Meet our volunteers… Heidi and John 

It’s Volunteers’ Week in the UK this week and we wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate our fantastic Digitisation Volunteers. Every day this week we will be sharing their stories and thoughts in our Meet our volunteers series – we hope you enjoy meeting them!

Heidi in the Courtauld lift and John in his makeshift recording studio.

Why I volunteer…

Heidi: Of all places, I saw a retweet on Twitter asking for volunteers who were needed for a digitisation project at The Courtauld Institute of Art, they needed help recording and saving many 1,000s of photographs they have stored in collections. Like most people, I knew of and had visited most of the big London museums and galleries, but the Courtauld had always had an air of mystery, needless to say, I’d been to Somerset House but had never actually gone inside. Therefore when I saw the chance to not only feed my curiosity but also my love of Architecture and the Arts, as well as doing something that sounded extremely interesting and worthwhile, I immediately applied to volunteer. I love coming to such an amazing building, I’m still overly curious about my surrounding (Somerset House is vast), the many boxes of photos, and taking part in saving minute pieces of history that all add up to one amazing collection, rather like putting together an image pixel by pixel until you get the whole picture.

John: To support the Courtauld, as the Gallery has been part of my imagination all my adult life.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Heidi: I start each shift knowing what I’m going to be doing, usually it’s Metadata, my favourite, but also knowing that there’s going to be surprises, mysteries I have to solve, handwriting for instance. But that’s what I enjoy, the repetitiveness of interesting information (I’m a born organizer), when suddenly you’re confronted by a challenge and it needs to be solved then and there. Every shift I learn something new, whether it’s through the photos themselves or the information that accompanies them.

John: Finding beautiful or unusual detail in the photographs of the Conway – such as this sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral.

CON_B00089_F002_026 with John’s drawing

A favourite photo or moment?

Heidi: The photographs that have made me stop and stare were the boxes of the Plans of the Vatican and Vatican City, several boxes containing masses of plans. I hadn’t realized the Vatican was so vast, the amount of rooms, the tunnels. I immediately wanted to go there and start exploring because you know for sure that there are going to be hidden rooms, hidden passageways not on any public records.

John: There are so many! But a recent wow moment was James Austin’s photos of the Eiffel Tower.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Heidi: Recently as I haven’t been able to go to the Courtauld or out & about really, I’ve been making things, though I have had to curb my enthusiasm for baking for obvious reasons. But I love steampunk, retro styles with a twist of Heidi woven in. So I began the lockdown all eager with some painting, note the wacky handles.

Heidi’s revamped lockdown shelves.

I have three children, and six grandchildren (7, 9, 11, 13, 16, 19) so apart from using Houseparty, Whatsapp etc we have all become penpals, which is taking up a bit of time too. I was always going to exhibitions, galleries etc but what I have been doing is going for 2-4 hour walks (…all my home baking!) There is not a better way to explore London and I have yet to get lost (touch wood), and before Lockdown I spent every other long weekend in Essex where my family are, I miss the sea and the countryside too.

John: I do a lot of drawing, and images from the Conway Library have inspired me. I am also a keen reader of history and like to relate events to what was happening in the arts at the same time.

What would you say to someone who wasn’t sure whether volunteering is for them?

Heidi: When I first started volunteering I was unsure what to expect, I decided to try everything 2-3 times then decide if I wanted to alternate or choose one task. I was drawn to Metadata as working on my own suits me but there’s always help and plenty of advice when I need it, which is often! Metadata can be like a puzzle and I’m a “puzzle foodie”. But by volunteering for the project you get the opportunity to do several jobs, from camera work to research, from group work to individual work but with the knowledge that you will always have a wealth of knowledge and help if you need it from an extremely experienced merry band of overseers. Whether you’re a chatterbox or a bit shy, whether you have an interest in architecture, the arts, or just want to learn something new, I can think of no better way of doing so than in a prestigious environment with a group of like-minded people, not forgetting an awesome common room with ever plenty biscuits, & coffee ;-).

I have been asked to provide a photo if possible, I have been on numerous outings with the Courtauld, amazing places, and when it comes time for the photoshoot I’m the one ducking down at the back  o_O  …. So the one at the top of this post is one of me in the Courtauld lift, if you see me come and say hi!

John: Just try it for a few weeks. You have nothing to lose, you can stop if you wish. Everyone is so friendly and supportive, and they would never hassle.

The Digital Media team are so friendly and positive, always upbeat, informed and interesting, so it is always a pleasure to be in their company, even if only online. They also set a tone for the volunteers, who tend to fall in with this attitude.

Volunteering during lockdown

John: During COVID lockdown I’ve found it is helpful to set a routine of tasks drawn each day from a wide variety of possible activities. Research into aspects of the Conway is a great option, really interesting and stimulating, especially with the online meetings where we can discuss our work and share ideas. I’ve been recording audio versions of blog posts too – which will be ready to listen to soon!