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Volunteering in lockdown... and looking to the future

I’ve been a volunteer at NESM for nearly three years now, although it’s difficult to count the last ten months as part of that time. Like so many during the Coronavirus pandemic I’ve been unable to travel during the various lockdowns, and the museum has sadly been closed to visitors for much of the last year anyway. There are just a few members of Team NESM that have remained busy behind the scenes, revamping the public galleries and archive stores (to the degree that I barely recognised our Main Display gallery during one of my inter-lockdown visits last summer).

But as a member of the collections team, it’s been frustrating not to be able to progress with the mammoth task of cataloguing the museum’s archive, particularly when we were just starting to get to grips with this much-needed appraisal.

Volunteer life in lockdown has not, however, been totally devoid of developments. NESM’s management has tried to keep us 'exiles' up to date with developments, some of which have been very positive, from the aforementioned redecoration to the recent grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has been a financial lifeline during the long period of closure.

As we look forward to a time when we can all return to our usual duties, I thought it would be useful to give a quick snapshot of what volunteer life over the last few months has looked like. And, for those of you starting to think about new opportunities when the pandemic finally passes, a little insight into what we will be doing once things get back to normal.

How we’re spending lockdown

One of the brand-new tasks that has kept some of the collections team busy while we stay at home is this very blog. The blog started soon after the first lockdown began last spring and we were all offered the chance to become regular contributors-from-home. There have now been over forty weekly posts on subjects ranging from police forensics to wartime ambulance drivers and 17th Century royal firefighters. Blogging has helped us all keep connected to the museum and its mission, researching little-known tales from the history of the emergency services, learning more as we go along, and hopefully providing a resource of information for the public and for the museum to use in the future. Our Chief Executive, Matt, and Curator, Holly, have also contributed posts that give an insight into their roles as has Paul, one of our learning and discovery co-ordinators, who’s had to find new ways to engage with schools during this strange time. And our PR and marketing co-ordinator Helen has written about the challenges of marketing a museum in lockdown. Hopefully, readers have found the blog interesting (thank you for reading, by the way) and we have certainly found it interesting to write. In addition it has provided us with something to focus on at a time when our usual daily routines have been upended.

We’ve kept ourselves and our blog organised - and importantly kept connected - through occasional video chats. Like the rest of the country - and indeed the world - we at NESM have been getting used to meeting up virtually. I will admit that our discussions tend not to remain strictly work-related but Holly has kept us all up to date with new developments as they’ve arisen, and even given us the odd virtual tour of the museum’s galleries as they have been transformed. Video meetings are no substitute for the real thing, of course, but life would still be a great deal more difficult without them.

Looking forward…

It will probably be a little while yet before our volunteering programme restarts in earnest but now that the Covid vaccine rollout has begun, it’s possible to start thinking about a future beyond the pandemic and what we might be doing when we return to our usual volunteering duties. Some of you may be thinking about volunteering yourselves when the time comes. So, with that in mind, here’s an overview of what volunteering at NESM is usually like.

If you are interested in a career in heritage, or in visitor attractions more broadly, NESM provides great opportunities to gain hands-on experience of museum work. As part of the collections team I’ve been involved in researching, planning and helping to design exhibitions, and have received training in how to handle and care for items in the collection, as well as how to archive correctly. (For anyone interested in collections work, I’ve given a more detailed outline of the role in a blog post here.)

But there are many other roles available at NESM. Those interested in building and maintenance, or in customer service and running a business, might not immediately think of a museum as the place to get experience. Yet our Victorian building is constantly in need of skilled volunteers who can keep it ship-shape and assist in creating the 'sets' for our exhibitions, be these Blitz-era bomb shelters, Victorian apothecaries, or grimy police cells. 'Front-of-house' there are customer service roles on the front desk and in our coffee shop. And if you are interested in events management and organisation, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in our (usually) packed calendar of events on-site and sometimes across the country! And, when things get back to normal, we'll also be looking for volunteers to help manage our ever-growing social media presence. Though, as I’ve said, it is likely to be some time yet before we get back to our usual schedule.

(Main display during lockdown, mid-revamp)

Volunteering is, of course, not always about career progression. Many people like to volunteer their free time simply to 'make a difference' or to indulge an interest or hobby. NESM is largely made up of volunteers and its collection, and the museum as a whole, could not be maintained without their help. As a registered charity devoted to the emergency services, NESM makes a difference in turn to many people, including the visitors and schoolchildren who come to learn about the vital part the services play in our lives. The pandemic has focused attention particularly on our medics and it’s a privilege for NESM to be able to honour the stories of the thousands of ambulance professionals who save lives every day. The museum provides education as well as enjoyment to the community here in Sheffield, and for a small organisation, makes a very big impression.

If you’re a transport enthusiast (by which I really mean someone who loves fire engines and police cars) volunteering here allows you to get up close to the magnificent vehicles on display, helping to clean and maintain them. Or, if you are just interested in history or the emergency services, helping out at NESM could prove time well-spent.

Finally, volunteering here also means joining a dedicated, friendly, and welcoming team. Our lockdown webchats have been as much about keeping in touch on a personal level as on a professional one (okay, maybe more so; there might have been the odd conversation about lockdown TV preferences). Which reminds me: I’ve got several recommended box sets to work through...

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