This Summer, the Museum had its first ever student volunteer week. The idea was to see whether a structure could be devised which could practically benefit the museum whilst providing a rich and engaging set of useful activities for the students.
The guinea pigs for this first set of ‘interns’ were self-selecting. As with many young people, Emily, Ben and Harold had sent out e-mails to a variety of museums and other institutions in the vain hope that someone might respond. Happily, this coincided with Trustees decision to investigate getting student help with some of our larger conservation projects around their collection, which the limited time of our regular volunteer staff could not address. The intention was very much to offer hands-on, genuine activities to the students that would expand their understanding of conservation and archiving rather than ‘shadowing’ activities they might be offered elsewhere. The students had a varied background, while all had roots in the local area. Emily is a 6th Form Student at school in Otford; Ben a dual nationality high school student from Los Angeles who lives part time in Dormansland; and Harold is a first year degree student from Edenbridge, studying at the University of Kent.
Harold takes up the story of his week with the museum.
“I was keen to get involved with a week of volunteering with the museum largely due to my interest in the development of the military over the past couple of hundred years. I had been to the museum prior to volunteering and found the collection of weapons, uniforms, models and medals etc. fascinating.
“On the Monday, we travelled to the National Army Museum, London, to look at their conservation activities. This day was more educational than practical, as we were given a tour of the archives. We learnt about the fragility of the artefacts, in that minor variations in temperature and humidity can be damaging over time, and thus must be strictly controlled within the archive. We were also given time to look around the museum to see the wide range of exhibits.
“As a project, at the beginning of the week we were given original photograph albums from the archives taken by members of 3rd County of London Yeomanry ‘Sharpshooters’ during the Second World War. On the Tuesday and Wednesday we were tasked with identifying each photo and annotating a computer file which will make it easier to search for images without having to handle the original photograph. Each picture had been scanned, and the appropriate captions was copied from the photograph album. The albums were really interesting. There were photos from numerous campaigns throughout the war as well as some of other activities that the Sharpshooters participated in like sports and day-to-day life. Perhaps the most interesting section was from the campaign in North Africa. For example, there was a photo of the view from the top of the pyramids. The Sharpshooters were also involved in the invasion of Sicily, Italy and Northwest Europe. There were photos of ongoing battles as well as the aftermath. The captions besides the photos often described the objectives of the Sharpshooters, even stating which buildings were used for cover etc. Some of the photos were more macabre, featuring dead enemy soldiers. The captions also stated if the men pictured had been killed in action. This activity was very interesting from a historical standpoint, and also served to give insight into the personal lives of soldiers during the Second World War, both in and out of battle.
“The Thursday involved looking through the store rooms in Hever Castle to identify artefacts that had not been accessioned or which could not be correctly identified on the museum’s database. We found an array of different artefacts, largely dating from WW2 and some from before. Some of these I found particularly interesting, such medical supplies, and various items of equipment. We were also shown conservation techniques, for example how to clean and preserve items such as swords and leather scabbards. I was tasked with restoring the look of the scabbard by applying wax to return some moisture to the leather. I also used a smoke sponge to remove dirt and mould from uniforms and berets. These tasks were clearly very much hands-on, and provided further insight into the ways in which the museum conducts conservation. We also began to photograph an array of different artefacts which we completed on the Friday morning.
“The Friday consisted almost entirely of a project to recreate and improve the museum's method of recording and labelling uniform collection. This involved working with a vast range of different uniforms, from formal evening dress to overalls worn by tank crews. We helped to conserve these by removing dirt, and replacing their worn covers with new conservation grade covers. Each uniform was photographed form different angles, sometimes modelled on a helper, and re-recorded. This was a fairly large exercise and took most of the day, but also demonstrated the detailed work that goes into museum conservation.
“Overall, I found the week to be very engaging, in that it allowed us to really get involved in museum activates and work with artefacts – some of which were over 100 years old. We were able to work with a wide range of different artefacts and got to know some of the human stories behind them. The volunteering would certainly benefit anyone with an interest in history, the military, or museum conservation.”
Clearly, from Harold’s description, the week achieved its goals for the student volunteers. From the Museum’s point of view the week was invaluable. Many artefacts in the store had been in dire need of attention, cleaning and a proper level of protection. This could only be achieved with a group effort which would be impossible in normal operations. It was very fortunate that the students proved to be quick learners and that they were able to apply their learned tasks with skill and enthusiasm.
The success of the programme means that planning is already in hand for next year’s volunteers. If any sixth form or university students are interested in joining the programme in summer 2018, please email our curator Dan Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have a limited number of spaces, and will give priority to students who live locally to our museum.