Volunteer Week Archive

Meet our volunteers… Gill, Lorraine and Bill

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

Why I volunteer…

Gill: I’ve only recently joined the Courtauld volunteers, in mid-May – just by chance I came across details of the Open Courtauld Hour webinars on Zoom, and enjoyed watching them. In the one on 14 May I heard about the digitisation project, saw a photo of a big group of happy volunteers, and realised that it was exactly what I’ve been looking for! 

Lorraine: It’s so nice to be retired and to have time to do what I want. Learning is what drives me to volunteer – nothing altruistic I’m afraid (except the Year 13 student support in a local school).

Bill: To be helpful, and it gets me out of the house.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Gill: Courtauld volunteers are really well looked after by the wonderful members of staff, who make sure we’re well supplied with interesting work to suit our skills and knowledge. It was a bit of a learning curve for me at first, as it involved getting set up with various bits of new (to me) technology, such as Zooniverse and Slack. Fortunately, I’ve already been using Zoom quite a lot since late March, and it’s been fun to take part in a number of video conferencing sessions, meeting the staff and other volunteers to discuss aspects of the digitisation work, or just for a social chat to share recommended books, TV programmes, etc. I’m finding the remote working very flexible – there are different aspects to choose from, so it’s possible to dot around from one task to another for the sake of variety, or focus on one longer task, depending on how you’re feeling.

Lorraine: It’s the whole package really… the journey to and from the Aldwych, the various options available when in the Courtauld, the surprises when cataloguing or digitising, etc. The opportunity to research your own interests within the collection. I particularly enjoyed transcribing Anthony Kersting’s ledgers and his terrible handwriting!

Bill: Meeting crazy ‘arty’ people!

A favourite photo or moment?

Gill: I’ve been captioning a lot of Canterbury Cathedral images via Zooniverse – lots of different styles of column/capital. There was a lovely funny capital of a man with what looked like two donkeys on either side of him. Obviously that particular stone carver had a good sense of humour! 

A capital in the Conway crowdsourced metadata entry project on Zooniverse: World Architecture Unlocked.

Lorraine: The London boxes are fascinating – so much has been lost! I always enjoy photographs of modernist architecture (read Lorraine’s blog post here!): for instance, this image of the staircase in Bevin Court, Finsbury.

Bevin Court Stairs. CON_B04266_F001_022. The Conway Library.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Gill: I teach from home (mostly English as a Foreign Language), and I also work part-time for a picture library, where I do a lot of work with pictures from different periods in history and from different countries all around the world. My work involves researching the images, then captioning and keywording them. I’ve been on furlough from the picture library since 1 April, and when I discovered that the Courtauld has a team of volunteers doing similar work, I got in touch straight away! 

Lorraine: After 38 years of teaching, volunteering at the Courtauld reignited my interest in the History of Art and as a result, I recently completed an MA in History of Art and Photography. I’m now seriously considering a PhD but… who knows… do I have the time!? I also volunteer at the Tate archives and support year 13 students in a local school. When I am not researching or reading, I am a life-long football supporter and an avid Star Trek/Picard fan. I’m also an animal rescue fanatic – bears especially but all animals. I live South of the river with a long-suffering partner/husband and a cat.

Bill: I’m 83 and try to do as little as possible (some would say “no change there then”). In a past life, I have learned Russian (during National Service in the RAF) – mostly forgotten in the intervening 60 odd years. At school I learned Scholarship level French and German as well as Spanish. I’ve worked at GCHQ and the Home Office (in the since- renamed Royal Prerogative section) and after retirement managed volunteers at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. I follow Chelsea Football Club. I like to travel and use my camera.

The Conway items as they appear on Zooniverse’s World Architecture Unlocked. Gill and other volunteers who joined during the lockdown have only accessed the items in digital form.

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

Gill: Just give it a try – there’s nothing to lose, lots of support is available, and everyone is really friendly. 

Lorraine: You have nothing to lose and everything to gain… new skills, historical and photographic knowledge, and in many respects a greater understanding of what has been before. Become immersed in the vast range of images, from London in the 1950s and the lost English Country Houses to European cathedrals and the Middle East Mosques and Coptic Churches.

Bill: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I joined up but it has introduced me to a different “field” and increased my interest in photography. Meeting other people is normally great fun.

Bill examining a Conway box at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Volunteering during lockdown

Gill: Once my furlough period comes to an end and I can hopefully go back to work, I’d still like to continue as a Courtauld volunteer – I’m looking forward to visiting the Courtauld building and meeting people face-to-face when the time is right!

