April 18th, 2011

Volunteering in Conservation


Charles Bowdoin

             With summer quickly approaching there are a plethora of volunteer opportunities for students who wish to increase their knowledge of conservation through a more hands-on styled approach. Many students will be interning or simply volunteering their time in everything from field projects to full on museum work. The limited amount of time that can be spent learning in this manner demands that a volunteer should come prepared not just for physical and mental tasks, but also with a professional mindset as well. While there are a multitude of volunteer opportunity types within conservation there seems to be two main approaches to how a volunteer is expected to do their duties. One approach is usually associated with short-term projects where volunteers are forced to learn techniques and methods immediately on the job. The other approach would be that of a long-term project, or perhaps one with a smaller amount of volunteers that allows for more in depth one-on-one training for what is expected.

            To get more information on what is expected of first time volunteers two different conservators were contacted and asked what they would like volunteers to know before their first day of “work.” The first was Dr. Odile Madden, a research scientist of the Museum Conservation Institute within the Smithsonian. Dr. Madden had a few comments on basic things volunteers should know before their first day:

 1.        I wish interns, volunteers, visitors, administrators, and even conservators would avoid touching artifacts.  I remember being told as a kid that, “you see with your eyes, not with your hands.”  You would be amazed how often people walk into conservation labs, see an artifact on a table, and touch it.   Sometimes it’s in the course of conversation about the artifact.  Instead of describing a part of it or pointing, they put their fingers on it.  Ditto for picking things up and turning them over repeatedly.  All contact with the artifact should be considered a big deal and avoided when possible.  Hands off, people.

 2.       Another great conservation tip is to have your process and route planned when moving an artifact.  Clear the path of obstructions.  Prop open any doors you’ll need to pass through.  Have a place ready to put the artifact.  Then put the object on a cart, if appropriate, and move it.  Minimizes the risk of accidents.

 3.       No nail polish.  Even dry, it can make marks on surfaces you swipe with your hand.  If you don’t believe me, try swiping a red-nailed hand across a sheet of white paper on a table.  Also, many conservation treatments use solvents, like ethanol and acetone, which will dissolve the nail polish and get it all over the place.  Paint your toes instead.

             Another kind of project a volunteer may come across is one in which they will have more one-on-one time with a project lead, professor, etc. to get more in depth training. One such example of this style of project is the Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) Shipwreck project in conjuncture with East Carolina University. In regards to this project, the QAR Lab Director Sarah Watkins-Kenney was contacted and asked what volunteers should expect on their first day. Rather than simply “diving head first” into their work, volunteers are given an info sheet and an application. After that the following transpires:

 After reading the info sheet if they are still interested and submit the application form, the next step is that we arrange a time for them to come to the lab for an informal interview – for them to see the lab and meet us, and for the QAR staff to meet them. I also discuss with them what would be involved in volunteering at the lab, their interests and experience, the opportunities and limitations of volunteering. Another important part of this discussion is availability – their time schedules and ours. If there is a match then we set a start date. Prior to their first day I usually send them an email reminding about things such as parking permits, wearing closed shoes and long pants, and bringing their lunch! During the first week there is orientation and H&S training depending on the type of task the volunteer is doing. So as you see there has already been a lot of interaction and discussion before a volunteers’ first day.

While these are two examples of what is expected of volunteers within conservation there are certain to be more varieties of what a volunteer might come across during summer opportunities. As long as that volunteer approaches their project with a manner of professionalism, listens to and is respectful of their project leads, and utilizes some common sense their summer experience is sure to be both fun and educational.


General Conservation

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