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Five Things I’ve Learned Through Volunteering

For Volunteers Week this year, one of our Engage Volunteers, Catherine Miller, tells us her highlights of being an Engage Volunteer and why she keeps coming back to the Horniman: 

It’s been four months since I joined the small group huddled outside the staff entrance to the Horniman, waiting to be let in from the February cold to do our first Engage training session. Since then, I’ve manned the handling trolley, handed out colourful cloaks for Pitchy Patchy and gazed at bees on most Saturdays. It’s not exactly the usual way to spend a weekend - so why do I give up my time? Well, every week on Engage is different, and I’ve learned a lot about the Horniman, its weird and wonderful exhibits and volunteering in general. Here are my top five lessons:

1. Volunteers come from all walks of life. It’s fantastic to work alongside people from all over the world (India, Italy and New Zealand to name but a few) and all sorts of day-jobs. Everyone brings their own unique perspective and it’s also fascinating to find out how and why people got involved in the museum. For some, it’s a chance to sample a heritage career, and for others, it’s a rewarding hobby. Working as part of the Engage team is a great chance to meet new and diverse people.

2. Learning comes in many forms. As a teacher, I know how easy it is to get wrapped up in ‘levels of progress’ and exam results, but at the Horniman we see all sorts of people learning in many different ways - from feeling a snake skin for the first time to watching a jellyfish dance around its tank. There’s a moment when a visitor’s eyes light up and you know they’re intrigued by something. That spark makes our work worth it.

3. Each family is unique. During the week I work with teenagers, so interacting with younger children and families has been a fun experience for me. Something that has surprised me is how individual even the smallest visitors can be. Some are shy and wide-eyed, clinging on to their adult’s leg until someone demonstrates that it’s perfectly safe to touch the ostrich egg... others are brimming with knowledge and enthusiasm... and others just want to run around! Then there are the super stylish toddlers in catwalk-ready tutus and dinosaur onesies. Not that I’m jealous…

4. Taxidermy is a talking point - and surprisingly relevant even in today’s world. There’s something quite powerful in being able to view a once-living animal, not just in a virtual space or as a photo but in three dimensions in front of you. Being able to touch an example is even better, hence the delighted reactions to our Chicken Turtle. Taxidermied animals have also sparked off some interesting conversations about life and death with younger visitors, for whom the concept of preserving a body can raise many questions.

5. Bees are endlessly fascinating. I've learned lots of bits and bobs about all the objects on the handling trolley and some of the museum's other exhibits, but I have to say the bees are one of my favourite things. I can stand and stare at the Horniman’s hive for hours, watching the workers bustle to and fro or trying to spot the elusive queen. It was amazing to see the change in their behaviour from winter to spring as the group woke up from their slumber and began to collect pollen in earnest. I’ve been inspired to find out more about them and even read a fantastic novel, Laline Paull’s ‘The Bees’. I’ll never look at a common honeybee the same way!

Volunteering at the Horniman has given me such a valuable insight into the ‘behind-the-scenes’ workings of a museum, and allowed me to meet a wide range of interesting people, from staff to visitors to my fellow volunteers.

I hope to learn more as my volunteering journey continues!