Bill: I live on my own and the interaction with others on the project during this stressful time has proved important to me in keeping a sense of perspective.

One of Lorraine’s contributions to Art Club.

One of Lorraine’s contributions to Art Club.

Artwork by Lorraine Stoker.

Meet our volunteers… Francesca and Anne

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!

Francesca and Anne

Why I volunteer…

Francesca: I am pursuing a career in the museum sector and wanted to gain some skills to help me. I also enjoy meeting new people and sharing stories and think that engaging with people over art is a fantastic starting point. Often personal stories are birthed from looking at an old photograph and relating to it, alongside conversations about its historical context which is always interesting. I am currently unemployed so need to fill my time wisely and find that the Courtauld provides me with many inspiring tasks to get on with. I would say I see my volunteering as 60% for career progression and learning skills and 40% as a hobby.

Anne: Having taken early retirement a few years ago I was on the lookout for a volunteering opportunity; I heard about the Courtauld Digitisation Project from a friend who volunteers and it sounded really interesting so I joined up to give it a go!

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Francesca: I enjoy learning about diverse and precious content in the Conway Library. The Courtauld has the best sense of community that I’ve ever experienced in a volunteer museum setting and I love making new friends who have something in common with myself (love of art). Many of the volunteers are from the older generation and I find it fascinating to spend time with them and hear about their experience and ideas.

Anne: I really enjoy trying my hand at different parts of the process of digitisation, and seeing how it all fits together. I love the randomness of what you come across in the collection – one week it is Le Corbusier architectural drawings, the next Celtic crosses in Cornwall. And it is always exciting to come across photographs of places you know – in my first session we were digitising photos of a church tower in Croatia I had visited on holiday a few years ago.

Celtic crosses in the Conway Library.

Do you have a favourite photo or part of the collection?

Anne: KER_NEG_G03999 – a photo of young people gathered around the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain (“Eros”) in Piccadilly Circus.

AF Kersting, Eros.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Francesca: The skills I learn while volunteering can be transferred to jobs that I will potentially have in the future in the museum sector (currently I am unemployed).  Working in the museum sector can be challenging at times because of the need to be up to date with the art world, so learning more about architecture and photography is always useful. When I’m not volunteering at the Courtauld I am applying for jobs, doing online learning, and volunteering elsewhere.

Anne: I have really got into birdwatching in the last couple of years, so I often go for day trips to local(ish) nature reserves armed with my binoculars and trusty little camera – I particularly like to visit the Thames estuary which has amazing water birds. I dabble in drawing a little, and enjoy making the most of London’s wonderful art galleries, and browsing the regular amazing exhibitions at London’s auction houses.

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

Francesca: I love volunteering here and even if there are things you’re not sure about there is bound to be something that will draw you in because there are a lot of diverse aspects of it that you can enjoy, whether that’s being sociable and making friends, engaging in the interesting art, learning new skills, or going on group museum trips. Another thing I would add is that the staff are very experienced and enjoy sharing and the collections, they are one of a kind, so the experience is very inspiring.

Anne: Give it a go! There are several different parts of the process you can try out which each require different types of skill, so you can find something which suits you or do a bit of everything. You’ll meet a very varied group of people, and be really well looked after by the lovely staff!

Volunteering during lockdown

Francesca: I think it’s important to keep an open mind during this time. The Art Club and general tasks to get on with have been useful for being creative and just filling up my time with something to work towards.  Staying at home all the time can often be demotivating because you lack a schedule, but the tasks from the Courtauld have positively rectified that.

Frncesca’s contribution to Art Club

Art Club prompt, week 4.

Anne: Volunteering at home during COVID19 has been a real surprise – there is a whole new set of tasks we can work on, and I’m really enjoying delving deep into (again) random bits of research in my own time. I worked in IT in my former life, so I am able to make good use of – and update! – my computer skills. The twice-weekly Zoom team calls have really helped give some structure to my weeks, and it has been lovely to gradually get to know other volunteers and the staff over the weeks. I’m also loving the Art Club, where we are given a weekly challenge and encouraged ever so gently to have a go at creating something to share with the group.

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!

Meet our volunteers… Olivia and Kristiāna

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!

Olivia and Kristiāna

Why I volunteer…

Olivia: I am looking to gain the experience this project has to offer, and I am extremely passionate about digitising and making this collection available for the general public.

Kristiāna: To do something special with my time and to spend it while volunteering for the Courtauld, or more specifically for the Conway Library. I find it quite special to be part of this project.

