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A Week in the Life of a Collections Volunteer

A passionate volunteer shares her experiences on spending a week with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

new place obverse
ER27/4a. Exemplification of New Place fine 4 May, 1597. Exemplification of a fine between William Shakespeare, gentleman, plaintiff, and William Underhill, gentleman, deforciant, of one messuage [New Place] two barns and two gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon. Parchment Document: (H, W) 220mm x 375mm. Seal Fragment: (H, W) O/A size 65mm x 65mm

‘Never meet your heroes’; that’s how the adage goes. It won’t be like you thought, so as long as you can just imagine it, you’ll never be disappointed, and you can remain nostalgic for what might one day occur. But as I stand looking down at the deed to Shakespeare’s New Place – perhaps as close to my hero as I will ever be – that’s not how I feel. In all honesty, I feel quite emotional. I’m being given a tour of the vaults of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and I could happily stay there all day. I love museums, I love old books and the history they bring with them, and I love Shakespeare. And here it feels like those worlds collide. I’m shown rarities I’ve longed to see (a David Garrick Hamlet playbill, the great seal of Henry VIII, the New Place deed with Shakespeare’s name) and learn pieces of history I’d never come across before (James Orchard Haliwell-Phillipps, notorious 19th Century script and folio snipper; a book on the way to bliss, subtitled in pencil by the author, ‘i.e. the Philosopher’s Stone’). I’m granted this privilege because I’m volunteering in the Collections department of the Trust for the week, and I can’t believe my luck.

I’ve wanted to work here for a long time. I recently finished a Masters in English Literature 1500–1900 specialising in Shakespeare, and I’m a long-time lover of the RSC and Stratford upon Avon, so it’s not a big surprise. The last time I was in Stratford was for a Shakespeare conference, and the enthusiasm of every person I met, every scholar and student, made me want more than ever to get behind the scenes, get involved in some small way in an organisation driven by a universal passion. Logistically I’m here because, quite simply, I asked. I said ‘wouldn’t it be great if – ‘, asked the question on a whim, and was welcomed in. I was warned that most of my work would be digital, and that suited me fine. I said before I arrived that I would happily do anything that would be helpful, and I proved myself right.

John Gerard’s Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597)
John Gerard’s Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597)

I arrive on Monday afternoon, nervous, and handling it in my usual way: by pretending not to be. The first thing I notice is the labyrinthine nature of the building, and quietly try and take note of landmarks, convinced I’ll walk into a meeting while on a quest for tea. I start to learn my way around the computer systems while working with photographs of archived oil paintings, many of which I see on my trip to the vaults the following day. There’s something about just being in the offices, complete with lanyard (which, let’s be honest, is all any of us need to feel vaguely important) that has me declaring it a great week before it’s really begun. I get to work with hundreds of images of museum materials, everything from bone china to bone fragments, and quickly feel at ease amongst a friendly team. On Wednesday I join the staff of the reading room in the archives (my favourite part of the building) collecting materials, and doing research on Tudor herbs and vegetables for an upcoming Heritage gardens project. I’ve never been a particular plant lover, but I spend several hours going through John Gerard’s Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) and am fascinated by the gastronomic and medical ‘virtues’ he ascribes to hundreds of plants. Did you know that cucumbers were eaten by Italians and Spaniards specifically to ‘repress the rage of lust’? Neither did I. Neither did the Italians or the Spaniards, I’d wager. Really the key recurring theme over the 1700 pages is that almost anything can make you vomit if you try hard enough, and that that is a positive result. I am unsurprised to learn that I have a much stronger connection to the Tudors’ literature than their medical techniques.

staff party hall's croft
Celebrating in the sun at Hall’s Croft

On Thursday I have a stroke of luck, and get to attend a staff party for celebrating New Place, the opening of which is two days away. I meet the CEO of the Trust, and try not to make a fool of myself in a garden full of people I hope to one day join as a colleague. And as Friday rolls around, I can’t believe it’s all gone by so quickly. I realise I don’t want to leave – as it always goes, just as I become comfortable with the systems, the building, the wonderful people, my time is up. But this small glimpse into the Collections department has made me determined to come back, to volunteer and maybe one day to work with the Trust. I’d recommend the experience to everyone passionate about museums and archives, not just Shakespeare. I leave the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust with a renewed interest in archives and a plan to look into training, a list of people and artefacts to research and, hopefully, a lanyard with my name on it. I also have an amendment to the adage: if your hero happens to be dead, meet the people who safeguard his legacy. As far as my experience goes, that won’t disappoint you.

If you want to find out more about volunteering opportunities at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, visit our volunteer page