Since its opening in 1977, Garden Museum has been a place for the gardening community to come together to share their passion. Part of this community includes our dedicated team of volunteers without whose wonderful dedication and commitment the Museum would not have been able to survive. With the HLF redevelopment, money was set aside for a Volunteer Coordinator whose main role would be to bring back this wonderful team, guide it through the changes of the Museum and set up a solid foundation for future teams. I was lucky enough to be chosen for the task and continue doing this with great enthusiasm. Let me explain where this feeling of privilege comes from by introducing our volunteer programme.
The volunteers at the Garden Museum are active throughout the entire organization and make a huge difference. When I started I was blown away by the commitment the volunteers have shown. In particular the team of 32 volunteers who have returned to the Museum after its two year redevelopment. There aren’t many places that can boast that level of dedication. As such, one of my tasks has been to look at ways the Museum is able to show its appreciation to this team. I began by sending out a little survey to get a better perspective of what makes the Museum so special to them, but also to understand what it needs to be even better.
One of the main things that I was told repeatedly was communication – volunteers wanted to be better informed about what was happening in and around the Museum, and to be given the opportunity to offer feedback. Thus was born the Volunteer Update. It currently runs about five to six pages on average, takes me about an hour or two to write up, and discusses just about anything happening in Museum – from our changing exhibitions and events to general maintenance issues and staff projects. Aside from being able to offer feedback verbally and in email form, I also created a volunteer comment book where volunteers can write down any suggestions, comments, or issues they come across.
Something that I was keen to restart was the tradition of taking the volunteers on visits to other places. Knowing most other heritage sites are equally keen on the chance to receive a free tour of a different organisation, I now take the volunteers on monthly visits to museums, gardens, and heritage institutions as part of a reciprocal visit scheme. We have already been given the opportunities to tour places such as Fulham Palace, the Queen’s House, London Metropolitan Archives, Two Temple Place, and many others. These are always a good chance for our volunteers to socialise outside the Museum and to meet other members of the team.
By far our biggest team is the Front of House volunteers. They are the team that staff the shop and the front desk throughout the week and weekends, welcoming our visitors. We believe volunteers, who come in for four or eight hours a week, who are passionate about gardening, the church or local history are able to pass on this enthusiasm in taking their time chatting and interacting with our visitors.
Another big team are the Gardeners. This team is absolutely admirable in the way they come in every week; come rain or come shine (and it has been mostly the former recently!) Aside from the herculean task of raking the thick plane leaves from the trees which surround the Museum every autumn, they also tend the rest of ours gardens. Most of the work by our volunteers is done in our Christopher Bradley-Hole garden at the front of the Museum and the St-Mary’s community garden beyond that. This spring it has been at its absolute best with a radiant display of spring bulbs planted by the team over the autumn.
Our Learning Team help our Learning Officer and Food Learning Officer run and prepare workshops for children, families and adults. All of these workshops are important to the Museum as they really draw in people from the local community and allow us to introduce new people to the world of gardening, cooking and art – more importantly they are able to show how all these things are connected.
Finally we have an amazing team of volunteers helping behind the scenes in the collection, archive and office whose support is invaluable to making the Museum such a success. As you can tell, we definitely need all hands on deck to make this ship sail as smoothly as it is does.
Aside from showing our appreciation to all these teams, another major task for me has been to recruit new volunteers. The Museum ideally requires 56 Front of House volunteers, though we are still a way away from this target. At the moment we only have 10 Gardeners, though we will be looking at expanding this number in the future to assist with the raking of leaves, pruning, planting and mulching that needs to happen each season. We are also looking at expanding our learning programme to include weekly weekend workshops in the Museum which will require the further assistance of volunteers to support our Learning Officer. As such it has been vital for me to get the recruitment process going as quickly as possible.
While I have explored the usual avenues, what has been particularly enjoyable is working with other organizations to find volunteers, people and causes I may not have reached otherwise. For instance, we have had a few work placement students from Lambeth College spend some time with us exploring the different aspects of Museum work. Being able to offer these young students the opportunity of taking on some of the tasks involved in keeping a Museum running smoothly has been really great to be a part of.
Another organization who has been really supportive has been the Arts Society. Not only have they been complimentary about our volunteer programme, but they hope to also start a collaboration with our Learning Team in various different projects on school gardens, museum costumes, and garden art. This will hopefully blossom into a great working relationship in which knowledge and expertise can be shared and exchanged.
I connected with the Single Homeless Project (SHP), to help out a group of refugees. These men and women are keen to practice their English and to start giving back to the country that has taken them in. One way to do this and improve their language skills is by helping out in the Museum where we have absolutely enjoyed their enthusiasm and commitment to make a difference.
Fortunately, nearly all volunteers share this enthusiasm and commitment, and that is what makes my job so interesting and varied – it is getting to know the people, for the variety seems endless!
The Garden Museum Volunteers
Our volunteers come from many different backgrounds and for many different reasons. Some of our most dedicated volunteers come in every week despite a two hour journey, while others live just around the corner and easily come in multiple times a week. Quite a few share a long and personal connection with the Church of St-Mary-at-Lambeth where the Museum is housed, while others have joined because of an interest in gardening or art.
We have a lovely team of volunteers who have retired and enjoy the interaction with fellow volunteers and visitors; a team of professionals who are still working but enjoy the different environment the Museum offers, and students who are looking for more experience and learn more about what is involved in running a Museum.
A number of our volunteers are absolute experts in areas connected the Museum. We have volunteers who seem to know everything about the history of the church, those with a lifetime experience in retail and others who are expert gardeners themselves. There are artists, conservators, designers, chefs, educators, and administrators. Each week I discover something new about one of our volunteers or am taught something that I will carry with me the rest of my life.
Our volunteer team is wonderfully eclectic, infectiously passionate, and most of all good company. And that is why I am the Lucky Volunteer Coordinator.