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MERL and RED

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Overview

Who: University of Reading and the University Museums and Special Collections Service.

What: Accreditation of student volunteering. Through the RED (Reading Experience and Development) Award volunteering experience is written on career transcripts.

Why: Making this connection provides an opportunity for students to get outstanding training and experience with museums, libraries and archives. Accreditation actively values student volunteering. Involving students and university staff in museums opens up collections to a wider audience.

Where: Reading

When: Piloted 2008/9, ongoing. 

Project description

In Reading the University Museums and Special Collections Service (UMASCS) operates a centralised volunteering scheme across all its museums and collections. This includes, amongst many others the:

  • The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL)
  • The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology
  • The Beckett Archive
  • The University Special Collections
  • The Cole Museum of Zoology and
  • The Collections of Typography and Ephemera.

Most collections are based in associated subject departments. However, the designated collections of MERL and the Special Collections are based in the renovated Grade II William Waterhouse building on campus.

The museums and collections represented a significant part of the public face of the university, but many students were unaware that the collections even existed. This changed in 2005 when the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning-Applied Undergraduate Research Skills (CETL-AURS) paid for an undergraduate learning officer to develop 4 modules to be taught to humanities and social science students. Alongside this, a volunteer development officer was employed to recruit and manage student volunteers. This was so successful that there are now around 90 student volunteers working across campus collections.

However, these student volunteers had different needs to traditional retired volunteers and required more careers support. So in 2008-9 the UMASCS volunteer programme engaged in a further project funded by two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Museums Libraries and Archives South-East. The project involved the creation of new training resources and the development of an accreditation programme of volunteer work for University of Reading students volunteering with the campus collections.

students repairing pot in museumThe University's Student Union had already created an accreditation programme for their volunteers called MASIV (Modular Accreditation of Students in Volunteering). Students would submit a logbook of volunteering activity and an essay outlining what they had learnt from these experiences. A fellow volunteer and a volunteer supervisor would give references. This portfolio would then be assessed by a committee comprised of Student Union and University Representatives. If it met a pass/fail criteria the student had this noted on their degree transcript. (NB: This programme did not carry any academic marks, so completion of it did not affect the student's overall degree result).

To develop this initiative with UMASCS new workshops and resources were created. The project also sought to adapt the MASIV volunteer programme to make it more relevant to the needs of students volunteering with collections. The potential of e-portfolios as a method of supporting student reflection was also explored.

Students are involved in cataloguing, re-packaging of objects and archives, assisting on learning sessions and public events, tour guiding and marketing.

Workshops have been developed on Careers Planning (CVs, applications, interview technique), Audience Development, Collections Management, Museum Learning, Conservation and Working with the Public. 

Purpose

  • To make the Museum of English Rural Life collections relevant to students and staff of the University of Reading.
  • To increase capacity by utilising student skills when working with the public.
  • To explore how museum learning could enhance the Higher Education curriculum, by linking the existing accreditation of student volunteering into museum, library and archive settings. 

Results

There was significant awareness-raising of the museum amongst staff, students and the university administration.

The project saw the creation of an innovative informal volunteer accreditation scheme which complemented the new formal undergraduate modules developed as part of the CETL-AURS project.

A series of workshops and resources were developed to give students the training they needed to make a successful transition into the museum workforce.

Student volunteers were integral to the delivery of public programming, for example the MERL Toddlers Group was sustained mainly due to the involvement of a core group of dedicated student volunteers. 

student and child make willow basket

What went well

  1. The flexible nature of the assessment suited students’ schedules.
  2. The need for self-reflection helped students to think about their experiences and provided a template for future job and post-graduate applications.
  3. The students who applied were self-selecting and were mainly existing volunteers. However feedback suggested that the offer of accreditation was instrumental in attracting new volunteers.
  4. The programme seems to have a positive influence for students post graduation. One student was accepted on Leicester University's Museum Studies programme immediately following graduation.
  5. This project highlighted the university's expertise in this area and led to it being chosen as a regional base for Renaissance South-East's Volunteers for Museums project 2009-2011.
  6. The Student Union's MASIV scheme has been integrated into a more comprehensive award offered by the central university administration. The RED award (Reading Experience and Development Award) follows the MASIV programme's example in making accreditation suit the student schedule.

"The skills I have acquired as a volunteer have helped me in my degree and in making decisions about my future career. I am planning on working in this sector so I am hoping that the mixture of training, experience and accreditation from this project will impress potential employers." Student

"Being able to harness the enthusiasm and energy of our student community, while at the same time giving individuals a taste of working in our sector, has been a thoroughly positive experience for us. It is too early to draw firm conclusions but the involvement of students in volunteering projects seems to be paralleled by an increase in their use of the collections in their studies. A community that is involved in both preserving and using the collections – isn’t that what every heritage professional would like to see?" Senior staff, Museum

What didn't work well

  1. The running of the full set of workshops took a great deal of staff time which may not be sustainable past project funding. A pared down version may need to be offered.
  2. The MASIV programme was wound up and turned into the RED programme shortly after the end of the project. While this allows for continuity it also meant having to revise the programme shortly after it was created.
  3. As volunteers were self selecting there was a concern that the profile of the volunteer team might not reflect the full diversity of the student community. A Fair Access Internship scheme 2010 sought to address some of these issues.

Resources required

The two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (for Careers Management Skills and Applied Undergraduate Research Skills) were funded by HEFCE to develop and disseminate best practise in HE teaching and learning. Additional funding was provided by the former Museum, Libraries and Archive South East’s Workforce Development Fund.  

Top Tips

  1. A dedicated member of staff is needed to navigate the university administrative system. Somebody with combined knowledge of museum learning, volunteering and university administration is preferable.
  2. Trying to imitate traditional university teaching in volunteer accreditation doesn’t work. Volunteering needs to be fun even when it is accredited. Play to the strengths of learning with collections. Students respond positively to working with professionals and hands on learning.
  3. Accreditation structures for students need to reflect the unique learning environment of the museum. They must also be 'light-touch' so that they complement rather than conflict with academic schedules.

Contact details

Name: Rhi Smith

Email: r.smith@student.reading.ac.uk 

Website: CETL-AURS and MERL

See the book Speight, Reynolds and Cook (eds.) 'Museums and Design Education: Looking to Learn, Learning to See' (Ashgate: London) which includes a chapter on this project and discusses similar work at the V&A and the Powerhouse Museum.