Volunteering in the Staffordshire Hoard Gallery

“Where’s the big stuff? I want to see the really big stuff”. It was a familiar request; visitors to gallery sixteen at Birmingham Museum are often a little thrown when they peer in to the glass cases for the first time and wonder what on earth they’re looking at. Small pieces of shiny metal, many of them studded with red gemstones – what are they? Who do they belong to? Where are they from?  Why has such a fuss been made in the media about this find?

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My name is Donna, and I’m only one of a group of volunteer interpreters who staff the Hoard at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  Our primary role involves answering questions about the Hoard and encouraging visitors to engage with the objects on display. Volunteers are all passionate about the collection, for different reasons. Most of us are graduates; some of us are still studying. We all give our time freely, well almost freely – we do get a cuppa and a biscuit during breaks!

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Photo: Two Staffordshire Hoard gallery volunteers at the 2012 Volunteer Party

So what do volunteers in the Hoard gallery do? Well, there’s a bit of housekeeping for starters. First thing in the morning we set the gallery up: we turn on the lights, set up the ipads and, last of all, fire up the short documentary which is a great introduction to the Hoard. Visitors often ask if we know the script of that film off by heart: we do!  There is a small amount of paperwork, a gallery check to make sure all is working, clean and tidy for visitors and then…we wait.

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There is never much of a wait before the first visitors arrive. The Staffordshire Hoard remains very popular, and totting up the numbers is another volunteer responsibility. We regularly log over 300 visitors, even on a rainy weekday. There is rarely a dull moment in the Hoard, and our visitors are always so interesting, as well as interested.  For me this is the best part of volunteering: the opportunity to talk with such a diverse range of people. I started volunteering in the Hoard in January 2012, and since then I’ve learned as much from the public as I have from books and documentaries. I’ve been privileged to speak with jewellers who understand the intricate complexity of the filigree work; with metal workers who have explained how the swords would have been made and even an expert in marine life who enlightened me on sea horses off the south coast of England.

But you don’t have to be an expert at anything to appreciate the Hoard (I’m certainly not!) or to engage our full attention. There is still so much mystery surrounding the find and, as I often tell visitors, everyone’s interpretation is as good as anyone else’s when it comes to the Staffordshire Hoard. One of the really nice things about working in the gallery is hearing the ideas about how the gold came to be stashed there, and why. It seems unlikely that we’ll never know, but a very happy ten minutes can be passed debating it.

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The day passes very quickly as a conglomeration of chatty, enthusiastic school trips, overseas tourists and mooching couples pass through the gallery. And there are quiet times too, during which we go around with a cloth and wipe the fingerprints off the cases.  At five o’clock a call comes over the radio advising that it’s time to start closing down the interactive exhibits, and Terry Herbert utters his final ‘why me?’ of the day. The lights are turned down, the doors closed and it’s time to head home.

If you are planning a visit to the Staffordshire Hoard – and why wouldn’t you? It’s fab and free! – please take advantage of the volunteer interpreters in the gallery. We can’t promise to answer all of your questions, but we’ll have an interesting time together trying!

Donna Taylor
Staffordshire Hoard Volunteer

For more information about the Staffordshire Hoard please visit: staffordshirehoard.org.uk

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