APAC Symposium: Supporting Our Collections – The Value of Volunteers

Report by Fabiana Barticioti

APAC’s second annual symposium, held 4 July 2016, focused on the work of volunteers in heritage collections. Attended by 25 members and non-members, the symposium was hosted at the Bristol Old Vic (BOV) in the morning and at the University of Bristol Theatre Collections in the afternoon.

The day started with a comprehensive tour of all areas of the BOV, which is undergoing major refurbishment. We had an opportunity to experience the stall seats (renamed the pit as originally intended); sit on the original benches, which have been kept in a small section of the gallery; and walk old passages backstage, now are accessible for the first time in decades. Amongst many interesting facts, we learned that the original auditorium and stage have undergone some enlargement and restoration in the past, but their main structure and fabric are original from 1766, surviving fires and city centre developments.

The symposium opened with the presentation ‘What Makes for a Sustainable Volunteer Programme?’ by Eleanor Moore, the Sustainable Volunteering Officer of South West Museum Development. Moore talked about planning and delivering a successful programme at the strategic level. She discussed the profiles of volunteers working in museum and heritage centres, drawing on the 2015 final report of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Aging. Moore argued that volunteer commitment may be motivated by a sense of achievement, being affiliated to an institution, or having a sense of power over other individuals. She pointed out that managing volunteers successfully involves keeping communication and engagement open with them, in addition to offering support.

Moore strongly recommended evaluation procedures to help inform forward planning. Many volunteers programmes, particularly those externally funded, are required to demonstrate impact in qualitative terms – a subject which keeps propping up in conferences. What I found most useful were her thoughts on policy writing, inviting us to consider creating appropriate, varied, and interesting roles for volunteers within our institutions’ policies for facilities, personnel, and budgets.

The second presentation, ‘Protecting and Sharing the Heritage of Britain’s Oldest Theatre’, was given by a panel of speakers: Emma Stenning, Chief Executive, and Lucy Hunt, Outreach Producer, both from BOV, and Jo Elsworth, Director of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. They talked about the BOV’s Heritage Lottery Fund project and its plans to bring the theatre’s heritage and history to life.

The archive strand of the project aims at uniting intellectually the Bristol Old Vic Archive (held at the university’s Theatre Collection) and the Theatre Royal Bristol Archive (held by the Bristol Record Office). The development phase included appraising and creating box surveys, and in the second stage, due to start in October 2016, both archives will be catalogued.

The project includes a volunteer programme delivered by a coordinator. One of the requirements from HLF is that the volunteer profile be expanded to non-theatre and heritage enthusiasts. As a response, the project team created the 1st Friday Scheme, which sees 30 volunteers assisting in ongoing activities, and a one-off ‘Wrapathon’ when volunteers wrapped up a large number of glass plate negatives. Another volunteer strand in the project is the Heritage Ambassadors, which may include curatorial and public-facing roles.

After we all took a short walk around the hilly streets of Bristol to reach the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Catherine White from the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds gave the talk ‘Houdini and Hobnobs – Working with Archives and Volunteers’. During a restoration project of the music hall in 2009, a large amount of archival material was discovered and handed over to the Learning Department. Overwhelmed by the wealth of the materials and the prospects of using them to inform the celebrations of the music hall’s 150th anniversary this year, the Learning team started organising the archives.

Without in-house expertise, they sought advice on archival handling and management from the West Yorkshire Records Office and established a volunteer programme to help deliver the work. They have engaged a small group of volunteers, initially recruited by the local network of museums, archives, and universities. Gradually the music hall’s collection of show programmes is being arranged chronologically and catalogued in Excel spreadsheets. The volunteers have developed skills in database creation and maintenance, theatre history, project documentation and archival handling. In her experience, White said, the social aspects of volunteer meetings play a great part in keeping them interested in returning every week; the group offers fellowship, mutual support, and camaraderie.

A different type of volunteering all together was presented by Dr Toni Sant, Reader in Digital Curation at the University of Hull’s School of Drama, Music & Screen. In his paper ‘Which Volunteer Strategies are Most Effective for Digital Preservation of Performing Arts Materials?’ Sant introduced the collaborative methodologies and enabling technologies he has used in the Malta Music Memory Project (M3P) and a project with the Open Preservation Foundation to establish a workflow model for audio CD preservation.

M3P, a multimedia database of Maltese music and associated arts, uses the Wikimedia Foundation’s MediaWiki crowdsourcing software to gather contributions of thousands of volunteers, as demonstrated by an impressive array of figures. M3P holds memories on 2,011 topics contributed by 417 registered users, 900 subject categories, 5,145 pages in wiki and 30,267 page edits. For me, one of the key points of Sant’s talk was that he is able to combine efforts across projects by consolidating and capitalising on existing platforms, for example, using Wikimedia’s technology and volunteer business model to deliver these projects.

The last presentation was ‘Assisting Albert Hall’s Archive – How Volunteers Have Brought to Life the Royal Albert Hall’s History’ given by RAH’s archivist, Liz Harper. Over the past five years, many collections have been catalogued and published online at the RAH website, Archives Hub, and AIM25. The rich theatre programme collection has been digitised, although not available online due to copyright restrictions. Nonetheless, the digitisation project has allowed collaborations within RAH’s departments and enhanced response to researchers.

In order to deliver these projects, Harper created a volunteer programme offering hands-on experience in advance of an archive qualification. One of the volunteers was offered a paid archive assistant role and went on to get a qualification in an Archives Management course. This positive experience with volunteers in the archives instigated a culture change at RAH, which is now offering a full-time apprenticeship. Harper also pointed out that the archive now has a student cataloguing placement and that having a team of volunteers enabled her to deliver outreach activities.

In an interesting and informative day, the symposium paid deserved tribute to the work of volunteers and their transformative role within performing arts collections.

An individual member of APAC, Fabiana Barticioti has worked in the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance and The Royal Ballet School Collections. She is currently Assistant Archivist at the London School of Economics Archives.

Presentations to Download