Volunteering: A World of Opportunity
September 15, 2016 - Stephanie Boxall
Our volunteers are at the very heart of the American Museum. We asked Stephanie Boxall to explain why volunteering here means so much to her.
‘I discovered the American Museum in 2001 while studying in Bath and have loved it ever since. Some years later I moved to Somerset and, while looking for work, I decided to offer the Museum my services as a volunteer.
At first I came in once a fortnight and increased that to once a week. In time my search for paid work was rewarded, but three years on I still jealously guard my day at the Museum – a wonderful oasis in the working week and the chance to spend time in a beautiful, inspiring place with lovely people.
At first I was nervous, thinking I couldn’t possibly learn all there was to know about the place and explain it to visitors, never mind answer all their questions. The truth is even the most experienced guides get questions to which they don’t know the answer, and of course it doesn’t matter. The main thing is to engage with people in a friendly and welcoming way and be willing to find out anything you don’t know.
When you start they ease you in gently. On your first day you are given a guided tour of the Museum and sent home with a folder full of information on every period room and everything in it. To begin with, you ‘shadow’ one or more of the other guides and are given the opportunity to try different rooms. Only when you are comfortable are you left alone in a room – and even then you’re not completely alone: each room has it’s own folder containing all the information you need.
A good trick is to find two or three things in each room that interest you and be able to talk about them. Some visitors prefer to look around quietly, and that’s where an ability to read body language comes in useful. After saying hello, it’s worth waiting a minute or two to see what a visitor is taking an interest in, and using that as an opportunity to start a conversation. You might ask if it’s their first visit to the Museum or if they’d like you to tell them something about the room.
All these things are covered in the training sessions we have in the down season. The first one I went to was coffee and a film showing of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in the Coach House – very enjoyable and a chance to meet some of the other guides. And each year there is also a series of lectures on different aspects of the Museum (including how to read visitors), American history and the day-to-day life of Americans during the period we cover in the house.
As a guide, you build up your knowledge gradually and get to know which rooms you like best. In time, some of the more experienced room guides choose to become tour guides, showing coach parties or other groups of visitors around the house. And it’s not just the house: you can also volunteer in the exhibition, the herb shop or the library, and the Museum is always looking for keen gardeners to help out in its magnificent grounds.
Throughout the year there are also opportunities to get involved in crafting activities, such as yarn bombing at Easter or making decorations for the spectacular tree in the main hall during Christmas at Claverton.
We get good perks too: travelling expenses, two breaks with free tea, coffee and cookies, free parking, free admission to the Museum, complimentary tickets for family and friends, a staff discount in the café and shops, a Christmas party and a summer outing.
One thing about volunteering for the Museum is that no two days are the same. It can be quiet, but there are days when you have so many people in the room you don’t know whom to talk to first. And we have a huge range of visitors: from Americans who are delighted to find this extraordinary piece of Americana nestling in the English countryside, to expert quilters determined to make a beeline for our renowned quilt collection, and small children who – with a bit of help – are enchanted by all the animals they can find hidden in the furniture and paintings. One young visitor said to me recently: “How do you know all this?” which made my day, and also made me realise I’d learned quite a lot while I’d been here without even noticing it.
If you are thinking about volunteering, I would thoroughly recommend the American Museum. It’s a beautiful place in spectacular surroundings with endless opportunities to learn in the company of extremely nice people all doing the same thing. So if you’re interested, please contact the volunteers manager Sharon Blanchard on 01225 823017 or email [email protected]. It might open up a new world.’
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