Count Me In
In 2013-14 the Oxford University Museums Volunteers Service, funded by our Arts Council England MPM grant, introduced a new project Count Me In, a ten week programme which looked to both diversify the Museum of Natural History’s volunteer pool, and supporting adults who face barriers to volunteering at the museums to find out what it is like to volunteer in a museum, gain transferrable skills, build confidence and study for an accredited qualification.
The aims of the project were:
- To engage people who currently experience cultural, social or economic barriers to getting involved with museums (as an extension of our community engagement and outreach priorities)
- To diversify the museums’ volunteers pool
- To help individuals develop transferable skills for future employability, education or volunteering
- To increase access to collections for our visitors by engaging volunteers to deliver activities and object handling
- To provide opportunities for staff professional development
- To develop a model for how this programme could be rolled out across all the Oxford University Museums.
We recruited a project officer worked on the project for 2.5 days a week for 5 months. They managed the participant recruitment process, delivered and coordinated their training, and supported colleagues within the Museum of Natural History in engaging with, motivating and managing their volunteers.
Count Me In participant engaging with the public
When recruiting participants we actively targeted groups that are not well represented in the current volunteer pool through Job Centres, sheltered housing, Children’s Centres, Oxfordshire Learning Network, MIND and refugee and probation services. There was also significant interest from individuals who had been engaged with the museums through our outreach service (also funded by our Arts Council England MPM grant). Eventually 10 individuals were recruited: 4 women, 6 men, ranging in age from 18-65 and none educated to degree level. The group represented an array of barriers including social anxiety, stress-related epilepsy, agoraphobia, depression, Asperger, learning disability and homelessness.
The cohort had three half day sessions a week. In the first they participated in an accredited Customer Service Course by the Oxfordshire County Council. In the second they developed general transferable skills through training sessions, talks by expert speakers, museum visits and advice from professional career development officers. In their third session they participated in a volunteer opportunity within the museum, changing every three week. Opportunities included working with collections in Entomology and Geology, behind the scenes doing office work, in the Library and shop, and working with the public with the Front of House team or delivering object-handling sessions.
Feedback from staff who worked with Count Me In volunteers was overwhelmingly positive, with at least four of the volunteers being offered ongoing opportunities to continue engaging with the museum. All departments involved said that they would offer placements on a similar project again.
This was also a positive outcome for the four volunteers who, as part of the final sections of the programme, identified ways in which the experience had improved their confidence, job prospects and self-esteem. By the end of the course, each participant had overcome a major hurdle. For one, simply turning up regularly and staying the course was a huge achievement; for another, it was eating lunch with the group. Whatever their background and barriers, all participants identified how Count Me In had boosted their self-esteem and given them the impetus to move forward. The most nervous participant, with permanently crossed arms and little eye contact, was dreading the object-handling placements and talking to the public. At the end of his three-week stint, arms were outstretched, eye contact relaxed and he was easily answering children’s questions about the elephant’s tooth. As he said – “Bring it on. I love it.”
‘The most important part of this was just getting out there, and starting something and completing it.’
‘My idea of volunteering in the museum has always intrigued me – I now realize that it was just confidence I lacked to have the courage to ask.’
‘The course helped me get the job I have now.’
All participants said that they would not have volunteered without the structure and support that Count Me In provided, and said that the group dynamic encouraged them to complete the full programme.
‘Great course. Would highly recommend to anyone who is struggling to, you know, ‘life’.’