Helping hands of history

Harriet Walsh inspects a 16th century storage bowl, or skippet, at Ryedale Folk Museum

Harriet Walsh inspects a 16th century storage bowl, or skippet, at Ryedale Folk Museum

  • They don’t get paid, often work weekends and bank holidays, but do it as a labour of love. Lucy Oates meets the unsung army who keep Yorkshire’s visitor attractions and museums open. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
0
Have your say

Hundreds of thousands of people pass through the doors of Ryedale’s museums and visitor attractions each year, yet few realise that most of the “staff” they encounter are actually volunteers who give up their free time to care for the collections.

Without them, it would be virtually impossible for the museums to open their doors to the public, let alone stage special events and exhibitions.

Volunteer Hilda Sissons sorting out the washing in the Victorian kitchen setting at Beck Isle Museum in Pickering

Volunteer Hilda Sissons sorting out the washing in the Victorian kitchen setting at Beck Isle Museum in Pickering

Jennifer Smith, director of Ryedale Folk Museum at Hutton-le-Hole in the North York Moors National Park, can call upon the services of an army of more than 100 volunteers, who carry out a wide range of functions, from cataloguing the museum’s collections and meeting and greeting visitors to maintaining the extensive grounds and caring for the livestock.

“Ryedale Folk Museum was built on the spirit of local people doing something to preserve their local heritage for future generations,” she said. “Our volunteers embody that same ethos today; they enable the community to be at the heart of the museum, making it run and taking it forward.”

One such volunteer is 82 year-old Jo Harvey, who Jennifer describes as a “stalwart”. Jo, who lives in a nearby village and has been volunteering for around 15 years, usually gives up the equivalent of a day each week to work with the museum’s costume collection and care for the White Cottage garden in the grounds.

She likes the fact that volunteers can get involved in the areas that appeal to them most. “You can pick and choose – volunteers are always asked what areas they want to help in,” she said.

Volunteer  Hilda Sissons with  a coset from c 1800 next to Polly Marshall's (from Pickering)  England Cricket jacket  from the 1950-60's in her tiny storeroom  at the Beck Isle Museum in Pickering.

Volunteer Hilda Sissons with a coset from c 1800 next to Polly Marshall's (from Pickering) England Cricket jacket from the 1950-60's in her tiny storeroom at the Beck Isle Museum in Pickering.

“I’ve recently been involved in cataloguing the quilt collection and creating an exhibition of quilts that will be on display throughout the summer. It’s very flexible, so you can do the hours that suit you and be fairly independent. I learnt how to care for the White Cottage garden after helping someone else with it, but I’m currently doing it by myself. There are so many different roles, both inside and outside. It’s interesting and varied work, I don’t get bored. I’m very fond of it.”

You could be forgiven for assuming that Jo must be one of Ryedale’s oldest volunteers, but 93-year-old Edna King, of Pickering, has been helping out at the town’s Beck Isle Museum since 1987. Until recently she was the museum’s documentation officer, but had to give up the post because she was no longer able to climb the stairs to the office.

Undeterred, Edna can still be found manning the reception desk twice a month, a role that involves greeting visitors, issuing them with tickets and answering any questions they may have.

She said: “I’ve handled most of the things on display and a lot of what’s in the store rooms, so I can usually tell people what they need to know. That’s why I’m reluctant to leave; it keeps my brain active. It’s such a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, and we have a wonderful collection of items relating to rural life.

Some of the medical items including a c1830 artificial hand from  the Harrison Collection that have been donated to the Ryedale Folk Museum at Hutton le Hole.

Some of the medical items including a c1830 artificial hand from the Harrison Collection that have been donated to the Ryedale Folk Museum at Hutton le Hole.

“I initially volunteered with my late husband, Derek, and, together, we created the first proper cataloguing system at the museum, which took several years.

“I’ve seen a great number of changes over the years, as the museum has been modernised. At first, a lot of the objects were on open display but just wired down. It was very old-fashioned. Over the years, the museum has been filled with more than 50 glass cases.”

