Here is an unabridged account of an interview we did with one of our most dedicated volunteers, Lottie.
Lottie exhibition volunteer
Lottie now works as a project officer at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire, working on their Heritage Lottery Project ‘Limestone Journeys’. We like to think her work for Henshaws helped her get a foothold on the heritage sector career ladder.
1. How did you hear about the project?
Through a fellow course member (on the University of Manchester Art Gallery and Museum Studies course) who had done her degree placement at Gallery Oldham, so knew the staff and Social History Curator Sean Baggeley, and had also worked with Laura. Obstensibly I was interested in gaining some oral history training so when Liz sent around an email saying there would be a day’s training at Henshaws, with the possibility of it leading into a project, I was in! She also mentioned a free lunch, and students never shy from free food so never underestimate the power of a free lunch!
2. What were you expecting when you attended the oral history training?
I thought maybe I’d learn some technical skills in working audio equipment, which would come in useful when applying for jobs or working on heritage projects, and perhaps be offered some templates of interview guidelines to follow. I wasn’t sure how in-depth it would be but thought any help or extra advice would prove useful in the long run, and add an extra string to my bow of skills. It far exceeded my expectations though and the whole day was informative and interesting. Laura was a brilliant trainer and made us feel at ease while directing the training and telling us where we could improve on our techniques, without criticising us or making us feel useless. I’m a pretty natural communicator (if I do say so myself!) and don’t tend to feel too uncomfortable talking to people in new, or unfamiliar, situations. However, Laura opened my eyes to how conducting oral histories differ to an everyday conversation, even if that’s the format you’re performing under. You have to be so aware of the technology you’re using, the environment, and your interviewee. An added dimension to all this technique we were learning was the knwoledge that the oral histories would be conducted with visually impaired participants, a community I had no previous experience with. Laura was fantastic explaining how the oral history material would add to the Henshaws’ ‘One Man’s Vision’ project and her enthusiasm was infectious so I knew I wanted to be involved more.
3. What happened next in terms of your involvement in the project?
After the initial oral history training day there was no obligation to continue at all but I felt enthused by the project and wanted to use my newly acquired skills on an active participant. Laura contacted us a few weeks later inviting us to conduct some oral history interviews at Gallery Oldham. I hopped on a tram, trying to run through all the information from our training session, and navigated Oldham Mumps to arrive at the gallery. I’m not sure what I was expecting but it wasn’t the hive of activity I encountered on my arrival. There was a meeting being conducted with Henshaws’ staff, Laura, visually impaired volunteers and Gallery Oldham staff while a photographer set up equipment in another corner and I caught a glimpse at some of the objects that would form the exhibition. This was the first insight I had into how the exhibition would come together and it only added to my enthusiasm and interest for the project. After the meeting ended, introductions were made and coffees poured, we started the oral history interviews. Laura and I conducted three together with my taking the lead for one. She was encouraging and listening back to the tape I was pleased with my efforts. But despite all the hard work Laura and the team, plus myself partially, put in it was those three people I spoke to that day that made me decide to be as involved with the exhibition as possible. Andy, Bev and Deborah were such inspiring individuals, overcoming the obstacles of being visually impaired to continue to enjoy life and become involved in projects such as this. Talking to them, even within the loose restraints of an oral history, was relaxed, effortless and, fundamentally, interesting. I knew that if I could help in any small way with the continuation of the project I would endevour to do so. I stayed at the Gallery for the remainder of the day as photos were taken of the participants and the objects, things were moved and unpacked, or re-packed, and I got to know more about the staff and other volunteers involved. I’m not going to lie either, there was yet more free food on offer – it really is such a simple motivator for us students, it’s almost embarrassing!
4. Did you enjoy this work?
I loved all the elements of the One Man’s Vision project, from the simple mundane tasks to the more complicated or detailed jobs I was given. It wasn’t a completely selfless motivator being involved for me. The skills I learnt and were utilising were invaluable and I wouldn’t have gained that practical hands-on knowledge any other way. My MA Degree was in it’s final stages so I was starting to think about prospective jobs and all of the oral history skills, volunteer coordination, working with the visually impaired community, and a large-scale exhibition installation would be brilliant experience to add to my CV and job applications. It was also a reinforcing exercise for me personally. I’d come home after a day of sanding, painting or shunting display cases around, covered in dust and masking tape, but thoroughly happy with the day’s work and our achievements. It was then that I knew the year’s hard studying, and complete career change for me, was the right thing to pursue as this was definitely what I wanted to do! I also enjoyed the positive responses I received from the people involved about my efforts. As the week progressed I was given more responsibilities which made me feel worthwhile and valuable to the project. I also met more and more interesting people from the culture sector and the visually impaired community, some of whom have become references or contacts for future projects. If I could become involved in anything like this in the future I would snap at the chance, and working with Laura has even made me consider taking on projects of my own in the future. 
