Volunteers Week: John shares experience as a curatorial volunteer

“There are literally thousands of drawings that need looking at, measuring and photographing. There are probably 100 in each drawer, and it takes a long time to do each one, which is why we started seven years ago!”

John is a volunteer for the Science and Technology department at National Museums Scotland, mostly based at the National Museums Collections Centre. This week is Volunteers Week, an annual celebration of the contribution made by millions of volunteers across the UK. So we decided to ask John five questions about his time spent as a volunteer.

John at work with the drawings at the National Museums Collection Centre.
John at work with the drawings at the National Museums Collection Centre.

How did you find out about volunteering at National Museums Scotland and what attracted you to sign up?

I had just moved to Edinburgh with my family and was close to retirement, when I must have picked up a leaflet about ‘Curator’s Choice’ – a one hour talk at National Museum of Scotland. At the end of the lecture I thought about all the projects that had been discussed and said to my wife, “I wonder if they take on volunteers” and she said, “I was thinking that you might be interested in that.” So I went to talk to one of the curators from Science and Technology and she said yes! They got me hooked and I’m here forevermore.

Has volunteering met your expectations so far?

Well I don’t think I had any expectations as such – it was something I had an interest in and wanted to know more about. But I immediately got into it and I love every minute – whatever we’re doing. It’s been over the seven years now. We’ve mainly been looking at engineering drawings that people have drawn from centuries ago such as 1850s and 1860s and measuring them, photographing them, protecting them and then putting them onto Adlib.

T.1971.X.176.7 Blueprint for the Forth Railway Bridge, one of set of twelve drawings, 1880s.
T.1971.X.176.7 Blueprint for the Forth Railway Bridge, one of set of twelve drawings, 1880s.

What do you enjoy most about it?

Oh, that’s a difficult one! Every time we come to the Collection Centre we go looking for things and find them. It’s the variety; I have come across a lot of things that I recognise from my younger days. It’s just the atmosphere here too – which seems strange because most of the time it’s just me working with another member of staff and occasionally you see someone else. Hopefully, I am contributing as well as getting something out of it.

What difference has volunteering made to you?

It has made me think that I should probably volunteer for more things, because I enjoy a different environment and I have a sense of humour – I can see the lighter side of things.

A view inside the National Museums Collection Centre
A view inside the National Museums Collection Centre

Would you recommend volunteering to others and why?

I do! My wife is a volunteer at the National Trust for Scotland and I just think it’s great to be able to have a different part to your life. So many people, when they hear I’m volunteering here say “What do you do there, are you in Chambers Street?” and I say “No, I’m at the Collections Centre” and those who know the Collections Centre say “Wow!” Lots of people are interested and didn’t realise that so many volunteers exist.


National Museums Scotland has over 500 volunteers making a valuable contribution to our work. Volunteers help in many of our departments and play an important role, increasing our visitors’ enjoyment and understanding of our collections. Find out more about current opportunities that are available here. 

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