Volunteering adds a new dimension to life

March 8, 2013 - Sharon Blanchard


Every Museum needs volunteers and we are proud to have many here to share their enthusiasm for our collection. Sharon Blanchard talks about her role as a museum volunteer.

‘What is the name of the house in Bath that is home to an American Museum?’ was one of the questions asked at a recent quiz night in a local pub.  I overheard a chap ask the quizmaster ‘what’s American about it?’ only to be told, rather vaguely, by a clearly under researched quizzer, ‘I think they have a shed in the grounds they reckon was built by George Washington’.

Well yes, there is a ‘shed’  – or more correctly a schoolhouse – in the replica Mount Vernon garden of America’s first president (though not built by him), but boy oh boy there is so much more.

The American Museum, housed in the Georgian house of Claverton Manor, brings to life the cultures, crafts and skills that helped shape the modern USA, through the extraordinary collections of American folk art, furniture, quilts and paintings to be found throughout the house and grounds. It is the only museum dedicated to American decorative arts outside the United States.

I first visited the American Museum in Britain (AMIB), to give the inspiring place its proper title, some 25 years ago.  Last spring, as I cast around for ideas of what to do with my free time now that my children have all left school and those traditional volunteering roles that go hand in glove with being a parent have come to an end, I was reminded of it again.

Over the years I have regularly toyed with the idea of being a guide. Fabulous holidays in Italy and Spain have often been enhanced by the charismatic commentaries of tour guides at iconic places such as the Vatican Museum or Granada’s Alhambra Palace.  Could I possibly have the confidence to give it a go?

So 12 months ago I signed up to be a volunteer room guide at the AMIB and had one of the most fulfilling summers ever. So much so, that I am now stepping up a gear and embarking upon the training programme to be a fully-fledged tour guide, taking groups of visitors around the whole museum.

The AMIB is a very special place. It’s called a museum but really I like to think of it as a series of collections of the decorative arts of America. It’s not a history museum,  although history is inextricably linked with the period room sets which illustrate the development of day to day domestic life in North America from the early days of the colonists to the civil war and beyond.  The struggles of those early settlers and pioneers and the successes of immigrant and home-grown entrepreneurs ooze out of the very fabric of each and every room.

In order to make a visit to the American Museum a poignant yet uplifting experience, which can be greatly enhanced by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, AMIB guides are encouraged to be more than just room stewards. We exist to help ensure every visitor’s experience is a memorable one.  We put the meat on the bones of the visual, hoping to fire the imagination and to give some sense of what life was like in those formative years of the United States.  Most of us take particular pleasure in turning a child’s first experience of a museum into a bit of an adventure – answering questions such as ‘Where’s the TV?’ in the 17C Keeping Room, pointing out the genuine mouse holes in the 18C floorboards, putting granny right when she calls the protective candle box from 1740 the post box or keeping a straight face when being told that an IPod or a mobile phone would definitely have gone into an 18C valuables bag!

We are full of quirky tales and we thrive on a good conversation with a visitor who can often teach us a thing or two, whilst also having the ability to recognise when someone wishes to be left alone with their own thoughts. We hope what visitors see and hear will stay with them long after they have left the building – if so, ours has been a job well done.

For me, enlisting at the American Museum has added a whole new dimension to my life. It’s a chance to spend time in a place I really love, talking to people about times I am passionate about. I never stop learning and there is never a week goes by that I don’t hear myself saying ‘Well I didn’t know that!’ And there’s not a guide on the staff that doesn’t get a buzz when they hear a visitor speak those same words.

Now, an unashamed plug. The AMIB, like many similar organisations, is a registered charity and relies heavily on the support of volunteers in order to even open its doors every day. If you feel you have time on your hands, a love of the past and enjoy meeting and conversing with new people the museum’s Volunteer Co-ordinator would love to hear from you. The house and gardens are open daily between March and November (noon to 5pm), apart from most Mondays (open on Bank Holidays and Mondays in August) and there are opportunities to spend as much or as little time as you are able. Lunch and tea breaks are given within a five-hour session, with free tea or coffee and cookies, and there is free parking on site. Subject to completion of a certain number of sessions, you will also receive 6 complimentary entrance tickets for family and friends and you yourself will have free entry to the museum for as long as you are a guide, along with discounts in the café and store and an annual volunteers’ outing.

If you have already been to the American Museum, I hope you share my enthusiasm. If you haven’t been yet, you are missing a treat. To quote a first time visitor I met on my very first day as a guide: “You are so lucky to work here. I didn’t know this place existed and I’m gobsmacked at just how much is here to see!”

If you would like to discuss becoming a volunteer please contact Ingrid Figuerido on 01225 823017 or email coordinator@americanmuseum.org

One Reply to “Volunteering adds a new dimension to life”

  1. Katy Bursack says:

    Fantastic article!

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