You know ‘Engagement Volunteering’ in Salisbury Museum’s new Wessex Gallery is going to be a lot of fun when a little girl orders you to come with her to open cupboards and drawers. It gets better when other visitors enter into the spirit of the occasion and start foraging around themselves while her mother, manoeuvring a large pushchair and sleeping baby, gives you a grateful smile and continues looking at Roman and Saxon jewellery.
Of course, no day is ever the same, and this is what makes volunteering in the Museum so enjoyable. Since starting my morning stints there in July I have pondered with Americans on how 150 years seems like a mere blink of an eye in British history, discussed independence referendums with Canadian visitors, and argued the merits of flint arrowheads with gleeful bloodthirsty boys over the shattered bones of the Neolithic Archer.
It is gratifying to see people’s eyes widen with admiration as they walk through the door of the gallery for the first time. Visitors who knew it during its past life often express pleased surprise at the change, and new visitors love the idea of 500,000 years of history being displayed in such a hands-on and modern way including one of the best collections of the Stonehenge era. The cupboards and drawers are a great hit – and children are particularly taken with the ‘horrible history’ cupboards.
I’m sure that all the volunteers privately have their own favourite sections. Mine is definitely the more ‘modern’ era – Norman and Anglo Saxon, with a dash of Roman thrown in – and I find it hard to let anyone by-pass the wonderful ‘garderobe’ drawer filled with extraordinary every-day items from Old Sarum. But I have also benefited from listening to my fellow workers as they knowledgably discuss the making and firing of burial urns or the best places for finding ancient flints and axe heads. And the word hypocaust, hitherto completely unknown to me, has now become part of my vocabulary – a Roman system of underfloor heating, in case you were wondering . . .
It can be a fine line gauging the attitudes of visitors and how much they actually want to be ‘engaged’ with. After an initial welcome and a quick introduction to what the gallery has to offer, some people will immediately start asking questions and happily continue the conversation as they traverse around; others will nod politely and then firmly turn their backs with slightly hunched shoulders. The hint, but definitely no offence, is taken!
I will never forget the charming woman who came in, and leaning heavily on her stick rather out of breath, told me she was looking for her neighbour. I looked around slightly helplessly when she laughed and informed me he was in the far corner lying down in one of the glass cabinets. It turned out she had made the journey especially to see the Amesbury Archer who had been discovered very close to her house in Boscombe Down.
In his book, Notes from a Small Island, published nearly 20 years ago, Bill Bryson wrote: “Salisbury Museum is outstanding and I urge you to go there at once. I hadn’t intended to linger, but it was packed with diverting Roman oddments, old pictures and little scale models of Old Sarum and the like, for which I am always a sucker”.
All those and so much more are now displayed beautifully in the new Wessex Gallery, so Mr Bryson, do come for another visit, you will be blown away. And I or one of my Engagement Volunteer colleagues would be only too happy to show you around!