Time travel and technical toys: Volunteering for the Science and Technology department

There are many reasons why people volunteer at museums. For some it is a way of passing down the knowledge that they have obtained throughout their life, others have a love of history that drives them to give time and effort to keep history alive. I have no such noble reason for giving my time – I was simply bored. Like the retired gentlemen that return week after week, I had a large amount of time on my hands this summer before I return to university for the final year of my university degree, so I decided that rather then sit at home and waste the summer months I would do something with my time.

Each department at the museum is different and the National Museums Scotland encompasses a number of different museums, so there is a place for all kinds of people who are willing to give of their time. I found my place in the Science and Technology department.

When you volunteer you have a specific job or area of work that you dedicate your time to. This is not to say that this is all you do, but it is what you return to time and again to try and complete. For me this task is cataloguing the collection of stereocards, which is part of the larger Howarth-Loomes collection. I am not the only person that is working on this or even the only volunteer, it is a huge and fascinating collection. Each and every set of pictures has a story and it is a chance to travel though time without ever leaving the comfort of the office.

A stereocard from the Howarth-Loomes Collection
A stereocard from the Howarth-Loomes Collection labelled ‘Lunatic Asylum as seen from the Botanic Garden.’ It is from Adelaide, South Australia

The National Museum is currently gearing up to open new exhibitions in the coming years and as always new collections are being received. Because of this there are a lot of different types of jobs that need to be done. In addition to cataloguing stereocards, I also worked on an upcoming exhibit for the Art and Industry gallery, which is due to reopen at the same time as the Royal Museum. This has a section which is about technology toys. If you think of the expression “boys and their toys” you will be able to understand some of the excitement that has been in the department. Nobody really grows out of their childhood completely and the sight of a favourite toy never fails to bring back the excitement and sense of adventure that we remember as children. If you go and see the new gallery, look out for the LEGO, Meccano and Knex models, which are my contribution.

Some of the toys which are to go on display
Some of the toys which are to go on display in the Art and Industry gallery.

How many people get to sit with some period LEGO and build what they like, within certain dimensions? That was definitely a highlight of my summer, but there are many more. If looking at toys is not what you enjoy doing, or if you have children of your own that want to try their hand at building their own toys, there is a chance to build a telescope as part of the new schools program or create a working lighthouse. Both are my designs and I hope that it will be fun for the children to build them.

My final job before the summer drew to a close was to catalogue a collection which has been given to us by the NHS, more specifically the Southeast Mobility and Rehabilitation Technology (SMART) Centre. As for what’s actually in the collection, no doubt that will be revealed in a future blog.

Volunteering is well worth your time. If you are considering it then you should try it, it could lead to some amazing experiences and memories. The people that work for the museum have a large range of knowledge, and interests in many different things so there are possibilities for some very interesting discussions.

You can find out more about volunteering for National Museums Scotland here.

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