Volunteer Voices: Engaging Volunteers with Contemporary Art and Heritage

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Arts and Cultures


Arising from the findings of the 'Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience: Creation, Consumption and Exchange' (MCAHE) research project (AH/N007557/1), Volunteer Voices will develop an innovative programme of heritage volunteer training on contemporary art interpretation, resulting in a resource that can be rolled out to the heritage sector nationally. MCAHE research revealed that while volunteers play a key role in engaging visitors with heritage sites, the volunteers often lack the knowledge and confidence to introduce this audience to the contemporary artworks that are increasingly a feature of heritage programming. Without interpretation, many visitors struggle to fully appreciate and enjoy the art they encounter.

Volunteer Voices is designed to address this gap through a co-developed training programme rooted in the MCAHE research. Volunteers will meet and work with creative artists, heritage staff and other stakeholders, gaining the knowledge, practical skills and confidence to introduce and interpret commissioned contemporary artworks to visitors at their heritage sites. The training programme will use methods of peer-to-peer learning, group social interaction and knowledge exchange which MCAHE findings showed to increase confidence and enable a reflective rather than 'reflexive' response to contemporary artworks.

This training need has been identified as an urgent priority within the heritage sector who are keen to implement change regarding volunteer training: 75% of heritage organisations identified volunteer development, training or experience enhancement as their top priority after recruitment (Heritage Volunteer Group survey 2019). Heritage organisations rely heavily on volunteers to enrich their visitors' experience: nearly half of all heritage volunteers work in front of house, education or engagement but only 3% work in exhibition-based roles. Working with new Project Partners and stakeholders, this Follow-On Funding for Impact and Engagement project places volunteers at the heart of its activities and seeks to create and promote 'best practice' training which will benefit both volunteer and audience experience, enabling the full value of heritage organisations' investment in commissioning contemporary art (in terms of time, money, HO resources and the creative energy of the artist) to be realised.

Planned Impact

The Volunteer Voices (VV) training programme will impact on communities of non-academic beneficiaries including heritage volunteers, heritage organisations (HOs), public visitors and visual artists. Our Project Partners will benefit directly through participation, while the broader heritage sector will benefit in the longer term through on-going dissemination activities. Through engaging with these communities throughout the project, we establish pathways to impact on volunteering in the heritage sector and public enjoyment and valuation of contemporary art within heritage properties, thus contributing to the further development of this important feature of the contemporary art ecology in the UK.

Heritage volunteers will benefit through the new knowledge, perspectives, skills and confidence gained in engaging heritage visitors with contemporary art, enriching their volunteering experience through encouraging interaction with the diverse range of visitors evidence shows contemporary art attracts. Peer-to-peer learning, articulating and sharing their new knowledge will enrich the volunteering environment. The Volunteers-in-Contemporary-Art Ambassador Network which will include members from different HOs, will support the exchange of best practice across the heritage sector (where, we learned from our MCAHE research, there is presently little interaction). The role, status and responsibilities of volunteers will be enhanced within the HO where they volunteer. Through their meetings with artists, volunteers will gain new in-depth knowledge of contemporary art. Those engaging in VV will form a scalable nexus of contemporary art literate volunteers who, via the network and peer to peer exchange, will contribute to a more confident and articulate volunteering body. The project will also contribute to embedding in the heritage sector the value of innovative and interactive training programmes, using this process as an effective method of volunteer development and encouraging VV participants to become ambassadors themselves to the next generation of aspiring heritage volunteers. Anticipated benefits will come on-stream in the post-funding period when Project Partner Arts&Heritage adopt and roll out VV.

Heritage organisations benefit from volunteers professionally trained and enthusiastic to interpret the artworks commissioned for their visitors and from a more confident, satisfied and empowered volunteer base (identified as key objectives in the HVG survey) who will be advocates for their contemporary art programmes. HOs benefit from increased certainty in the substantial investment they make in contemporary art, often using public money. This in turn can encourage further art commissioning, bringing new audiences and better experiences for existing visitors. The networking events and future symposia, part of the project legacy, will encourage on-going conversations amongst volunteers, and new opportunities for productive engagements between UK HOs. Volunteer recruitment may also benefit, increasing diversity and inclusion in the volunteering body and particularly amongst currently underrepresented under-35s, which HOs are keen to attract.

Heritage visitors will benefit through deeper engagement with contemporary art, gaining greater understanding and respect for the value and quality of contemporary art and artists, including as innovative communicators of important heritage narratives. Artists will benefit as their work will reach and be better appreciated by heritage audiences, gaining distinctive feedback on the way their work is perceived and understood through the volunteer studio visits. By increasing the level and quality of heritage visitors' engagement with contemporary art, VV can increase the value and priority HOs place on their contemporary art programmes, impacting on future commissioning opportunities and contributing towards a thriving culture of contemporary art commissioning in non-gallery spaces.


