When I left university in 2012, I was under the naïve impression that the piece of paper I clutched so delicately in my hand would have employers scrambling over each other to give me a job. Unfortunately, like many other graduates I was criticised for my lack of professional experience and I realised that the idea of volunteering was now more important than ever. Luckily for me, I was picked up by the Natural History Museum, a place where volunteering is well established; so much so, that they’re now developing their programmes to suit the needs of both the volunteers and the visitors. It was one of their latest experimental projects—V factor—that I joined.
In 2009, the NHM opened up a rather large, rather expensive, new venture known as the Darwin Centre. A towering cocoon surrounded by glass offices, it stands in the Orange Zone in the West wing of the Museum. The original intention was that it would showcase the remarkably diverse research which is carried out at the Museum on a daily basis.
Within the cocoon sat the Specimen Preparation Area (SPA), a lab built with the sole purpose of being a public engagement area. With the use of a simple microphone system, much like that in a bank, the public would be able to engage directly with a working scientist and talk about the work they were carrying out in the SPA.
On paper this seemed like a fantastic idea. People would ask profound, thought-provoking questions, and learn from talking with scientists who were working on real research projects. In reality, however, this plan did not turn out to be how they had originally envisioned it. The majority of visitors were children; children who cared more about the scientist’s marital status or sexual orientation than their work. Deemed by the scientists as obstructive rather than constructive to their research, the SPA was abandoned.
After many meetings over many months a solution was finally proposed. When the SPA was populated again in 2011, it signified the birth of a revolutionary initiative called V Factor. This time around, however, the SPA residents weren’t museum researchers, but volunteers.
V Factor was proposed as a mutually beneficial programme aimed to give as much back to the volunteers as they put in. Five volunteers would spend one day a week for 10 weeks working directly with a curator and their collection. During this time, they would not only have the chance to work with a world renowned natural history collection, but acquire useful tips, information and knowledge that might be applicable to their desired field of work. On top of this, V-Factor aimed to communicate science to as many members of the public as possible, and it did so in three distinct ways.
The first was direct engagement between staff and volunteers. Throughout their 10 weeks the volunteers work directly with a science project or collection that is being used in research. By learning the ins and outs of the science behind it, the volunteers also absorb a great deal of knowledge about a specific group of organisms. But not only do they work on these collections, they also spend their time in a series of very informal discussion sessions. The topics of which can range from ‘Who are Museum People?’ which explores the various roles within a museum, to more scientific topics such as the Linnaean classification system.
The second is direct engagement with the public outside the SPA. As mentioned before, the main feature of the SPA is a massive glass window through which the public can observe research as it takes place. Replacing the microphone is a group of volunteer leaders, who, as well as mentoring the V Factor volunteers, spend part of the session talking to visitors about the programme, its science and the people inside the lab.
Finally, the project aims to reach the general public outside the museum through an online database known as a Scratchpad. As an online taxonomic tool, the Scratchpad can be accessed by anyone, but most importantly by researchers all over the world. Sharing this information online allows the collection to be accessed remotely, but also spreads the information to a much wider audience. Alongside the taxonomic information runs a blog where people can read about the experience of volunteers and museum staff related to the project. Being part of V Factor has not only cemented my interest in science communication but is something I’m extremely proud to be part of, I would recommend it to anyone.Will Hunter is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.