Providing opportunities to volunteer online is helping Birmingham’s museums to engage with more and more people. Rebecca Fletcher explains how they do it.

Photo of woman taking a photo of an object
A volunteer working on the Portable Antiquities Scheme
Photo: 

Birmingham Museums Trust

Over the course of a year, Birmingham Museums Trust will work with over 600 volunteers. We look after nine different sites across the city of Birmingham, from the traditional museum and art gallery, to the science museum, a working watermill and a Tudor house. 

During the project the volunteers managed our Instagram account posting photographs, documenting our celebratory birthday party and engaging with other social media users

Our volunteers offer us their time to work on projects including gardening, welcoming visitors, supporting our team of curators, conservation cleaning, milling and even helping us develop brand new galleries. If we want our museum volunteering programme to remain fresh, different and attract new volunteers, we need to keep thinking outside the box and consider alternative roles for volunteers to undertake with us.

Social media from the sofa

So we have been trying to do just that and one of the key areas of development has been an initiative to work with volunteers digitally. We have started with a number of projects based around our social media accounts.

In November last year Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery celebrated its 130th birthday, and to mark this occasion we recruited ten volunteer birthday assistants. Over the course of our birthday month these volunteers worked with our development and digital teams to fundraise and develop our social media accounts.

Birmingham Museums works across nine social media platforms, with numerous accounts, but Instagram was a whole new area for us and one that our birthday assistants took on with gusto. During the project the volunteers managed the account, posting photographs, documenting our celebratory birthday party and engaging with other social media users.

Many of our new volunteers were young and digitally engaged and the project appealed to those that may not normally have considered museum volunteering to be for them. Our birthday assistants came into the museum to use our social media accounts via an ipad but the real bonus of digital volunteering is that it can be done from the volunteer’s own sofa too. 

Our first dedicated digital volunteer worked as a social media assistant looking after the Planetarium Twitter account for Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum. This is an account that we would not have been able to keep up to date without such dedication and his work has enabled us to engage with over 15,000 followers.

Weoley Castle Keepers, a team of volunteers, is another group that manages a Twitter account and our Collecting Birmingham Twitter account is manned by our Collecting Birmingham Ambassadors – a team of four volunteers supporting a new project all about the history of Birmingham.

One issue this project has raised, however, is the pressure volunteers can feel when taking over an ‘official’ social media account. But with appropriate training and guidelines in place our volunteers relish the opportunity to get involved.

Image editing around the world

But digital volunteering isn’t just about using social media. In 2014 we started a project with the Portable Antiquities Scheme where volunteers working at the museum and art gallery took numerous photographs of archaeological finds. These photographs were then uploaded for digital volunteers to edit at home in their own time.

Volunteers used an online app to create three-dimensional images of the objects. The app was relatively easy to use so all we needed to provide was a simple guide. From this we engaged with volunteers around the world.

So far social media, photography and blogging projects have all been popular and these roles and opportunities are generating continued interest with potential volunteers.

Plans for the coming years will see us developing these roles further and responding to current technologies to engage with more people. As an organisation we feel that museum volunteering should be for all and working with volunteers digitally allows us to engage with more and more people.

Rebecca Fletcher is Volunteer Development Team Leader at Birmingham Museums Trust.
www.birminghammuseums.org.uk

Link to Author(s): 
Rebecca Fletcher

Comments

I'd be interested to read an assessment of the engagement the volunteers generated on social media. People talk about the dangers of underestimating the skills required to use social media effectively for marketing and engagement, and of just handing it over to the intern because they are young and 'get it'. On the other hand, I think I've seen some of the most effective social media posts coming from volunteers - they are often so enthusiastic about an organisation, an unconcerned with 'marketing', this can come across in a very genuine way.