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Description Volunteers can be key agents in ensuring heritage organisations obtain optimal impact from contemporary art commissioning
Exploitation Route To promote the deployment of volunteers to optimise the impact of cultural programming within the heritage industry
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Our findings are already being taken up by heritage organisations (please see elsewhere in this submission for further details) and we anticipate this impact to grow. We are working with our partner Arts&Heritage to ensure post-award impact of our findings. Our findings continue to be used within the heritage industry
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Chemicals,Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Volunteer training
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact At the start of the VV pilot training, volunteers were asked to rate their level of knowledge about contemporary art and to score their own sense of confidence in talking to visitors about contemporary artworks that might be commissioned for, or exhibited at, their volunteering site. These responses ranged from 'poor' (5 respondents) to 'fair' (6) to 'fair-good' (1) in terms of knowledge; and from 'not confident' (10 respondents) to 'confident' (1) and 'very confident' (1) in terms of speaking to visitors about contemporary art. Comparing the personal statements made in their initial VV application forms with volunteers' feedback gathered in our closing 'Sounding Back' workshops, on film, and in follow-up meetings with the Volunteer Managers, participation in the training programme clearly made our participants feel more confident in their understanding of contemporary art, its contribution to heritage places, and the different forms that such projects and artworks might take. From their experience of talking about contemporary art and, importantly, of meeting with artists, our participants were much more enthused about the positive contribution that contemporary artists can make to a heritage setting and vitally for the future impact of our project, were much more committed to the role they could individually play in conveying these values to visitors.
Description Belsay Hall Art in Heritage Commission
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Organisation English Heritage 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2022 
End 08/2023
Description Follow on Funding for Impact and Engagement
Amount £80,000 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/X004279/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2022 
End 09/2023
Description Volunteer Voices in Action
Amount £25,000 (GBP)
Organisation Newcastle University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2023 
End 07/2023
Description Volunteer Voices: Engaging Volunteers with Contemporary Art and Heritage
Amount £79,762 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/V000799/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2020 
End 09/2021
Description Volunteer Voices Partners in the Heritage Industry 
Organisation Durham Cathedral
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution organising and delivering workshops for Durham Cathedral volunteers and working with the Durham Cathedral Volunteer Manager on training
Collaborator Contribution Partnering with us on the development of volunteer workshops and training
Impact Volunteer Voices workshops, volunteer training and project report
Start Year 2020
Description Volunteer Voices Partners in the Heritage Industry 
Organisation English Heritage
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Organising and delivering workshops for heritage volunteers
Collaborator Contribution Partnering on the development and delivery of workshops for heritage volunteers
Impact Workshop development and delivery. Volunteer training
Start Year 2017
Description Volunteer Voices Partners in the Heritage Industry 
Organisation Hoxne Heritage Group
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We have worked with the HVT to develop our dissemination plans for the project
Collaborator Contribution The HVG have worked with us to develop dissemination plans for project outcomes, including their conferences, regional meetings and newsletters
Impact The Volunteer Voices training package and films
Start Year 2020
Description Volunteer Voices Partners in the Heritage Industry 
Organisation National Trust
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Organising and conducting workshops attended by National Trust staff where volunteer training is developed
Collaborator Contribution Attending workshops where volunteer training is developed
Impact workshops, report preparation, volunteer training
Start Year 2017
Description Volunteer Voices workshops and training development 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The Volunteer Voices pilot training programme was structured around seven participatory workshops, artists' studio visits and site visits taking place over four months, April - July 2021. Because of restrictions on in-person meeting and social distancing measures in place during the height of the Covid19 pandemic the original plans for our workshops had to be amended, with the first three sessions shifting to online delivery via Zoom. The continuing uncertainties around local infection rates and changing Covid19 restrictions also meant that our plan for a final two-day residential workshop (at Ushaw) had to be abandoned. This was reconfigured as a smaller-scale one-day participant feedback event held at Newcastle University accompanied by two separate 'Sounding Back' sessions with the volunteer cohort and with volunteer managers held in September and November.

Workshop 1: 'Introduction to contemporary art in heritage practice' (22 April 2021, half-day session via Zoom). Led by members of the NU project team this first session was designed to introduce volunteer participants to the different approaches taken by contemporary artists in making artworks for heritage sites, including discussion of some basic contemporary art terms e.g. a 'commission', 'residency', a 'performance' or 'installation'. To open up participants thinking and to demonstrate these different approaches, a wide range of project examples were presented and explored in PowerPoint format. Following the presentation the group was then split up into smaller break-out rooms where participants were invited to share and discuss their own experiences of encountering contemporary art in heritage sites and the opportunities or issues they saw in talking to their own visitors about such activities, with each room then feeding back their findings to the full group.

