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A day in the life of a museum volunteer


Alice Crouch, Ancient History and Archaeology third year and volunteer at Torquay Museum explains what museum staff get up to all day- and shows us that archaeology is by no means as boring as everyone assumes. 

I first heard about Torquay Museum at an Archaeology networking event in 2013, and got in contact with them to organise a summer work placement in 2014. As I study Ancient History and Archaeology, I also thought it would be interesting and most likely useful for an as yet undecided future. I worked at the Museum Monday-Thursday for 4 weeks, and when I started I couldn’t imagine the varied and interesting work I would end up doing, let alone what an amazing undiscovered resource (not to mention great day out) Torquay Museum is for Exeter students. I have continued my work at Torquay during term time this year, as I am completing my Professional Placement Archaeology Module there, so I now volunteer once a week. Although a typical day is quite difficult to pin down, considering how varied the work is, I’m going to take you through a typical day in the life of a volunteer.


Task 1: Research

Research does not sound exciting. However, when the research is about artefacts from World War One, predominantly weaponry, it gets a lot more exciting, particularly when I realised that I would be handling all the artefacts. I get annoyed in a museum when everything is behind glass, but now I was just being handed things that would end up behind glass.

Alice had the opportunity to handle rare historical artefacts in the museum.  Image: Torquay Museum via Facebook
Alice had the opportunity to handle rare historical artefacts in the museum.
Image: Torquay Museum via Facebook

I was doing this research for their upcoming WWI exhibition, to commemorate the centenary. I was given the items they wanted to include in the exhibition, and left to research them and write information labels to be displayed with them. At the beginning of the month, I was fairly cocky about writing these labels. By the middle of the month, I had realised that they are actually a lot more difficult than they look when you read them as a visitor. The key is to make them interesting, include all the information that you think makes the item interesting, and to convey this in about 50-60 words. I ended up successfully researching and writing all the labels for the exhibition, which is now up and running at the Museum. The most exciting items I worked with were the weapons, including various types of rifle and a vicious looking trench knife. Some things really resonated with me, such as the set of items from the trenches at the Somme. To be able to work with these artefacts, and be partially responsible for how they were presented to the public, was fantastic. It was also really quite educational: I had never been interested in WWI history (or any other ‘modern’ history for that matter) until I started researching here.


Task 2: Cataloguing the Social History collection

Again, this doesn’t sound thrilling. But Social History basically covers everything connected to people in modern history – from agricultural equipment to carved wooden cribs; from matchstick models of famous landmarks to cooking pots. It was my job to go through the online database, and if any items didn’t have a location recorded I would find them in the collection and input their location. Again, I was able to handle some of the most fascinating and obscure things.

The Social History collection happens to be housed in the top of the museum, which is essentially like a horror film set. It is the single spookiest, scariest, most eerie place I have ever been. This essentially meant I worked fast and really well, as well to an upbeat soundtrack, because if I sat still in silence for too long the ghosts would get me. But maybe that’s just me.



Sometimes I’d also nip down to the ‘Explorers’ gallery, which was my favourite place in the museum. ‘Explorers’ houses information about some unbelievable explorers through history. I was fascinated with Colonel Fawcett, who disappeared into the Amazon Rainforest in 1925 while he searched for the ‘Lost City of Z’, which he believed existed somewhere in the jungle. I had never heard of this (insane) man before, but now I’ve read books about him – and cannot wait for the film adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Pattinson. Fingers crossed they feel the need to visit the museum to get into character.

Palaeontology isn't as boring as it seems, according to Alice Image: sophiecharlotte289 via tumblr
Palaeontology isn’t as boring as it seems, according to Alice
Image: sophiecharlotte289 via tumblr

2pm- 4.30pm

Task 3: Labelling the Palaeontology collection
The Palaeontology collection is essentially made up of prehistoric animal bones. It was my job to go through the boxes and make sure what was in them matched up to what was written on the outside, then make new labels for the boxes. This really appealed to my somewhat obsessive appreciation for organisation and correct labelling, so while it may sound like a dreary task, I loved it.

Now, during my third and final year at Exeter, I am back at Torquay once a week organising the pictorial records collection, so it is more easily accessible. This has meant I have come into contact with some brilliant images, and will be publishing what I have found most interesting that week on the Torquay Museum Facebook page every Thursday. This page also has loads of interesting information about collections, exhibitions, events, and how people can get involved with the museum. Torquay Museum houses some incredible unique artefacts and images that relate to so many of our university courses, it’s certainly worth a look at, at least online. It also makes a great day trip and is very easily reached by bus or train!

Check out the Torquay Museum- and follow Alice’s pictures every week- on their Facebook page.

Alice Crouch

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