Harriet Walsh, 24, is equally passionate about her role, but chose to volunteer for very different reasons to Edna and Jo. Having completed a Master’s Degree in Art, Museum and Gallery Studies in December, Harriet travels from Hinderwell on the North Yorkshire Coast to work at Ryedale Folk Museum for two days each week in the hope that she will one day be able to secure paid employment in the field.

“I wanted the work experience really, volunteering can be a good way to get into it,” she said. “I usually work Mondays and Wednesdays, fitting it around my job at a pharmacy, and my main duty at the moment is cataloguing all of the household items from scratch – there are more than 7,000 items in all, so I’ve got my work cut out.

“When I was at university, I did a placement at the Royal Collections at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, which really made me want to work behind the scenes, rather than in a front-of-house role. It’s so interesting to see what’s in the collections.”

Volunteering plays a huge part in the lives of Pickering-based husband-and-wife-team Mark and Hilda Sissons. Hilda began volunteering at Beck Isle Museum seven years ago and currently occupies the position of costume custodian.

“I’d always been interested in costume, so, when the position became available, I jumped at the chance,” she said. “In theory, I work for three mornings each week, but there’s no such thing as a typical week.

“My role involves making sure the costumes are tidy, bagged, dated and recorded. I’m also involved in organising our heritage days, when we demonstrate traditional crafts, and our programme of children’s activities. During the summer, that includes creating a beach in one of the rooms. It’s definitely something you do for the love of it as I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder.”

Mark is undoubtedly one of Ryedale’s longest-serving volunteers, having clocked up 43 years with the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, where he is the archivist and also helps out with general maintenance work. Since retiring seven years ago, he has dedicated an impressive three or four days each week to his volunteering duties, as well as weekends.

He joked: “When I first retired, I vowed that I wouldn’t end up spending all my time here, but I’ve become more and more involved. Maintenance work can involve anything from laying track to painting rolling stock, so it is a great way to keep fit.”

As Europe’s largest heritage railway, the NYMR employs 120 staff but also has a pool of more than 500 volunteers. Most jobs – including the role of train driver – are carried out by a combination of the two, with volunteers trained to the same industry standards as employees.

Mark said: “Almost every role is done by both volunteers and employees, so it’s very varied and we get people from all walks of life. I always joke that it keeps the retired population of Pickering off the streets and out of the pub.”

Bruce Pickup, of Pickering, who has been volunteering at Beck Isle Museum since retiring from a management role at BATA three years ago, also believes that volunteering is a great way to spend your retirement.

He said: “I work here for about half a day each week and volunteering is real fun. I worry for people who retired at the same time as me but don’t get involved – they don’t know what they’re missing.”

Bruce has put his business acumen to good use by launching a sponsorship scheme. “We realised that local people account for only ten per cent of our visitors and, to survive, we need to appeal to the local community. We now have 15 or 20 local businesses sponsoring different areas, from whole rooms to individual cabinets. It’s a great way of involving people; people from those businesses now bring their kids along to our dinosaur days and other events.”

Malton Museum, which is located in the Assembly Rooms on Yorkersgate, is staffed entirely by volunteers. Josie Downs, who lives in the town is a long-term Friend of Malton Museum and organises the group’s monthly series of lectures, as well as helping to catalogue and safely store items from the collection behind the scenes.

Josie said: “There’s quite a social aspect to it, but I think it’s also about having pride in Malton’s heritage. Historically, Malton was a very significant place and I don’t think that’s recognised enough. I like to play my part in helping to bring that to people’s attention.”

There are always volunteering opportunities at Ryedale’s museums, but Beck Isle Museum is currently recruiting people to help with the Remember Scarborough Project, which was set up in 2013 to mark the centenary of the First World War.

For more information on Ryedale’s museums visit www.visitryedale.co.uk. Volunteers week runs from June 1 to 7.

Back to the top of the page