5. What was going on in your life during this period and how did this affect you decision to volunteer?
I was undertaking my MA at the time and saw this project as valuable experience, however, it was no mean feat committing to it! When the intial email was circulated by Liz we were at a lull period with our studies, a handful of end-of-module essays had been handed in and the Dissertation seemed months away. Thinking I had some ‘free’ time to kill I expressed an interest. And, of course, as these things are prone to do, my timetable filled up drastically just as Laura told us about the oral history training! It was too good a chance to pass up so amidst my studying and part-time bar work I attended the training session. I genuinely thought if it seemed too big an ask I could walk away knowing I’d got some useful training out of it but for some reason it was too interesting, and Laura too enthusiastic, to not continue. As my schedule got more packed I stuck with the Henshaws project, it never seemed like a big ask being involved and squeezing in editing the audio interviews or plugging the project all over Twitter amongst my degree work just became a given. During the project’s busiest period I was finishing my Dissertation, negotiating moving house as my lease was up, wondering what on earth I was going to do next jobwise, and scraping together the last of my bar work money in case it was needed for journeys to and from Oldham. By the time the exhibition install came round I was no longer living in Manchester and spent the week kipping on a mate’s sofa just so I could be at the Gallery every day to muck in.
6. What made you decide to keep volunteering for this project?
As I’ve mentioned, it was invaluable experience for me but as I got more involved I was given more tasks to be responsible for and this not only made me more integral to the project but was a huge boost for my self-worth. I’d started out thinking I’d just be learning how some audio equipment worked, then this had lead to actually conducting an oral history interview, which had then lead to using editing software to cut the pieces down (a huge learning curve for me as I wasn’t a cruel enough editor to begin with!). From then on, I’d wanted to be more physically involved, to see how the exhibition evolved within Gallery Oldham, so had volunteered to be some free labour really. I though I’d be painting plinths and moving boxes around but instead Laura and Sean got me more involved interpreting the objects and how they were displayed, an amazing leap of faith and trust on their part and I felt really touched to be given such a huge responsibility, and praised for my efforts. Most of the words you’ll read at the exhibition will have been penned, at some point, by me (don’t worry – they were proof-read by the more experienced professionals!) And, as if all that wasn’t enough, I was then given full reign with the RNIB Penfriends! These are an amazing piece of tech for the VI Community that you use in conjunction with small stickers. You record a word or phrase onto the pen that is ‘assigned’ to a sticker. When the sticker is then scanned by the pen the audio clip that matches it is played out. I was shut off in a small room with about ten pens and given the task of recording them all, then fitting them to the plinths. It was one of the elements I’m most proud of and it now means that not only are some of my words dotted around the gallery but my voice is reading them all out too!! :-D (Although I believe Sean had to re-record some that had been accidently deleted by users so bear that in mind if you hear a man’s voice in amongst all the others – that’s not me having an off moment!)
7. How did you feel about the project at this stage?
I was fully immersed and continually impressed by all the hard work everyone was still putting in. There was no let up even as the launch evening loomed and we were all on course to see the months of planning culminate in the end result. I loved that I’d stuck with the project as I could finally see what it had all lead too. If I’d only gone as far as the oral history work I would never have seen how the people I’d talked to were a part of the exhibition, their photos on the wall and their voices, the voices I’d help record, available for everyone to hear through the listening posts. I was impressed every day by an added detail that made the exhibtion so accessible. All the interactive activities and sensory additions Laura and the team had thought up to make the exhibition, and the space, as universal as possible. It’s the first project I’ve ever encountered that so fully immerses the VI community into a heritage or cultural space and it’s only fed my enthusiasm to work on, or see, more projects like this come about for those elements of the community that are NOT targeted by the sector.