Workshop 2: 'Contemporary art in heritage - exploring issues and experiences' (6 May 2021, via Zoom). Building on the opening discussions this second session looked in detail at three case study art in heritage projects, including presentations and Q&A with the curators, commissioners and one of the artists involved. A range of common issues were considered and examined: from artists' and organisational expectations to volunteer responsibilities and the problems of addressing negative audience reaction. Recapping on debate held in the first workshop, a quick-fire activity at the close of Workshop 2 invited the volunteers to give their own definitions of 'contemporary art': exploring a critical issue of language which continued to arise in many of our workshop discussions.

Workshop 3: 'Meeting the artists (1)' (20 May 2021, virtual studio visits via Zoom). Originally planned as in-person studio visits, but switched to online delivery, the aim of this session was to hear from artists themselves about how and why they want to make work for heritage places. The volunteer cohort met three artists during this workshop, each of whom had previously worked on a 'Meeting Point' commission managed by Arts&Heritage: Faye Claridge; Nadim Chaudry; and two members from the artist collective Brass Art. Each artist gave an individual presentation on their practice before joining together as a panel to answer volunteers' questions. An online resource pack with links to the artists' websites and selected projects was provided in advance of this workshop in order to familiarise our participants with the different practices we would be exploring and to help them to develop their own questions for the presenting artists.
Workshop 4: 'In a pickle - talking to visitors about contemporary art' (3 June 2021, in-person). This workshop - which was the first opportunity for our VV volunteer cohort to meet in-person - was hosted by BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. The workshop was co-delivered by Hayley Mills, Head of Visitor Experience at BALTIC, and a member of the BALTIC Crew - the gallery's front of house and live interpretation team. This session was also attended by some of our property Volunteer Managers. The session started by talking about the BALTIC Crew's 'factory settings' approach to talking to gallery visitors about the BALTIC exhibitions. It was noted that a key enabler was the individual time Crew members were given to do their own research on the artists and the artworks, and also how team members supported each other by sharing visitors' questions and feeding back on any difficult issues raised. Attending artist or curator talks and undertaking a Crew-led walk-through of the exhibition pre-opening was an important part of their preparation. As Hayley observed, gallery visitors need to work harder with some artworks than with others and artists themselves are often resistant to the idea of providing extensive written interpretation. Thus there was no set script for talking about an exhibition at BALTIC - instead the Crew's focus is on facilitating friendly, informal, and explorative visitor conversations around the exhibitions and artworks presented: an approach that our VV heritage volunteers were encouraged to take on.
Workshop 5: 'Meeting the artists (2)' (17 June 2021, in-person). Following on from our previous virtual 'meet the artists' workshop, this session gave our volunteers the opportunity to meet two artists, Wolfgang Weileder and Irene Brown, in their personal studio spaces at Newcastle University and also to take part in an in-person interactive workshop led by socially-engaged artist Lady Kitt. Each artist explained to the volunteers why they found working in heritage sites so interesting and how they researched and made work in response to these places. Visiting the artists in their workspaces, seeing artworks in progress, and hearing directly from the artists about their very different approaches to heritage-based practice, this session had a great impact on our volunteer cohort. It was described by at least one of our participants as a real 'eye-opener' - a session that brought the whole purpose of making contemporary art 'to life'.
Workshop 6: Site visit to 'In Praise of Makers' at Colne Valley Museum (1 July 2021, in-person). For this full day session we took our VV participants on a day trip to visit a new art commission 'In Praise of Makers' by artist Ed Kluz, being launched at the small volunteer-run Colne Valley Museum - an industrial heritage and social history museum on the outskirts of Huddersfield. Hosted by the museum's Chair of Trustees (and well-fortified with tea and delicious home-made cakes!) our participants had the opportunity to learn about the building's history and to tour the museum collection and its fascinating working exhibits in the company of CVM's volunteers. Small group sessions in the afternoon gave our VV volunteers the opportunity to talk directly with Ed about his inspiration for the commission and the local craft-based collaborations that were involved in creating the art installation.

Workshop 7: Volunteer Voices wrap-up discussion (15 July, in-person at Newcastle University). In this final workshop we asked VV participants to reflect on their experiences of the pilot training and to contribute their ideas about how the programme could be developed for future heritage volunteers. This interactive session was structured around a series of round table conversations and comments walls. During this session we revisited discussion on the reasons why heritage organizations are engaging with contemporary artists and gathered feedback on the value and effectiveness of our various programme activities. We then asked our participants to make suggestions about how they might share their learning from VV with fellow volunteers at their heritage properties, and to outline any additional support, going forward, that they might need to help them do this. Volunteers' suggestions for taking VV forward are discussed in the Sounding Back section below.