It’s a pure enjoyment to contribute my time. Learning more about the methods within archives has inspired me to look into an MA. I hope to work full time in archives one day – it would be quite special for me.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Olivia: The setting and the pictures – but I really enjoy the process as well. Also, the flexibility is amazing! Most volunteering projects require a set day of the week and a minimum of hours, while this one is super relaxed and convenient.

Kristiāna: I would say that I enjoy everything about volunteering, from the variety of tasks we can choose from to the conversations with other volunteers. But I particularly enjoy the atmosphere and the close observation of the photographs. I find it intriguing and mysterious at the same time and seeing that other people are interested in the processes and the stories of the photographs within the archives makes the whole shared experience quite special.

One of Kristiāna’s favourite images in Capture One.

A favourite photo or moment?

Olivia: I don’t have one yet! But being Italian, I had a lovely time seeing so many images from Italy, a few boxes have been almost emotional to look at, and I really hope I’ll encounter one with pictures from Florence when the Courtauld opens again – I’ve lived there for some years and miss it greatly.

Kristiāna: I don’t have a particular favourite photograph but I enjoy seeing different travel photographs especially after my own travels to Italy. It was very interesting to see photographs of the places that I visited that were taken years back, and to notice the differences in the atmosphere and people within them.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Olivia: I’m working as a visitor assistant at the British Museum and as a tour guide over the tourist seasons, but I’m also volunteering at the Royal Society of Sculptors. During this pandemic, I started working on a PhD proposal. I want to progress in experience and keep working in museums and galleries, so volunteering at the Courtauld is very related to what I do and it’s giving me an amazing experience!

Kristiāna: Unfortunately I lost my job due to the coronavirus in April, I used to work as a Creative Team Assistant for an Icelandic artist. But since then I have been helping my partner with setting up his business. I am quite crazy when it comes to details and organisation, therefore I have found the tasks at the Conway Library very related to my personality. Volunteering here really trains your attention to detail and organisation skills.

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

Olivia: Just try once – the place and the people you meet are lovely, and it’s so convenient and easy to fit around any schedule, that you’ll keep coming for sure.

Kristiāna: I would say that they should try before deciding it isn’t for them. There are a variety of tasks that we can choose from, but you can develop your favourite and if you don’t like others you can stick to that one. I didn’t have any particular expectations when I started but I knew it would be incredibly interesting and that I should take everything as it comes.

 This experience has been an eye-opener for me as I have decided that I want to do a postgraduate in archives and records management (hopefully in the near future) and to develop this as my profession. Being a part of the project has not only helped me to realise my future career goals but it has also been feeding my curiosity. 

Volunteering during lockdown

Olivia: I’ll admit I had a lot of ideas and wanted to get much more involved in so many things, including volunteering, when the pandemic started, and then I slowly started to feel the pressure of the situation and ended up doing way less than what I originally planned (as a lot of people, I guess). However, the team came up with lots of little projects, challenges and fun ideas for volunteering from home, which was lovely! I tried the “pass the pencil” challenge which was a really fun and easy way to break the pandemic routine, and I look forward to trying out the other tasks.

Kristiāna: I haven’t been volunteering at home that much due to personal and family reasons, but I am willing to find more time to focus on the tasks as I really enjoy being part of the project that is particularly photography related. I appreciate the opportunity to do the volunteering at home, it can shift your mind from this rather weird time in our lives now. 

Meet our volunteers… Muny and Shawn

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! 

Muny and Shawn

Why I volunteer…

Muny: Having worked in a stressful office environment in architecture for all of my professional career, in London and internationally, after starting a family I decided not to go back to that industry on a full-time basis.

Once both my children started school I decided to volunteer as a way of building my self-confidence and doing something for myself that I enjoy which would fit around school hours so I can bring up my children.

Shawn: I volunteer to gain experience working in the archival library, as well as to familiarise and better myself at data entry. I often volunteer on the accession task, typing up the names of photographers from each photograph.

Shawn often chooses the attributions task

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Muny: The Digital Media department’s enthusiasm for the project and making each volunteer valued is a strength to this project. I really enjoy the different aspects of the roles, every shift is unique depending on the tasks that are carried out each week. I also really enjoy meeting and working with different volunteers every week who all have enriching diverse backgrounds and I’m fascinated to hear how they came about volunteering too.

Shawn: I enjoy making new friends, and discovering place names of unheard landmarks locally or internationally. Most importantly of all, I enjoy trying new skills in whichever task provided by the digitisation team.

A favourite photo or moment?

Muny: Hands down, Italy, especially Ravello and various images of Tomar in Portugal and Leptis Magna in Libya.