8. During the exhibition set-up what experience did you gain?
I gained so much more practical experience then I thought I would. From working with designers and signage, audio tours, technicians, health and safety requirements, Gallery requirements, interactives, objects and loaned collections, mounting and other display techniques, interpretation and how to cover yourself in spray mount and velcro! It was also a brilliant demonstration of teamwork, the positives and the challenges, of bringing together a disparate group of people under one banner. You could continually see the compromises people had to make when their original design ideas or vision had to be altered to the requirements of the space or other elements and there was a lot of thinking on your feet and being creative to achieve an end result. I loved this challenge though, it made me realise that there’s no manual to the work that these people do, the work I hope to do. There is no set of hard and fast rules telling you how to run a project, install an exhibition, work with volunteers or even mount a text panel. You have to roll with the punches and be creative in your approach to the job in hand, working with other people to develop the best result for everyone. These are skills that are impossible to teach someone and are also seldom requested for a job and yet prove invaluable. I know that if some of my course peers realised that these personal qualities were so useful to the industry it would have an impact of how confident we felt going forward as graduates into the workplace.Gallery Oldham installHenshaws orange
9. Did you feel adequately supported throughout this week?
Laura went above and beyond to make me feel comfortable, valuable and talented. I don’t think either of us realised how involved I was going to become after initially expressing my interest but she always encouraged my development of new skills and allowed me to attempt something, often with successful results. I understood how incredibly busy she was and only wanted to offer relief where I could, yet she always went beyond to make me feel included and make sure I was never without a task to do or something to keep me interested and involved. I felt allowed to stamp my mark on elements of the project knowing I had her full support and any errors I made would be picked up and corrected without criticism or chastising. It was a brilliant atmosphere to learn in and I don’t think anyone else involved would have been as forthcoming and trusting with me had Laura not been there. There were several occassions when I was left to my own devices with little direction and other members of the team, immersed in their own work, especially those of the gallery staff who had their own day-to-day tasks outside of the project to contend with, would have happily gone for long periods without encouraging me to engage with a new task or the next job to complete. This is not a heavy criticism as I realise they had their own deadlines and workloads to complete but it made the extra efforts Laura went to all the more obvious as no workload was more strained then hers yet still she found the time to send me flying off here or there with a task to complete that was pivotal to the project and not just a distraction to get me out of her hair! She also kept me supplied with grapes, nuts and water so you couldn’t have asked for a lovelier task-master!
10. What do you feel you brought to the exhibition set-up week?
Lots of enthusiasm, willingness to muck in and hard graft! I’m under no illusion that the project would have faltered and died without me – I wasn’t indispensible and my involvement was always an added bonus, not the pivotal centre, but I tried to lessen any loads I could and was on hand to offer assitance if it was needed. I had no ego going into the project and didn’t see any task as too small or mundane to be carried out, and completed to just as high a standard, even polishing cases and sweeping floors have to be done by someone! It was gratifiying still to be thanked for the small part I played and I felt genuinely pleased that people had noticed my efforts and hadn’t felt I was a hindrance or a busy-body bustling in with misplaced enthusiasm!
11. What do you think you have gained overall?
First and foremost I have a fantastic reference and friend in Laura, which is always the best part of any project. Meeting people and being able to work well with them, match their enthusiasm and interest, and be encouraged to be creative is the greatest feeling and I love broadening not just my professional network but my personal one too. Apart from the practical hands-on skills I’ve achieved I have a fantastic range of audience development skills that are integral to any work in the culture sector and, hopefully, sets me apart from other graduates trying to step onto the career ladder. Working with the VI community of Henshaws was challenging, interesting, eye-opening and inspirational. This project has lead to my attendance on a VI Mobility Training Day in Salford that I hope to use when working in museums or galleries to encourage more accessibility into these spaces for the VI community, and hopefully other visitors who feel these environments are not accommodating for them. I’m not all about altruism though, this experience has given me an edge in the job market, which is as tough as it’s ever been, and provided me with skills which I hope set me apart from other candidates. I have developed oral history techniques, using a diverse range of technology, interpretation, object handling and moving, collections care, exhibition installation, people management skills (you ever tried telling a technician to paint something when he just wants to have a cigarette break?!), working with volunteers, health and saftey procedures, event planning, even some marketing and fundraising skills. As mentioned, I have also tried to retain some of those contacts I met during the project to add to my (meagre) arsenal of industry professionals which could always lead to new opportunities and experiences in the future.