Category Archives: Volunteering

Behind-the-scenes on a Monday!

Have you ever wondered what staff do when the museum is closed on a Monday? We’re busy behind the scenes, making sure our collections are documented and cared for.

An important job to complete when the Museum is closed to visitors is routine cleaning of the museum’s permanent displays. Volunteers are helping curatorial staff to clean objects on display, a few cases at a time. This not only keeps the displays looking good, but also prevents potentially harmful dust particles accumulating on fragile objects, and allows curatorial staff to check for signs of corrosion and other problems.

Objects are carefully removed from the case to a table covered with acid-free tissue paper. Here they can be examined and very gently brushed to remove dust particles. The nozzle of the special mini-vacuum cleaner, designed for museum conservation, is held just above the object to remove any loose dust without touching fragile surfaces. Once the case interior has also been cleaned, everything can by placed back on display and the case secured. It can take about an hour to do a medium-sized show case.

Volunteer Joanne has been helping our curator Carolyn to clean the archaeology displays. So far, we are about half way round the gallery. In the case behind Joanne are some of the beautiful Roman glass vessels, pottery and metal objects used by and buried with local people over 1,800 years ago, at Little Walden, Canfield, Bartlow and Stebbing.

Other curatorial staff work in our off-site store with volunteers on a Monday. Here, we add and edit information about the collection onto our collections management database, making sure we know exactly what we have in the collection and where it is! This has been particularly important in the aftermath of our store-move, as the locations of all the objects moved (about 80,000 objects in total) needed to be updated! Every object has a separate record on the database, with information about its history, provenance, significance and physical appearance. 

As we work through the collections systematically, adding information to the database, we check the condition of our objects and identify any conservation work that needs to be done. Our new store has helped dramatically with this process as we now have the space to store our objects in a more visible way and to lay out objects so that they can be inspected. 

Whether they are on display, or cared for in our stores, our collections are at the heart of the museum. It is vitally important that we take the time to care for them properly, so that they are preserved for people to enjoy long into the future. 

My Museum – Vicky Geddes

My Museum shares the experiences of our staff, volunteers and interns of working at Saffron Walden Museum. Vicky volunteered at the museum for 10 weeks over the summer of 2016.

“I volunteered at the museum once a week, from early July to September, to get work experience, as I’d love to work in heritage once I finish my degree. I was limited for time at the museum this summer as I have to return to university, but I hope I will be able to return to the museum at some point in the future.

I volunteered with Leah Mellors, the Collections Officer (Human History), working with the social history collection at the museum. My work involved going through boxes of objects and cataloguing them onto the database, then packing them correctly into their boxes and storing them in the social history store. While at the museum I worked through dozens of boxes and catalogued over 70 items onto the database! This process helps to give museum staff a more accurate idea of what is kept in storage and makes sure that objects are being properly cared for.

I am currently studying history at undergraduate level and I have a real love of social history and getting to grips with how people lived in the past. I found my work at the museum fascinating because I was able to interact first-hand with objects that people actually used in the past; for example, I catalogued a ‘grisset pan’, which is a kind of bowl used to melt animal fat to create candles in a technique dating back to medieval times. History in general fascinates and excites me, and being able to hold items in my hands brings history to life in a truly unique way.

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1920s metal toaster

As part of the project I worked on, I searched for interesting items that have been hiding in the museum stores so that more people can get an idea of how many fascinating objects are sitting behind closed doors. Some of my favourite items include a rare metal toaster dating from the 1920s and a toy sewing machine from the 1950s. As well as cataloguing them, I picked some of the most interesting objects, researched them, wrote a short history of them and photographed them: these will then be uploaded into the ‘collections’ section of the website.

My experience at the museum was absolutely fascinating, as I never knew what I would discover with every box I delved into. I’ve learnt about things I had never heard of before and actually got to handle them. So much is hiding behind the doors of the museum stores and I hope that once I finish my degree I can return to the museum to see what else I discover.”

My Museum: Emma Bastin

My Museum shares the experiences of our staff, volunteers and interns of working at Saffron Walden Museum. Emma is a Collections Volunteer, working with our social history collections.

“I’m a fairly new volunteer at the museum – I’ve only been coming in since May – but in that time I’ve had a great exposure in the workings of a local museum and the great collections that Saffron Walden Museum has.

I am a collections volunteer and I work with Leah, Collections Officer (Human History). I come in once a week and spend the day cataloguing social history objects that the museum keeps in its stores.  I am currently working through one of the museum’s stores, writing descriptions of each item for the museum database, and re-organising the way items are stored.  This is mainly re-packing in acid free tissue paper, labelling the item correctly and storing it in a cardboard box.  Each box is labelled and linked back to the database, so we know exactly where we can find each item, be it Renaissance armour, a copper tap or a Victorian lawnmower.80210-A

I’ve always loved learning about history and the museum gives me a great opportunity to encounter and handle historical objects, from the banal (a selection of nails) to the wonderful (a World War I periscope for looking over the top of the trenches).  I remain impressed by the sheer variety of the objects that have been donated, loaned or bought over the last 181 years.

Leah has also asked me to choose and write about the Object of the Month for September, which I am currently working on.  I think the item I have chosen is brilliant – not least because I had no idea what it was when I first saw it! To find out more, check the blog or come and have a look in the Great Hall in September.”