Shawn: I enjoy everything at the Courtauld, but what I loved most was the Italian architecture dating back to the early twentieth centuries. I’ve never been to Italy, but seeing those photos got me interested in Italian culture and heritage.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Muny: Alongside my background in architecture, I have always had an interest in heritage, arts and photography and this led me to volunteer on the digitisation project at the Courtauld. The volunteer programme has been very well organised and there is a degree of flexibility in the hours and shifts which works perfectly around my busy family life with my children.

Shawn: I’ve been spending time trying to find other volunteer positions similar to Courtauld, but most of the time I do fun stuff such as baking, knitting or fixing up statues for the nativity scene at the local church in Warlingham where I live.

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

Muny: For me personally, I’m hoping that working hard as a volunteer will open new avenues and roles where there’s more flexibility in terms of hours. I am gaining confidence in myself slowly and learning so many new skills. I’m also gaining an invaluable and niche insight into the collection. I would highly recommend volunteering to others, to gain personal confidence or learning new skills. You have nothing to lose and it’s a welcoming environment in such a beautiful setting! Win-win situation!

Shawn: You don’t need prior experience to volunteer at the Courtauld because you’re here to learn, gain a new set of knowledge and skills, and to make friends.

Ravello. Photo by Muny Morgan.

Ravello. Photo by Muny Morgan.

Ravello. Photo by Muny Morgan.

Muny recreated Henry Moore's sculpture by taking a picture of her family dressed in white and lying on the lawn.

One of Muny’s submissions to Art Club.

Meet our volunteers… Celia and Erva

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!

Celia and Erva

Why I volunteer…

Celia: I enjoy keeping busy and helping out. This was a project I thought worth supporting. 

Erva: By volunteering, I contribute to both myself and other people around me. I focus on what brings me joy and what I can do to make a difference in other people’s lives, and as a result of that, I feel happiness in my own life. Also, different projects enable me to gain a new perspective and take stock of what I like, what I don’t.

I love to create. I’m passionate about editing and making it fun. My dream is to inspire others through my art (esp. photographs and films!). Time goes by in the blink of an eye, and I want to capture every moment. When it comes to the digitisation project, it allows me to deal with photographs and a variety of collections. That’s why I know what works for me. I become happier when I come across street and portrait photos.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Celia: I feel privileged to be a part of this project and to work with the amazing works in the library. The very positive and welcoming behaviour that volunteers get from all members of the Courtauld staff has been the unexpected bonus.

Celia is always in the camera vaults. Photo by Erva Akin.

Erva: The building and the environment of the Courtauld itself are very quiet and silent. I like the way we focus and dedicate time to our tasks with such commitment. I like the volunteer managers’ efforts to make us comfortable (biscuits and tea are great!). I remember many times staff encouraging us volunteers to take a break, I really appreciate that.

Erva opeerating Capture One in the Digitisation Studio at the Courtauld.

A favourite photo or moment?

Celia: Among many others, I really enjoyed the photos of church ruins in Turkey and early 20th German folders: @CON_B04367 etc

CON_B03844_F004_011. The Conway Library.

Erva: I don’t remember the box number, however, I really liked the Syrian woman portrait displaying in Hermitage Museum, Russia.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Celia: I am a Team London Ambassador, one of thousands of volunteers linked to the Office of the Mayor of London. I am a member of the Older People’s Advisory Group (OPAG) of Age UK Camden and participate in many of the age and or disability-related meetings and conferences in London. I love to walk and take photographs wherever possible.

Erva: I moved to the UK and I have been living in London for 8 months since September to study abroad. I am a law master student at Istanbul University, however, I hope to study filmmaking in the upcoming years in London. Since moving to London, I have participated in many volunteer activities such as London Short Film Festival (volunteer photographer) and Charing Cross Library (leading the English speaking club) while I am working on my LLM thesis. I like photographing and filming. I took an introductory documentary filmmaking course at UCL.

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

Celia: As I seem to espouse to everyone, even people I meet in the cinema, this project is a lovely mixture of art and technology. Anyone who wants to look at amazing photographs, or learn more about cataloguing, processing, or digitisation will find something to interest them. 

Erva: Volunteering at the Courtauld involves learning the technical and theoretical details of digital visual products which I focus on the intellectual property law side during my LLM at the university. Through these activities at the Courtauld, I am trying to build an interdisciplinary approach to the field. I would say “if you value art and photography and you want to feed your sense of beauty with aesthetically beautiful pieces of art, that’s the perfect place for you!”.

Volunteering during lockdown

Erva: I lose track of time in the time of coronavirus, so working on lots of different things at the same time is really difficult. Still, I find doing a little volunteering helps my mental wellbeing.

