Cornwall Life meets some of the county's museum volunteers

Most towns in Cornwall have their own museums and, by and large, they are run by volunteers. Sue Bradbury unearths the passion behind their commitment

Most towns in Cornwall have their own museums and, by and large, they are run by volunteers. Sue Bradbury unearths the passion behind their commitment.

Think museum, and think dusty old relics? If so, think again. According to Cornwall’s growing number of museum volunteers, helping to look after the county’s rich cultural heritage is one of the most dynamic, life-fulfilling jobs around. Remember all the adventure and humour of the film Night at the Museum? Pure fiction perhaps, but the drama occurring on a daily basis in many of the county’s museum treasure troves appears to be just as entertaining and captivating for the many people who give up their time, for free, to work for them.

Take Helen Luther, for example. Helen has enjoyed a multitude of different roles in her time, including nurse, disc jockey, superintendant registrar, civil celebrant and even chandelier restorer. She has worked all over the world but four years ago she returned to Fowey, where she was born and brought up, to look after her sick father. “I moved down from Lincolnshire and started volunteering at Fowey Museum for one afternoon a week, as a way of getting to know people and giving me some respite from looking after Dad,” she says. Since then, the one-time school history-hater has become a passionate advocate of all that museum life can offer.

“It’s fascinating what you learn and discover and you meet so many interesting people,” she enthuses. “Visitors come from all over the world to research their family tree and it’s wonderful when you’re able to help them or they help you by providing more information about one of the artefacts on display. “That happened when one family recognised the name of a boat in one of our paintings. Apparently it had been skippered by one of their ancestors. There’s a real thrill when something like that happens. It feels like you’ve made a tangible link with the past.”

As well as continuing to carry out stewarding duties one afternoon a fortnight, Helen has become the museum’s curator – a job that entails wearing many different hats. “One moment I’m trying to source funding or cataloguing, the next I’m looking at carpeting or perhaps organising a redisplay,” says Helen. “I spend hours on my computer or in libraries doing research, and of course there’s always paperwork to do. 

“I love being active and that feeling of making a real difference and contributing to my local community. Volunteering has become a way of life for me – something that gets me out of the house and puts me in touch with lots of fascinating people. It may not make me rich but it certainly makes me happy.”

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Mervyn Mitchell, from Newquay, wholeheartedly agrees. He and his wife, Rachel, moved to Cornwall after living and working in both Devon and Saudi Arabia. A civil engineer until his retirement seven years ago, Mervyn had always been interested in history and archaeology, so he joined Newquay Old Cornwall Society, a voluntary organisation whose members work hard to promote and preserve the area’s heritage.

For the last three months, Mervyn estimates that he has spent about 60 hours per week working on the Society’s latest exhibition ‘Newquay and the Sea’, which has been showing in various venues around the town. A keen amateur painter himself and an active member of Newquay’s Society of Artists, he has clearly loved sourcing and displaying the 46 old paintings, loaned by local residents, that were included in the exhibition. “It’s been very absorbing but hugely worthwhile,” he says. “You meet a lot of people and there’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had from knowing that you’re helping to educate the community about their past in a fun, enjoyable way.” 

“Personally, I would love to start up a young person’s group,” Mervyn continues. “Museum work is far more interesting, action-packed and vital than you can possibly imagine and I’m sure youngsters looking for work experience or a hobby would get a lot out of it.”

Rose O’Keeffe, 21, and Kelly Wilton, 23, need no convincing. They both work at Lostwithiel Museum which, like most museums in Cornwall, is run entirely by volunteers. Rose got involved when she had to leave university after her first year because of ill health. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do but volunteering in the museum has focused my attention and got me back into the work environment,” she says. “It’s made the prospect of a job far less daunting and I’m really enjoying it.”

Kelly joined the museum’s team after graduating from the University of Plymouth with an honours degree in criminology and criminal justice studies. Despite moving from the town to Kent soon after she was born, Kelly has a deep-rooted love of Lostwithiel and that was her inspiration for deciding to volunteer. “The work has helped me research my family history, get to know the town properly and the people who live here,” she says. “Volunteering has given me a lot of confidence. It looks good on my CV and shows you’re willing to put in the effort even without financial return – it shows dedication.”

At Bude Castle Heritage Centre, history graduate Kate Tomlinson, 22, has been adding her own brand of youthful enthusiasm to the volunteering team. “There’s lots to do and it’s all very different,” she said. “I’ve been sent on a few courses and feel I’m really building up skills. I do believe the more experience I have in this area, the more chance I have of getting a job either in museums or archiving. It’s great fun – I love it.”

From Land’s End to the River Tamar, and from Saltash to Bude, the role of volunteers is becoming ever more critical in preserving the region’s heritage. Far from being an onerous task, however, it’s clear that museum volunteering has a positive, life-transforming impact on the people who do it – whatever their age or background. “You don’t have to be a historian or be retired, and the number of hours you choose to put in is entirely up to you,” said Helen Luther. “I’d recommend museum volunteering to anyone. It’s amazing the difference it can make.”

For more information contact Museum Development Officers Jo Warburton (West Cornwall), Jo Mattingly (Central Cornwall) or Stephanie Meads (North and East Cornwall) on 01872 242789 and leave a message if no one is there to take your call.

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