case study | The Value of Volunteers

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It’s amazing what can be accomplished with the support and efforts of a group of dedicated volunteers, and now more than ever they are essential to the continued success of local museums and cultural organizations.

This case study explores the value of contributing a structured group of volunteers to a large public art installation called The top trees designed and developed by international architectural artists Choi + Shine (Jin Choi and Thomas Shine) and how challenges were overcome during this lengthy project.

background

Luton Cultural Foundation operates two local museums: Wardown House, Museum & Gallery and Stockwood Discovery Centre. A coordinated volunteer program museum maker was established nearly a decade ago and was instrumental in the 2017 redevelopment of Wardown House into a vibrant and cultural center within the community.

It was so successful that the model became an exemplary structure for coordinated volunteering used across England. The program has almost 1,600 members and is organized and coordinated by NPO coordinator Jacqui Harding.

Museum Makers is a team of uniquely interested volunteers made up of individuals, groups and organizations who donate their time, skills and knowledge to Luton’s museums. Using their talents, passion for their local community and heritage, they choose which “challenges” they take on and donate time in minutes, hours, days or more.

Museum makers come from all walks of life, including students, retirees, parents and children, young professionals and young people.

They accepted the challenge of helping to create The Lace Trees, now housed at the Stockwood Discovery Centre.

The project

Luton has one of the finest collections of old Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire lace and patterns at Wardown House, with materials reflecting all facets of an industry that was once of considerable economic and social importance in the East Midlands.

With this collection in mind, Choi + Shine was approached in 2019 and an application was made to Arts Council England in January 2020. This made the Lace Trees project a natural fit and became part of a broader program involving multiple satellite projects in three locations.

These projects include:

Lost in lace

An exhibition of original art created by second year students on the University of Bedfordshire’s Bachelor’s degree in Design and Creative Arts, inspired by the historic pinnacle collection at Wardown House, Museum and Gallery.

How we did it

A photo exhibition organized by students from the University of Bedfordshire, displayed at the Stockwood Discovery Centre.

Top of fashion

An exhibition of clothing items in Wardown House curated by another team of museum makers.

The Museum Makers participating in the Lace Trees project were challenged to first crochet large scale patterned squares using nylon cord and then sew the crochet pieces together to eventually form the canopy of the two Lace Trees structures.

The lace pattern is inspired by a selection of lace from the Trust’s collection.

This project was an opportunity for museum makers and other volunteers to use or learn crochet and lace patterns to connect memories of the past with local people; to create a sense of community; and create a beautiful work of art for the city.

key challenge

These included:

  • The Covid pandemic which meant we had to extend the project and keep up the enthusiasm and momentum during numerous lockdowns.
  • Coordination of international artists and locals to implement the project.
  • Training volunteers remotely.
  • Embracing new ways of working with volunteers (due to pandemic restrictions)
  • Communicating with and organizing more than 200 volunteers.

Results and Lessons Learned

Project impacts included:

  • More than 100 museum makers are taking part in the challenge.
  • Another 130 volunteers are involved (from creating each crochet square to final construction).
  • 3,600 hours contributed by museum makers and additional volunteers.
  • Two large public art exhibitions at the Stockwood Discovery Centre, one 5.8m high and 10m wide and the other 7m high and 4.5m wide.
  • Learned and shared new skills (including two volunteers who completed a beginner’s crochet course at Culture Trusts art center The Hat Factory).
  • New friendships with volunteers who met in gardens when lockdown restrictions allowed to encourage and support each other.
  • A positive impact on people’s mental health and well-being.
  • 400 Christmas tree decorations were created for Wardown by 20 crocheters who were part of an annual Christmas tree exhibition. This not only left a legacy for the project, but also helped engage the volunteers at a point in the project where the panels had been created but not yet installed.
  • Three Museum Makers become participants in an art installation in Busan, Korea with Choi + Shine.

The project owes much of its success to the expertise and in-depth experience of Jacqui Harding and Hafiza Mohamed, the culture programmer at Luton Culture.

Their relationship with the volunteers or the architectural artists was crucial. A clear point of contact, clear messages, personalized communication and an understanding of the local community underpinned this success.

Jacqui and Hafiza quickly adapted to the restrictions caused by the global pandemic and kept in regular contact with the volunteers to update them on the project. They focused on digital communication via private social media groups to keep morale and enthusiasm going so the volunteers could make their crocheted square panels remotely and the artists could support them directly.

Once the restrictions were lifted, the museum makers were able to team up to sew the crocheted panels together to form the Lace Trees canopy.

Jacqui said: “I feel like this project has had a positive impact on mental health during the pandemic, reducing isolation and giving us and our museum makers purpose. One volunteer was encouraged to participate because I personally took the time to bring materials and resources to their home, which gave her the confidence to get involved.”

One volunteer later commented that the project “took me out of my comfort zone, but with a little encouragement I made it through. So proud” and for “feeling part of a team and not alone during lockdown”.

Others commented, “We wanted to give something back after so many visits” and were “proud to be part of something so special”.

A well-managed project produced many desirable outcomes and a legacy for all involved.

Amanda Evans is a communications writer

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