Celia during the lockdown.

Meet our volunteers… Dora and Ellie

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! 

Dora and Ellie

Why I volunteer…

Dora: Because I want to learn new skills – or use my own skills – related to the conservation of artefacts, to contribute to the project!

Ellie: Having graduated last July, I started volunteering at The Courtauld in order to gain experience working in archiving. I am also very passionate about photography and the Digitisation Project provides me with a perfect opportunity to enhance my photography knowledge.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Dora: I enjoy being part of a team and being appreciated for my contribution. I like discovering interesting photographs especially in remote parts of the world where also the inhabitants have been captured. The Conway files sometimes are like opening a time capsule.

Ellie: I love speaking with the other volunteers and often meet new people every week!

A favourite photo or moment?

Dora: These two are my favourite images so far.

The Conway Library. CON_B02929_F003_009.

The Conway Library. CON_B03845_F001_063.

Ellie: I spent a number of weeks working on images of churches across Italy, and would have to say that this has been my favourite part of the collection thus far. The detail on the religious engravings is unbelievable! I also found it particularly interesting when we would come across images of completely different churches that would have almost identical engravings and sculptures. 

What do you do when not volunteering?

Dora: I am a fine art artist, a painter, I love art, art history and especially contemporary art, so working for the Courtauld Connects digitisation project is great. When I do not paint I love cooking, reading books, visiting the latest art exhibitions, theatre, cinema.

Dora painting

Ellie: I love photography, particularly film photography, and am often photographing my friends in my spare time. I love to use a Canon T50 and just recently brought a flash which is proving to be so much fun to play around with!

Ellie Coombes, self-portrait

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

Dora: There is a lot of categorising and processing photographs digitally. It is also a treasure trove for photographers and historians. I like the environment that the staff has created for the volunteers – it is great to work with them, they are supportive and encouraging.

Ellie: I would definitely recommend volunteering. There are various different aspects of the project that you can participate in and I am certain you would find something you enjoy. It is also a great opportunity to meet new people. 

Volunteering during lockdown

Dora: I am very grateful to be part of the team as I was given the opportunity to volunteer some work during COVID19. I personally liked researching buildings for the Layers of London and it fitted perfectly with my life at home. As a volunteer, it is important to keep the connection open and alive during this time. I enjoy the support of the staff and the creativity that drives this project in an unusual way at a distance.

Ellie: I have really enjoyed being able to volunteer whilst self-isolating because it has helped to keep me busy and has been a great distraction tool. 

A painting by Dora Williams

Meet our volunteers… Barbara, Diane and Michael

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!

Barbara, Diane and Michael

Why I volunteer…

Barbara: To get out, meet people and do something useful.

Diane: I became a volunteer in 2018 when I had already been a pensioner for quite a few years. I have always been very active since finishing work with lots of projects on the go. However, when it was suggested to me by a friend to join the Courtauld it sounded interesting and something different. I try to attend every Monday morning when possible. I have made a new group of friends through joining and coming on a regular day. It’s a great feeling to somehow feel part of the real world again after just being a pensioner for so many years.

Michael: The main reason is to use my time in retirement positively and with the purpose of contributing to something that is of great interest to me.

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Barbara: I enjoy meeting the Monday morning group and discussing materials which vary week to week. Someone always has something interesting to organise or something witty to say. We are a noisy and fun bunch! Really missing the Monday morning bunch while we are on lockdown!

Diane: Technology is not my thing so I’m a bit limited in what I do but I really enjoy the sorting and labelling. I also enjoy working on the camera taking photos of the negatives. I really enjoyed the Italian section.
I feel it is a privilege to be a volunteer at the Courtauld and to be able to work on this wonderful project. I do miss coming in and look forward to returning after lockdown.

Michael: The community of volunteers on the project, particularly the diversity across age, gender and ethnicity. This is brought together by a committed, friendly and highly skilled staff team. The inclusiveness of their approach is exemplary.

A favourite photo or moment?

Barbara: I helped to organise a box of Epstein sculptures at what was the BMA and now Zimbabwe House on the Strand and also Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris. A lot of the Strand sculptures haven’t survived in their original condition so it was special to see them intact in a building near Somerset House.

Two images of the strand building of the british medical association featuring statues.

429 Strand. The Conway Library. CON_B07186_F003_009 and CON_B07186_F003_020.

Michael: It’s a Kersting photograph, a cathedral in France maybe. An interior shot – a woman kneels, as if in prayer, light rakes from a high window into the nave enhancing the spiritual significance of the building.

