Recruit and manage multilingual digital volunteers to interpret online collections

The Multilingual Museum is a collaborative project involving Manchester Museum, the City of Languages, and local communities, and was made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. As part of this project, Manchester Museum recruited a team of volunteers from many different language backgrounds to share with the museum their own languages, skills and heritage to help create the online Multilingual Museum. Volunteers were also involved in suggesting objects and worked with museum staff to provide feedback and shape the way the website is used.

Outside photograph of Manchester Museum
Manchester Museum. Photo by Chris Curry on Unsplash

Recruit and manage multilingual digital volunteers to interpret online 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

Manchester is one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the UK, with an estimated 200 languages spoken. Generational loss of heritage languages is well documented, severing connections with communities, and this project aims to promote use of these languages and provide a tool for intergenerational communication and transmission of information.

Manchester Museum’s £15 million redevelopment project in 2023 — ‘Hello Future’ — has extended the museum with a new Chinese Culture Gallery, South Asia Gallery, temporary exhibition space and new visitor facilities.

The museum’s collection has many objects from world cultures that are not well documented or researched. By soliciting responses and insights from the community, we can provide a forum for discussion and gain new information on the objects and which objects people would like access to, and by doing this digitally, more people in a variety of circumstances and places can contribute.


2. Recruitment

We aimed to target a range of languages, and used the Census 2021 results as a guide to look at the demographics of the area and what languages were common in Manchester.

Compared to our previous cohort of museum volunteers, the digital volunteers are more ethnically diverse, for example, the largest demographic being 52% from an Asian background (both South and East Asian). This is a demographic that also reflects Manchester Museum’s new gallery spaces, as well as the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) profile of the local community.

These people were largely not digitally skilled and had no experience of heritage, though this was not true for all. We had a range of ages, mostly younger than 50.

We undertook an open call, via email campaigns, social media, and physical advertising in libraries and community spaces. We also attended events and set up stalls in these spaces to talk in person. We used existing networks to spread the word, such as previous volunteers, and organisations we have worked with before like City of Languages.


3. Volunteer support

We kept in touch via email, with a weekly update email going out to all volunteers and following up individually with volunteers who got in touch.

Training materials were stored on Dropbox, and available for volunteers to review any time.

We also ran weekly support sessions – before the museum reopening, the schedule for Zoom drop-ins was Tuesdays 4pm-5pm and Sundays 10am-12 noon. After the museum reopened we cut this down to just Tuesdays. We also offered a weekly in-person drop-in on a Tuesday, but this needed to be prearranged by the volunteer.


4. Digital technology and tools

Volunteers could:

  • Access training and resources and collate content on Dropbox
  • Communicate with the team on Zoom and by email
  • Record audio/video using their own phones’ internal voice recorder/camera software
  • Edit recordings using CapCut
  • Log hours using Team Kinetic


CostsIn order to ensure this was accessible, we prioritised tools that were free at the user end.

  • Access training and resources and collate content on DropboxThe University of Manchester provided access to a business account for Dropbox for hosting large files, usually £12/month.
  • Communicate with the team on Zoom and by emailstaff of The University of Manchester have access to Zoom Pro which allowed us to host longer meetings and record sessions, usually £119.90/year. Outlook is free.
  • Record audio/video using their own phones’ internal voice recorder/camera software – free apps, generally included on the phone as standard.
  • Edit recordings using CapCutfree.
  • Log hours using Team Kinetic£19/month, already in use at the museum for managing volunteers.


5. Project stages

1. Staff recruitment
Recruitment of Project Manager and Community Engagement Assistant, followed by Curatorial Assistant and Web Developer.

2. Feedback on pilot project
Organisation of focus groups and contacting previously involved volunteers to explore what needed to be changed/improved for users, and new volunteers, once recruited.

3. Selection of new objects/information
Working with the Curatorial Assistant to broaden the selection of objects and ensure they were in line with the museum’s mission.

4. Digital Volunteer recruitment
Going out to different areas of Manchester to speak to people and post flyers, using museum social media, and reaching out to pre-existing contacts and new community groups.

5. Digital Volunteer management
Regular check-ins with people, support sessions, social events and answering questions.

6. Procurement of website
Stages of collecting feedback and refining the design, user-testing, and implementing changes.

7. Embedding the project into the wider museum
Using our newly-reopened museum as a space to promote the website and use the project to add extra value to the collections, volunteer materials, etc.


6. Key learnings

Prepare the project’s focus to suit community needs

  • Do your research into the communities in your area, e.g. intercommunity needs and sensitivities. Pre-existing community groups are a great source of this information
  • Find ways to link your collection to these communities and ensure it’s something they would benefit from – fulfil an existing need (e.g. building digital skills)
  • Reflect on what you can offer, and what people gravitate towards most – we added objects from a wider variety of countries in response to feedback

Pick your digital tools carefully

  • Reflect on what digital tools volunteers find most useful over the lifetime of the project – e.g. email as an alternative to Dropbox
  • Simple is best. Make sure the interface is user-friendly and straightforward to navigate
  • Reduce the amount of tools your volunteers will use, and teach them how to use those digital tools well

Adapt how you communicate

  • Make sure communication is as simple and clear as possible, and keep it short
  • Write training materials that require the least amount of reading possible – being visual is key
  • Adapt your terminology to be accessible – remember that some communities and demographics may be cautious of museums, technology, or volunteering – being approachable and answering questions helps!


7. Key challenges

Remote projects take a lot of management

  • Despite having a routine and explanatory materials, it’s easy for volunteers to feel isolated and worry they’re ‘doing it wrong’ when they’re doing it alone.
  • Be prepared to spend a lot of time contacting volunteers individually to fill in for the lack of casual communication opportunities.

With multilingual communities, level of English comprehension may be lower than you expect

  • Emails, training materials, spoken communication, and the content itself may take a lot of mental strain or even be impossible to understand for some volunteers.
  • Account for this by keeping things short, using simple English, and being as visual as you can.

Other cultures or backgrounds may need specific working practices or support – it’s important to know how flexible you can be

  • Challenges included Chinese volunteers being unfamiliar with commonly-used parts of the English internet, and women from some communities not feeling comfortable sharing space (digitally or not) with men.
  • Sometimes this takes arranging extra times to offer support – be mindful of how much time you have to dedicate, and be careful not to overstretch.


8. Useful links


More help here

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Using volunteers to improve digital accessibility practices

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Embracing bilingualism in your organisation

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Published: 2023

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Please attribute as: "Recruit and manage multilingual digital volunteers to interpret online collections (2022) by Manchester Museum 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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