Volunteers’ Week – My Experience as a NHM Learning Volunteer

Published by Leonie on behalf of Learning Volunteer Clare Green

When I was younger, going to the Natural History Museum with my family or on a school trip was always an exciting experience. Certain memories have stuck in my mind—having to be taken away, crying, from the animatronic T.rex because it was too scary, being fascinated at the size of the blue whale in the Whale Hall, or ascending with anticipation into the Earth through the escalator. These memories have remained with me into adulthood, eliciting a sense that I wouldn’t feel the same kind of excitement I had done when I was young.

How wrong I was! On my very first day as a Learning Volunteer, I realised that the excitement I’d felt as a kid was ready to bubble to the surface again.

Learning Volunteer Clare at the 2019 Winter Celebration Party

As a Learning Volunteer, it has been fascinating to see the Museum from another perspective, behind closed doors—seeing how activities are designed to engage visitors, learning about the history of the Museum itself, and visiting the giant squid in the basement, while trying not to look at all the fish eyes staring back at me from their jars.

One of the best things about being a Learning Volunteer is that you get to learn for the joy of learning, and then can share what you’ve learnt with visitors. The experience is so varied—I’m learning which features distinguish predators and prey by their skulls, how to tell the difference between ammonite and nautilus fossils, and that a sea urchin’s anus is on the top and its mouth is on the bottom (kids love this fact). Every training day, I’d come away reinforcing learning I remembered from school, as well as learning things I’d never heard before! I’d personally never been aware that megalodon existed—these are gigantic sharks, which were not that much smaller than blue whales. Holding the heavy megalodon teeth in my hands and comparing them to ‘tiny’ great white shark teeth evoked a sense of awe in me that I see in the visitors over and over again! https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/megalodon–the-truth-about-the-largest-shark-that-ever-lived.html

Tooth of an extinct shark (Otodus megalodon) on the left, compared with a tooth from a modern Great White shark,(Carcharodon carcharias) on the right.

Engaging with people about science has always been something I’ve loved doing. Bringing out a massive sabre-tooth cat skull and watching visitors’ eyes fill with wonder is an amazing experience. Of course, the Museum draws in many children and school groups, so I’ve had a lot of experience interacting with young ones. While delivering an activity, I’ve learnt to keep half an eye on where the shark teeth are being spirited off to! Seeing children get excited about natural history and offering their own ideas to questions we ask them (for example, why has the ammonite died out but the nautilus survived?) is very fulfilling, but it’s even more rewarding to get someone interested in a specimen who at first was reluctant to engage with you. Sometimes, the adults accompanying their children may feel like the activity isn’t for them, but as soon as you direct a question their way, you can see curiosity get the better of them and they’ll come away having learnt something new.

As well as being on gallery interacting with visitors, the Learning Volunteer Programme offers other types of enrichment, such as embarking on one of the Behind the Scenes Spirit Collection Tours to see specimens kept behind closed doors. It’s also given me the chance to visit exhibitions at the Museum—I slipped into the Wildlife Photographer of the Year one day after volunteering, and ended up spending a lot more time in there than I’d anticipated. It’s an opportunity to get to know other volunteers, through working with them to deliver an activity, to hearing different perspectives at training sessions or simply having a chat over lunch. I found that one of the best ways to learn how to deliver an activity with the public was to watch what other volunteers were doing and pick up tips from them!

Getting Back on Track

When the Museum was closed over the lockdown period, Learning Volunteers got involved in remote opportunities and continued their learning online. I’m so excited the Museum is very much open and Learning Volunteers are getting back to communicating with the public about science, and I’m hoping I haven’t forgotten too much! I’ll end this Blog post on a conversation I had while volunteering—after talking to a little girl about the features of an animal skull, she’d asked me what it was like to volunteer at the museum, and had said that she’d like to do that when she was older. It’s clear that visitors’ fascination with the Natural History Museum isn’t limited to just visiting it, but rather sharing what they’ve learnt there with others.

Learning Volunteer Emilia with the lion skull and a young visitor

Leonie adds: Hundreds of people donate their time to engage visitors in our galleries and supporting our scientists and the collections. Volunteers are key in supporting the Museum and its work. As Volunteers’ Week 2022 draws to a close we say a very big ‘thank you!’ to them.

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