Kneeling in prayer, the Conway Library.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Barbara: I retired last year as an information literacy librarian at UCL, and previously I was a teacher. In both roles, I spent a lot of time learning and organising learning and information. At home, I care for my husband who has Alzheimer’s, yet I still enjoy travelling, gardening, attending plays and galleries, reading and meeting friends.

Diane: I was an Illustrator and lecturer in Art and Design when I was working. I still draw and paint and am always working on a project of some kind. I’m also a keen gardener. I go regularly to the gym. I’m a grandmother so I am very involved in childcare.

Michael: My interest in art generally and my affiliation to the Courtauld through its Public Programmes is encouraged further by my involvement in the project and the contact this affords with other volunteers.

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

Barbara: There are so many different jobs to do on the project, that if one job doesn’t suit, you can switch to another. It’s a real privilege to see historical photographs of bygone life and to work with friendly and interesting people.

Diane: Give it a go you may enjoy it!

Michael: I think I might say “give it a try, come and meet the team and see what’s on offer”.

Image showing a group of volunteers in the library.

Monday morning crew in the Conway Library.

Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19

Digitisation volunteering: our response to Covid-19

Although the coronavirus has put our digitisation activities on hold at Somerset House, the pandemic has unlocked an outpouring of creativity amongst our volunteers. By adapting quickly, we have been able to initiate remote activities to advance the cataloguing, interpretation and care of our photographic collections, logging over 1,200 hours of remote volunteering time to date since 18 March.


Background

Since our first open day in January 2017 over 900 volunteers have engaged with the Courtauld Connects digitisation project, donating over 25,000 hours of time. From the outset we have operated an almost constant programme of outreach, recruitment and training, and maintain an active community of around 230 regular volunteers, some of whom have each contributed nearly 700 hours of time. Activities on offer to volunteers include photography, labelling, copyright research, photographer attributions, transcription, and collection care.

Our volunteer community is diverse, exceeding targets set for us by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), and we cherish partnerships with My Action for Kids, Beyond Autism, and the Terrence Higgins Trust. In 2019 alone we supported 31 students on work placements of periods from a week to three months, and ran corporate volunteering sessions with companies including Willis Towers Watson, Mace, Cirium, LexisNexis, Ashurst, Boden, Sidley Austin, Marsh & McLennan, Tideway, Bank of England, AutoTrader and Facebook.

Volunteer group photo taken at Somerset House, Summer 2019

Volunteer group photo taken at Somerset House, Summer 2019

One belief remains constant: in order to deliver engaging content, without barriers or preconceptions, to the widest possible audience, we include that audience in its creation as fully as possible. Our volunteers’ efforts run through every part of this project, and it is their confidence, creativity and relentless dedication which we celebrate.

Before Covid-19 we were on target to finish the Conway Library by early 2021 before moving to the largely unpublished photographic archives of Anthony Kersting and Paul Laib. We will return to the studio as soon as guidance and practical considerations allow. In the meantime, this blog post describes a few of the ways in which we moved our activities online and strengthened our connection with the volunteer community which sits at the heart of this radical, transformational project.


Task management during Covid-19

To create and manage programmes of remote working, we record every activity on a master spreadsheet which includes a brief description of the task, links to internal and external documentation, and a priority number to measure how closely it maps onto the project’s core objectives. From this we can identify tasks we want to take forward, whilst refining or shelving those with less relevance or benefit. After an informal discussion, favoured tasks are then documented in detail in a pro forma for internal use which breaks them down under the following headings:

Title of task
On which material / collection is this task focussed?
Description of task,
How many volunteers can participate?
What equipment is needed?
Where will the task take place?
Instructions – how will the task be completed?
Who will supervise, and how?
What skills will participants learn and practice?
How will success be measured and judged?

No matter how detailed or trivial the task might seem, we also ensure that every one is matched against the same questions we answered in the Courtauld’s original application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund:

What difference will this task make for heritage?
What difference will this task make for people?
What difference will this task make for communities?

If a task reaches this stage and we’re still convinced of its value, we create a volunteer-friendly instruction sheet and launch it at one of our regular online meetings. The staff of the Digital Media Department then provide daily support and feedback through a dedicated channel on Slack, our digital hub for collaborations with our volunteers.

Although we continue to use Timecounts as a volunteer management system, managing the remote working activities of our large community within tasks requires a level of scrutiny that exceeds anything we had put in place before: one which enables us to log every activity, name, date and state of progress before checking and sign-off.