Additional VV activity

In addition to the workshop sessions outlined above, and to stimulate further social opportunity and contemporary art in heritage discovery, we also organised a series of voluntary visits to new contemporary art installations being presented over the summer months (July and August 2021) at three north east National Trust properties. There were: Phoebe Connolly's, Birds, Beasties and Bewick at Cherryburn; Lindsay Mendick and Dominic Watson's Waasa at Washington Old Hall; and Heinrich and Palmer's Limelight at Lindisfarne Castle. Each visit provided a very different experience for the volunteers. Whilst Heinrich and Palmer's digital works at Lindisfarne presented an ethereal and immersive experience, Birds Beasties and Bewick made direct reference to the work of eighteenth century printmaker Thomas Bewick through intricate glass engraving. Wassa animated a vast empty room in Washington Old Hall, presenting a ceramic feasting banquet of decay and folklore.

To facilitate and support the VV project a dedicated pilot resource hub was set up on the Arts&Heritage website. A password protected page led VV participants to Zoom session recordings, PowerPoint presentations, homework tasks and online resources that could be used in preparation for and as follow-up after the various workshop sessions and visits. These resources proved popular with our volunteer group with many participants using the links we provided to artists' projects and websites to research and formulate their own questions and debating points for our workshop discussions and the studio visits.
In addition to gathering feedback on the programme content and participants' experience of individual VV workshops (through Zoom 1:1s and online evaluation forms) to conclude the project we ran two in-person 'Sounding Back' sessions to further interrogate our collective learning from the VV pilot and to consider practical ways in which the programme could be taken forward. In the first session, the University Team reported back to the Volunteer Managers and to our heritage partner organisations on the discussions and issues raised by our volunteer participants at the VV Wrap-Up Workshop. Each organisation then responded to propose ways in which volunteer needs and suggestions might be accommodated or considered within their own future programming and volunteering structures. This then led on to a second 'Soundings' session where we facilitated a set of four property-focused exchanges in which our volunteers fed back directly to their volunteer managers and their programme leads on the VV experience and their ideas for taking this forward.
The recommendations and ideas put forward by VV volunteers for improving volunteer involvement in contemporary art presentation at heritage sites coalesced around three broad themes. The first of these themes is better communication. As our various workshop conversations around the institutional reasons for engaging with contemporary art demonstrated, our volunteers were not always conversant with or entirely clear about why their own heritage organisation or property was supporting or thinking about this type of activity. Without such understanding volunteers' confidence and interest in talking to visitors about contemporary artworks at their site and their wider buy-in to the overall contemporary art in heritage offer, could be undermined. While we appreciate the considerable lengths that some artists, curators, and heritage managers do go to in seeking to engage property volunteers with arts projects, our VV participants felt that their organisations needed to invest more staff resources in improving communication with their volunteers on this subject and also more generally in providing better lead-in information on what a site might be planning in terms of longer-term art programming. Often our volunteers thought that they were end of the line for receiving this type of information, with the result that art projects felt sprung upon them rather than actively involving them.

Secondly, our participants felt that heritage organisations could perhaps do better in valuing volunteers' contributions and potential, both in terms of drawing on an individual's prior, or indeed parallel, work experience and skill sets, but also more broadly as an active resource and asset to the organisation. As in our own VV participant cohort, many heritage volunteers hold deep knowledge about the histories and material collections of the properties where they volunteer. Those taking on visitor-facing roles, especially, are often enthusiastic educators - keen to share their own fascination, knowledge, and excitement about their site with the visiting public.

Thirdly, with the new confidence and interest in contemporary art derived from their involvement in the VV training, our participants were vocal in wanting a deeper engagement with contemporary art projects and programming at their heritage site, seeing this as essential to their future role as on-site contemporary art interpreters. Reflecting on their experiences of VV, getting to meet with commissioned or exhibiting artists prior to the public launch of an art project (and preferably earlier on), having the opportunity to ask their own questions of the artist and to share with them their own knowledge of the site and understandings of the visitor experience, were voiced as a key benefit and future need. Going further, VV participants suggested that in future, trained volunteers should be invited to play an active role in the commissioning process, with representation on artists selection panels for individual projects, and joining discussions with artists and property staff on appropriate methods for artwork interpretation and evaluation.

Beyond the commissioning process itself, VV participants suggested several practical ways in which they, and future VV 'graduates', could be more creatively engaged in the presentation of contemporary artworks at their volunteering site.

"We could"
• organise a workshop or social event with the artist for fellow volunteers to come to.
• give a guided tour or talk about the artwork.
• lead a walk-through of the installation/exhibition for other site volunteers.
• produce an interpretation video introducing the artwork to visitors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021