This is a ‘how to recruit, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.
Brighton & Hove Museums (B&HM) is an independent charity that runs five museums on behalf of Brighton & Hove City Council. These include the Royal Pavilion, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Preston Manor, the Booth Museum of Natural History and the Hove Museum of Creativity.
We’ve worked with volunteers to create a new audio guide for Preston Manor and a digital storytelling experiment in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
For the Preston Manor audio guide, we’ve developed a methodology for equipping a volunteer team to write a stop-by-stop tour that provides a more polyvocal approach to the traditional audio guide. For Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, our volunteers have experimented with writing bite-size ‘one minute’ stories that match the short and often distracted attention patterns of museum visitors.
The project was run by B&HM’s digital team (responsible for online and in-gallery interactive content, alongside ICT and information management) with internal support from colleagues in its programming, curatorial and diversity & inclusion teams. External consultants provided training on storytelling, interview techniques and to manage the recording and editing of audio to a professional standard. A key partner was a creative writing lecturer at the University of Brighton, who developed the teaching programme.
We posted open calls on our website, which were promoted via our e-newsletter and our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. Our e-newsletter seems to have been the most effective method, but mainly as it inspired our subscribers to share it via their own networks. Others discovered the calls through a Google search for volunteering opportunities.
As we were developing experiences that were designed for a physical space, we targeted local people who would be able to spend time on site.
Aside from locality, we did not target any particular demographic. But we needed to bring in a more diverse group of volunteers to create a more polyvocal approach to storytelling. To do this, we promoted the opportunity through our ‘critical friend’ networks, such as our Access Advisory Group, who work alongside our museums to improve the representation of some of our key communities. We also explicitly emphasised the storytelling aspect of the project and the chance to learn new skills. We did not ask for any digital skills, other than the confidence to try something new; we simply wanted people who were willing to join us on an experimental storytelling project.
Volunteers can provide the capacity to bring new stories and fresh perspectives to these spaces, but they need training and support.
The volunteers were managed as cohorts on structured training programmes: they were provided a timetable at the outset with a week by week guide to what they would learn or do in each session. Although the sessions varied slightly, the model was a hybrid of onsite and offsite support.
The volunteers would always meet as a group when onsite and used the time for:
- access to collections and galleries
- meeting and interviewing museum staff
- audio recording
- reflecting on the process and any challenges they faced.
Offsite time was used for individual work with communication by email:
- writing the stories
- sharing feedback and edits
Email was also used for pastoral support: sometimes as a group thread to all the volunteers, but also to address any concerns and anxieties.
As a digital project, our approach was deliberately light on technology. Our view was that focusing too much on any digital platform or tool would be a distraction from understanding visitor needs and attention patterns: the emphasis was on thinking through a more personal and polyvocal approach to storytelling with the technology cast as a conduit.
The volunteers working on ‘one minute’ stories for Brighton Museum & Art Gallery used a prototype story editor designed several years by the IT University of Copenhagen. Otherwise, contributions were written and supplied in Word, while team discussion and co-ordination was by email.
As there were two distinct strands to our project, the schedule below is split between the creation of the Preston Manor audio guide in the first phase and the One Minute storytelling in Brighton Museum & Gallery in the second.
1. Project planning
We refined the plan we submitted to NLHF for the bid and identified key staff from our programming and curatorial teams who could provide practical support and expertise. We also appointed consultants to provide training on narrative design and interview techniques, and to provide professional quality audio recording.
2. Volunteer recruitment (Preston Manor)
We posted the ad through our ‘critical friends’ groups and online channels. Applicants were initially asked to provide contact details and a brief explanation of why they were interested in the project. We handled expressions of interest, appointed on a ‘first come’ basis, and completed the onboarding paperwork.
3. Developed and delivered engagement programme (Preston Manor)
This was partly shaped by the interests expressed by the volunteers. Structure of the programme was:
- Introducing the manor and the project
- Interview techniques and mic work
- Interviews with staff and access to research resources
- Editing and scripting
- Recording the audio
- Playback and explanation of audio editing techniques
4. Built and launched audio guide (Preston Manor)
This was soft-launched in October 2022 owing to the manor’s closure over winter, but this also enabled us to carry out some live user-testing to improve the experience.