The following screenshot shows how we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks:

How we record and timestamp volunteer hours across each of the tasks

The following screenshot shows how we monitor progress across two specific tasks: the creation of draft Wikipedia pages for each of the photographers whose work appears in the Conway Library, and the production of audio transcripts of our blog posts in order to improve the accessibility of our storytelling and research.

The numbers are stacking up. From 18 March (the day following the suspension of in person volunteering activities and the start of remote working) to 1 June 2020 we have recorded:

1210.30 Volunteer From Home Hours
260 Kersting Mysteries solved
244 Conway Photographer Wikipedia template pages in progress
149 Conway Photographer Wikipedia pages ready for quality checking and publication
55 Layers of London records created
36 Audio Blog recordings in progress, with 13 ready to upload
28 volunteers have completed 752 subjects on Zooniverse.


Volunteering from home: researching the Conway Library photographers

The physical library is arranged by date period, then country, province, city or town. Notable buildings often occupy anything from a single box up to several shelves and, in certain locations, a division between sacred and secular architecture is present. However, for the first time since the library was created, our volunteers are revealing insights into the 400 named photographers whose work forms part of the collection. They inspect each photograph individually, and note down on a spreadsheet whether the name of its creator is present, usually in the form of a handwritten note or stamp.

Up to now all we knew about many of our photographers was their names. We turned the current situation into an opportunity for volunteers to research each photographer at home, with the objective of creating a biographical page for each on Wikipedia. The first step of the process is to assign to each volunteer a photographer’s name at random. Information they discover, such as her or his academic, bibliographic, and biographical details, references and external links is recorded on a pro forma which closely mirrors the Wikipedia page we will create for them. We communicate remotely with our volunteers every step of the way via a dedicated channel on Slack which now has 261 members, 64 of whom are actively writing photographer biographies. 244 biographies have been drafted so far, with 149 more in progress! The screenshot below shows a typical few days of the discussion currently taking place behind the scenes.

Readers might be surprised to know that, before the project created one, not even Anthony Kersting – described widely as the greatest architectural photographer of his generation – had a page on Wikipedia (we hold his collection of negatives and prints, and now expect to begin their digitisation in Summer 2021 ).


Volunteering from home: Kersting Mysteries

Anthony Kersting left his whole collection of negatives and prints to the Courtauld on his death in 2008.

He also left us his ledger books containing locations, descriptions and dates for almost every single photograph. In February our volunteers finished the massive two-year task of transcribing every one the ledgers, however his handwriting is often difficult to read, and many question marks remain.

To answer these, we created another Slack channel to which we upload high-res images of illegible entries, opening them up to the volunteer community to discuss, argue the case for a solution, and seek agreement. This involves a lot of Googling, and since we started we’ve all learned a lot about religious sites in Cairo, or alternative names of Eastern European towns.

 

One of the hardest parts of solving the Kersting mysteries is that he would spell things phonetically, or he might use a local spelling or variant spelling that isn’t used today. Volunteers are busy not only transcribing, but also translating. The product of this research will be the facility to geolocate almost all of his images on the new photographic collections website which this project will create.


Volunteering from home: Conservation

The Conway Library contains several thousand 19th century photographic prints. Many are rare, some are unique, and almost all are extremely susceptible to degradation and decay due to their particular chemical, synthetic and material qualities – the results of individual photographers’ experimentations and craftsmanship. We must understand the vulnerability of these objects to enable us to make the correct decisions and preserve them for the future and, in preparation, commissioned and submitted a Collections Conservation Plan to the NHLF. The period of closure has allowed us to plan and create training resources in the form of videos on handling, cleaning, selecting conservation materials, identifying deterioration, and storage, in anticipation of the digitisation of the Courtauld’s rich 19th century collections commencing soon after our return to the studio.

 

Volunteering from home: broadening access to the collection and teaching digital skills


Layers of London

Layers of London is a huge collaborative effort to map London’s history in a visual and interactive way, developed by the Institute of Historical Research. Anyone can access free historic maps of London and contribute stories and memories to create a social history resource about their local area, or places they have visited or researched.

We held a Layers of London training session attended by 16 volunteers back in February as we wanted to encourage them to use the site in their own time. However since lockdown we have adapted our instructions to provide a refresher for those volunteers we have already introduced to the project, and detailed guidance for newcomers.

By uploading a selection of Courtauld images to Layers of London, we are making the collection more accessible to a wider audience. Photographs that have been uploaded so far may be seen here: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/collections/446

Our partnership with Layers of London has allowed volunteers to add videos, text, or images from other places around the web, adding a richness to the story behind our photos. In many cases new information is sent back to us which isn’t recorded on the Conway’s photographic mounts.

