Digitising museum collections

Torre Abbey is Torbay’s most historic building complex dating from 1196. A Scheduled Monument set in 17.8 acres of land it’s been a centre of religious and artistic expression and hospitality for 800 years. It’s also an accredited museum home to an important collection. The focus of this project was to train a team of volunteers to help digitise Torre Abbey’s collection providing valuable wellbeing opportunities to the local community as well as teaching new digital skills such as scanning artworks and database entry.

Outside shot of Torre Abbey and surrounding gardens and grounds.
Torre Abbey, Torquay, Devon. Image courtesy of Torbay Council©

Digitising museum collections

This is a ‘how to recruit, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.

1. Project background

Boasting over 600 works of art, works include Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings by Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones, fine English glass, pewter and silver collections from the 18th Century. Being one of the most significant Devon collections, we are committed and obliged to preserve and promote it to a wider audience. The focus of this project was to train a team of volunteers to help digitise Torre Abbey’s collection.

The project created the opportunity for this work to be done by volunteers, providing valuable wellbeing opportunities to the local community as well as learning new digital skills such as scanning artworks and database entry.

The Senior Operations Coordinator (SOC) led the team of volunteers, undertook project evaluation and monitoring and worked with our Programme team to deliver learning and engagement activities (online research call out, local art exhibition). The Business Support and Volunteer Officer supported recruitment and the Senior Project Officer retained oversight of the project, managed budgets and delivered the hybrid space (a dedicated room for digital volunteers with tech equipment.)


2. Recruitment

We targeted people of working age, young people (18-45), individuals and groups with additional needs, and socially isolated people to create a strong, diverse, and inclusive volunteer team.

We were successful in recruiting a younger team of 5 volunteers one of which works during the week and therefore wouldn’t be able to volunteer during Torre Abbey’s opening hours.  The project has allowed her to volunteer remotely out of 9-5pm hours. We wanted to encourage digitally skilled (eg. Digital scanning, database entry, photographing objects) volunteers of all levels (basic to advanced).

We have advertised the volunteer opportunities on our website, Facebook and Instagram through open calls. Having a volunteer page on our website has been the most effective way of recruiting digital volunteers.


3. Volunteer support

Most volunteers completed scanning, photographing objects and database entry onsite and have one-to-one support whilst volunteering. The volunteers who worked remotely received ongoing email support and regular video call catch-up meetings on Teams.


4. Digital technology and tools

Types of technology digital volunteers used

  • Edited and catalogued using Modes (Torre Abbey’s Collection Management System).
  • Scanned illustrations & photographs using Plustek OpticPro A320E scanner
  • Edited the collections’ location document using Excel & Teams
  • Photographed museum artefacts using Nixon D60 camera
  • Uploaded images to the online portal -Museum Platform



  • Modes – Already purchased
  • Scanner- £552.00
  • Online Portal- Museum Platform £7,200
  • Camera- Already purchased
  • Teams/Microsoft 365- Already purchased
  • Laptops to work from – £1,616.13
  • Hybrid equipment £1,188.50


5. Project Stages

1. Hybrid meeting room
Procurement and installation of hybrid meeting room. Install sockets for power and data. Install internet, WiFi and screen for video conferencing. Buying laptops, scanner and software.

2. Volunteers
Create volunteer roles, advertise volunteer opportunities on Torre Abbey website, Facebook and Instagram. Establish line management. Recruit volunteers and deliver in house conservation training.

3. Data entry and cataloguing
Complete cataloguing and data entry onto Torre Abbey’s Collection Management System – Modes. Adding scans and photographs of museum objects.

4. Museum Platform
Launch new online collection portal: Museum Platform. Import Modes data, design layout and add Torre Abbey’s branding and add public access descriptions to artworks.

5. Local landscapes
Showcase newly digitised art of local scenes in a curated local art exhibition. Host community workshop inviting local people to share their stories about the history of local landscapes.

6. Evaluation
Collect survey data from volunteers analysis and report by evaluator. Senior Operations Coordinator to create digitisation policy.


6. Key learnings

Volunteer recruitment

Tackle volunteer recruitment when the project can be managed and is up and running. We recruited volunteers at the very beginning of the project. Because it took time to set up a dedicated volunteer space and we hadn’t fully developed specific tasks for volunteers it was difficult to keep volunteers interested.

Volunteer training

Allow enough time to train volunteers thoroughly and keep in mind you may have to offer additional training needs. We had to deliver more than one training session for volunteers who were less confident carry out their digital tasks. The SOC had to be on hand to answer lots of questions and offer advice.

Notebook and messaging group

Have a volunteer notebook and set up a volunteer message group i.e Whatsapp. The notebook was vital in ensuring the team knew where to continue with a record which meant no duplication! The Whatsapp group was great way for the team who weren’t always onsite together to stay in touch and share their insights.


7. Key challenges

Volunteer anxiety about new technology

Volunteers might have anxiety about new technology, doubting their digital skills and may want to leave the project early. Adding data and editing catalogue records on a collection management system can be a scary task. We setup a volunteer level on our CMS so we could audit volunteer’s work. This reassured volunteers that any mistakes wouldn’t ruin a record forever.

Unforeseen delays

Supplier chain issues with new equipment may delay the project. The war in Ukraine meant we had a six month delay time in ordering new laptops with our IT department. Our Council also has strict rules with securing three quotes for goods/services over £5K. Because the software we were sourcing is very niche to museum collections, we found it a real challenge to find three quotes within the time scale.

Ongoing costs

Consider ongoing costs when purchasing software and equipment. Collection management systems, websites, photo editing suites for example will have a setup cost and then an annual fee. Can your organisation cover the ongoing costs after the project?


8. Useful links

More help here

A young man wearing a t-shirt with 'Volunteer' written on the back taking a photo of a group of people

Recruit and manage young people to volunteer for your heritage organisation online

The Heritage Trust Network’s Digital Heroes Project connected young volunteers aged 18-30 with heritage organisations across the UK to provide digital support. Partnering with youth insight agency BeatFreeks and The Audience Agency, the Heritage Trust Network recruited, trained, and matched 50 volunteer Digital Heroes with 50 of its members. The Digital Heroes had placements of 40 hours with the organisations they were matched with, supporting on tasks including updating websites, creating digital content, advising on social media campaigns, and devising digital fundraising or marketing strategies.

Old passports, ration books and identity cards

Producing digitally creative and publicly engaging content that responds to archives

CollabArchive is a digital volunteering project led by the Nerve Centre and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project connects new and diverse audiences with archive heritage through creativity and digital technologies, leading to sustained volunteering opportunities at PRONI.


Creating online promotional material

Ripon Cathedral recruited five key volunteer roles — photography, visitor experience, heritage collections, website and social media — to help create digital content to promote and increase audience engagement with the cathedral. By creating different roles the project was able to engage with new and existing volunteers to participate in the interpretation of the site, with the aim of making more accessible content for visitors.


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Published: 2023

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "Digitising museum collections (2023) by Torbay Council supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


More help here

Digital Heritage Hub is managed by Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with The Heritage Digital Consortium and The University of Leeds. It has received Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Digital Heritage Hub is free and answers small to medium sized heritage organisations most pressing and frequently asked digital questions.

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