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The Lewis Chessmen/ The Easter Island statues

Bridget Telfer, the museum’s Volunteer Co-ordinator, was involved in a Knowledge Exchange programme (kindly supported by the Vivmar Foundation) with the British Museum. Concluding her fascinating story of her experiences there…

Some amazing facts were given during the tour: I learnt that the Lewis Chessmen had been dated to 1150 due to the bishop’s hat: before 1150 the style of the bishop’s hat would have covered his ears. Also, that there were originally 887 Easter Island sculptures, all made of volcanic rock. However the volcanoes are at either end of the island, and not in the middle where the statues are: the statues would most likely have been moved on wooden rollers – similar to those used to move the sarsen stones at Stonehenge.

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One of the British Museum’s handling desks

The other large public programme that the British Museum runs using volunteers is their handling desks. There are seven desks situated in galleries around the museum which are manned by volunteers daily from 11am-4pm. Having trialled this ourselves at Salisbury Museum this summer we know what a wonderful tool it is for engaging the public – and being a smaller more flexible museum, we were able to do it in a different way than they do at the British Museum. Rather than having static desks with a generic handling collection, where each volunteer has access to the same artefacts; at Salisbury Museum we were able to build the programme around the volunteers’ individual interests. So, our volunteers stated their areas of interest or expertise to Adrian, the director, and he was able to select suitable artefacts for them to use. Temporary handling stations were then set up in the relevant area of the museum to the topic they were talking about. However, the British Museum model is impressive – and perhaps a more sustainable and less time intensive (for staff) approach for developing the programme down the line for Salisbury Museum.

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Currency to handle on one of the British Museum’s handling desks

I was also impressed by the actual physical desks that the British Museum use for their handling programme. Purpose built (and no doubt pretty expensive) desks with padded tops and lips to stop any artefacts slipping off; pull-out draws within the desks to store the artefacts within; a high security locking system for when the desks are not manned; cupboard doors that open out to form barriers to members of the public – this helps to ensure the safety of the artefacts as visitors can only access them from the front of the desk and the volunteer can stay in control of a group as they cannot swarm behind them; and the desks are accessible for wheelchair users or smaller visitors such as children. Again, the knowledge of the volunteers manning the desks was impressive. I really liked the way the volunteers are trained to begin discussions – using questions or ‘games’ to engage the visitor, rather than facts. So, with the coins pictured above I was immediately invited to pick them up and try and guess which was the oldest object. Facts came later.

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The British Museum touch tour

I also enjoyed finding out about the British Museum’s touch tours for visually impaired visitors. With accessibility often being on our minds at Salisbury Museum, and having developed audio described tours for our ‘Constable in Context’ exhibition, it is always interesting to see what other museums offer and what the uptake is. At present the BM’s touch tour is solely around the Egyptian Sculpture gallery – visitors can download the content onto their phones; or do a self-led trail using large print guides; or opt for a volunteer lead tour. Obviously, we don’t have such an array of large scale stone sculptures at Salisbury Museum, that lend themselves to touch and do not easily deteriorate – but it did make me wonder whether we have some more durable artefacts that could go on open display for visitors to touch. Being able to engage more of the senses is not only beneficial to visually impaired visitors, but to all visitors alike – it means you not only visualise the artefact you are learning about, but also feel its texture, material and temperature.

The remainder of the time at the British Museum was spent in useful discussions on subjects such as youth volunteering; volunteer recruitment, selection and training; data protection; other volunteer roles that they have at the museum such as in collections, communities, events and the portable antiquities scheme; and different ways to say thank you to our numerous volunteers. Despite the different volunteering programmes between the two institutions, there were so many overlaps in the work that we do – and finding a way to thank our volunteers for their dedication and hard work was definitely something that both establishments were working hard to achieve. Overall the week at the British Museum was thought provoking; challenging; and hugely rewarding – having this experience will I am sure benefit both Salisbury Museum and my own professional development – and be an experience that will stay with me for a long time.

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Francesca Goff, the British Museum’s Volunteer Manager during her week at Salisbury Museum

And of course we have since also hosted Francesca Goff, The British Museum’s Volunteer Manager, for a week at Salisbury Museum. She had an interesting week immersing herself in the life of the museum and got to meet many of our volunteers. More about Francesca’s week soon…..

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