So far, 22 volunteers are involved in this task. 55 records have been published, with a further 15 being drafted. Everyone who has taken part has learned new digital skills, research skills, made their own personal discoveries about our collections and shared them with a wide public audience who might have never discovered the rich and diverse coverage of the Conway.


Blog audio recording

Our blog has 57 posts (and counting!) on a range of topics linked to the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections. Almost all have been written by volunteers, interns, or students on work placement. We have long had ambitions to make audio versions of the posts to aid accessibility for people with a visual impairment. Since lockdown 13 recordings have been finished, with 36 more in progress. Clips will also be shared on social media and collected together in podcasts.

Volunteers engaged on this task have learnt new skills, from practical sound recording to speaking with confidence, and editing text for clarity. To support this activity we created a guide and made sample recordings (with photographs of the home-made pillow-fort setups to give professional results), and we give feedback on demos with tips and workshops on how to improve the sound if needed.


Art Club

We recognise that creativity and self expression, particularly in a social setting, is an important means of boosting mental health – perhaps now more than ever. Our Art Club brings these very human needs and our collection together.

Once a week a member of the team picks an image from the collection to inspire volunteers (or anyone who comes across our prompts on social media). We always leave the prompts open, so people can respond using any media they have: we’ve received paintings, drawings, photographs, found object sculptures, video, and even flash fiction. The Henry Moore Foundation particularly enjoyed everyone’s imaginative responses to Large Square Form With Cut!

We hold an Art Club video chat each week for people to share their techniques, talk about art, and hear from team members on techniques to try with minimal materials. Our discussions about images from the Ministry of Works Collection depicting the siege of Monte Cassino led to moving reflections on photography, war, and memorialisation.

We’d encourage anyone to get involved in Art Club: check out our Twitter and Instagram channels for the prompts: there’s no time limit on trying out any of them.


Zooniverse

The aims of every photographic and cataloguing activity we undertake are broadly those of raising awareness of the collections and the Courtauld, connecting with new audiences and providing them with content to foster learning and enjoyment at all levels. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when our audiences stop asking why our collections should be relevant to their interests, but start to ask why these images: whether beautiful, puzzling or shocking, are of interest to art historians – the content alone enticing and opening a door into the field of study.

A cornerstone of this content-centred approach is crowdsourced cataloguing. Whilst we wait for a new collections management and publishing system to be commissioned and built (which will itself have an embedded facility for crowdsourced cataloguing) we created a project called World Architecture Unlocked on Zooniverse, a platform involving hundreds of contributors worldwide, and uploaded the contents of the first 100 boxes from the Conway (over 8000 images), covering architecture from Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil and the beginning of early British. In each case we’re trying to do something which we always felt lay beyond the pragmatic objectives of this project which were to catalogue down to the box and folder level only: that of cataloguing individual images by transcribing everything written on their mounts.

After undergoing a period of internal testing by volunteers we’re now awaiting the go-ahead from Zoonioverse which will take this part of the project live. In the meantime anyone interested in contributing to the Zooniverse transcription is welcome to access World Architecture Unlocked, now in beta release.


Community!

We have always used Slack as a private social network for volunteers to use. However Slack has really come into its own since lockdown and, as well as run channels to discuss each volunteering task, we also run a fun_and_banter channel in which recommendations for books, podcasts, films, websites, and more are made. While we keep the recommendations mostly within the volunteer community, we often share some on our Twitter and Instagram channels, so make sure you follow us there. We’ve also been enjoying emoji games and sharing many art-related COVID memes. The London Boroughs emoji game had us occupied for a while!

We’ve run two Zoom chats per week since the first full week of closure, with between 23-46 volunteers joining us to catch up. We like to spend a few minutes going over project updates, but we always keep plenty of time just to check in and see how everyone is doing – and share yet more recommendations. Lorraine always has so many recommendations of all kinds from the seriously cultured to seriously silly, while Muny has shared great resources for teaching at home and keeping up with exercise! Another gripping twist of being online is that we are always learning about hidden talents: one week we found that we have bird watching (David), bird-photography (Christopher), and bird sketching (Anne) skills in our talented team! John has shared his hand-drawn print-out-and-colour in sheets, and Bill shared a gorgeous calligraphy front cover for a future book on Anthony Kersting, Sue went from Zoom skeptic to Zoom convert, and Francesca delighted us with her violin. We also welcomed some new volunteers like Gill, and welcomed back some old friends like Max, who volunteered with us back when the project started in 2017, and is now keeping in touch again with the online community.