is going on, it is a handful of staff who are constantly working and striving to get it all done, as well as training and keeping an eye on thirty or so volunteers on a building site!

As I write this, it is my last day. The experience and support I have been given here at Zoology both as a Volunteer and as a member of staff, as well as professionally and personally has ultimately helped me to obtain my goal of becoming a full time, permanent member of Museum staff. On Monday, I start my new job as a Museum Technician at the Fitzwilliam Museum. I am in no doubt that I could not have achieved this without everything I have learnt from the staff and Volunteers at Zoology.

My story at the Museum of Zoology may have come to an end, but the Museum’s story continues. The stories of the staff will also endure through the new specimens and displays, and so will those of the Volunteers, currently through the continued care and cleaning of  specimens, but also way past the Museum’s reopening, when they will become responsible for front of house duties, and showing visitors round the Museum that they have proudly been a part of creating for the last three years.

I would like to thank the staff of the Zoology Museum and the Volunteers for the last year, it has been an unforgettable and invaluable experience. I never realised when I signed up to be a Volunteer just how rewarding it would be, on both personal and professional levels. I am in awe of the amount of work you all do and the enthusiasm with which you do it.

Here’s to you, Skeleton Crew!*

Charis Millett

*Since writing this post, The Skeleton Crew have been shortlisted for the ICON Award for Conservation in the Community. Fantastic news! Winner to be announced at a ceremony in London in October.