My week at the British Museum, by The Salisbury Museum’s Volunteer Co-ordinator Bridget Telfer – Part One


I returned from my Knowledge Exchange placement at the British Museum just over three weeks ago – and what a fabulous and inspiring time away in one of the world’s top museums! Knowledge Exchange is a British Museum programme developed to support staff exchanges with museums, galleries and heritage organisations across the UK, enabling staff to share best practice and support their individual professional development. This year the British Museum worked with seven partners on this scheme – and Salisbury Museum was lucky enough to be one of them.

The week was a whirlwind of meetings with different British Museum staff who work with volunteers across the museum. Based in the Volunteers’ Office there was an immediately interesting comparison between their staffing levels – with almost the equivalent of five full time members of staff at the British Museum (albeit with a couple on short term contracts) in comparison to my 2.5 days a week at Salisbury. But although we vary somewhat in size and resources (the British Museum has c600 volunteers and c900 staff; and Salisbury Museum c230 volunteers and c18 staff) there were many shared positive experiences and challenges in working with volunteers.

I was hugely impressed by their programme of volunteer led public tours and by the level of knowledge of the volunteers who guided the eye-opener tours on Ancient Greece and Egypt that I attended. These are 30-minute free guided tours that focus on an individual gallery. The British Museum have a small army of 150 volunteers that lead these tours – 15 eye-opener tours take place each day across an array of galleries and subjects 7 days a week. That’s 5,475 eye-opener tours a year!


And then you also have the volunteer led Highlights Tour that takes place daily. A whistle-stop tour of the entire museum over an hour and a half – no mean feat for a volunteer tour leader to not only have this expanse of knowledge but to also be able to navigate a large group through a busy museum. Their delivery is helped by the expensive sound system that the British Museum has invested in – which means that every tour member has a set of headphones and can clearly hear the tour leader even if they are some distance away – a necessary piece of equipment as some of the more popular galleries are very busy and noisy with school groups and other visitors.

The volunteer staff team invest heavily in the training of their tour volunteers – and this is immediately apparent when on one of these tours. Each volunteer goes through a programme of training which includes shadowing other experienced volunteers leading tours; training on how to deliver a tour and issues that can arise; curatorial sessions with the British Museum curators; individual sessions with volunteer staff to work on the script; and then leading practice tours to other new volunteers and staff. All this before they are unleashed on the public!

We will hear more from Bridget next week – a fascinating insight into the working of the British Museum. The Knowledge Exchange programme is kindly sponsored by the Vivmar Foundation.