5. Volunteer recruitment (One Minute)
We posted the ad, handled expressions of interest and dealt with initial paperwork.
6. Developed and delivered engagement programme (One Minute)
Volunteers were divided into two groups: one to choose artworks on the theme of nature for a temporary display and write accompanying ‘one minute’ stories; the other to select permanent exhibits and produce stories about these. Both groups followed a similar training programme:
- Introduction to ‘one minute’ storytelling and choosing the works.
- Training on the ‘one minute’ story editor.
7. Display and content launched and new iterations (One Minute)
Although the exhibition went live on 17 January, the in-gallery experience tested poorly. A new iteration of this was launched in March, informed by further testing and feedback from the volunteer team. This uses WordPress as a simpler and more sustainable platform that adapts the key features of the previous version.
Volunteers enjoy learning new skills
Consider designing and managing your programme as a teaching experience. This can help you build in clear outcomes, ensure that you provide support when required, and will give the volunteers the reward of learning something new. One of the best comments we received from one of our older volunteers was that her experience had made her ‘want to go back to college’!
If you’re working on something experimental, make this clear from the outset
Both the Preston Manor audio guide and the ‘one minute’ stories were building on previous work, but in ways that we had never tried before: we didn’t know if an audio guide told by nine different voices would provide a coherent experience, and we didn’t know if the one minute storytelling concept would make sense to volunteers. At the start, we acknowledged the chance of failure and emphasised to the volunteers that this is part of the wider learning experience. This proved vital in the one minute work, where the first iteration of the digital experience was a failure. Even though it was not part of the original brief, the volunteer team helped identify the issues and tested the next iteration.
Empower your volunteers
Make it clear where heritage organisations frequently fail and how volunteers can help us find radical solutions. For the Preston Manor audio guide, our starting point was that the traditional anonymous authority of the museum audio guide is monotonous and needs to be reworked using a style more comparable to podcasts. For the ‘one minute’ work, we began our sessions with an explanation of why museum labels are a hopeless medium for storytelling. Collaborative projects require a culture of openness and honesty, and this can be quickly established with an explicit ambition to rip up the old and work with us on the new.
You need to be prepared to manage regular and responsive communication with the volunteers through digital means, even if most of the work takes place onsite. Volunteers can feel lost or abandoned quite quickly if there is any uncertainty about plans. During the Preston Manor project there were a couple of occasions when we had to rejig sessions owing to both volunteers and delivery staff catching Covid. Explaining the situation promptly, identifying alternative solutions, and being transparent about potential risks helped the volunteers feel as it was a safe environment.
Describing new digital initiatives
It’s difficult when volunteers cannot yet see the final product. It can be easy to get lost in concepts and jargon when trying to bring people on-board.
Recruiting more diverse groups of volunteers is hard
We did not get the uptake we expected via our ‘critical friends’ groups and this may have been because we weren’t directly addressing their ambitions. Perhaps by framing our call-outs as ‘volunteer opportunities’ we had set an expectation that the projects were all about helping the museum service. Both the storytelling approaches we explored can be used for greater inclusion, but in the future we may need to explicitly frame them as an opportunity to learn rather than emphasising the volunteering aspect – for some volunteering will always just connote unpaid labour without any clear reward.
Encouraging volunteers to experiment
It can be challenging to encourage volunteers to play with existing ways of doing things and to sometimes be actively counter-curatorial. It can feel like a bold demand, particularly in an authoritative temple like a museum. One volunteer on the one minute storytelling strand was shocked when it was presented as a ‘free jazz’ approach to museum interpretation – yet she eventually submitted her stories in the form of poetry, something that we’d never even considered at the outset.
- Preston Manor audio guide
- One Minute app (original project resources):
- One Minute stories online (web version using Exhibit)
- One Minute web app (in-gallery version)
- Project documentary podcast
- One Minute trail content in web app
- Virtual tour of Preston Manor audio guide content
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Please attribute as: "Creating digital storytelling experiences for your heritage venue (2023) by Brighton and Hove Museums supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0