Working with Volunteers Online Q&A

Nov 05 2014

Starting on Monday 17 November, we’ll be hosting a week-long online Q&A exploring at how museums can develop effective, mutually-beneficial relationships with volunteers working with collections. Here’s Leila Prescott, Project Assistant on Cutting Edge, a new initiative working with volunteers to improve access to Sheffield’s renowned cutlery collection.

As part of a year long Arts Council funded collections based project, Museums Sheffield has been exploring new ways of working with volunteers. Cutting Edge is giving the people of Sheffield an opportunity to experience their city’s cutlery manufacturing heritage first hand, through direct involvement in the digital documentation and research of the cutlery collection. We are keen to share our experiences of the project with colleagues from other museums and would like to hear your thoughts and views on ways in which volunteers can effectively participate in collections management.

Sheffield is famous worldwide for its cutlery: “a reet Sheffield knife is best”. The Cutting Edge project will significantly increase access to, and understanding of, one of the most popular parts of Sheffield’s impressive collection, which has been awarded Designated status for its national and international importance. It will generate more easily available information about Sheffield’s cutlery history, increase online access to the collection, create a Sheffield ‘Cutlery Map’ website, and produce related talks, events and new displays. At present, information about the cutlery collection as a whole exists as a basic inventory on our digital documentation system with object details hidden away in old cabinets of catalogue cards. Thanks to our volunteers these digital records are being rapidly enhanced; the objects researched and condition checked. Sheffield’s manufacturing history is coming to life as the stories of these objects and the people who made them are being uncovered.

Volunteers on the Cutting Edge projectFive volunteers are working in the museum stores alongside myself (Project Assistant), and the Volunteer Manager. Our Volunteer Manager has a curatorial background and experience in collections care so she works directly with the volunteers in the museum stores, thereby allowing the collections curator to concentrate on other duties at different sites. As one of the main challenges of working with volunteers is the amount of staff time required to supervise, this system is working well.

We are exploring and documenting drawers full of pocket knives, scissors, table knives, quill cutters, razors, trade knives, surgical blades, hunting knives, daggers, kitchen knives and the like. Most of our volunteers are interested in pursuing careers in museums. They are fascinated with the tools of the trade: curators’ gloves, accession registers, old-fashioned spidery handwriting on late 19th century catalogue cards. All of them have received training in the TMS collections management system, object handling and condition checking and are enjoying being part of the project.

Our collaboration is mutually beneficial and we have a lot of fun. Enhanced documentation and research of up to 4,000 pieces of cutlery takes a lot of time and the input of the volunteers is invaluable in generating the information about the objects that will ultimately be disseminated and interpreted for the wider public. Working as a team transforms the sometimes rather lonely task of documentation into a shared learning experience.

We will be holding a Q&A session over the week beginning 17th November and would like to invite comments, questions and ideas about the role of volunteers in collections management. You can join the discussion by posting in the blog comments below, tweeting us @MuseumSheffield, or emailing us at - we'll make sure all the questions we receive during that week, along with the responses, are added to this blog's comments section.

Images: Volunteers working on the Cutting Edge project © Museums Sheffield


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