Jobless adults benefit from Museum of London archive initiative

A few years ago, Nineteen Sixty-Eight decided to sever all connections with her past. So she gave up her birthname and took the identity of her birth year. A period of mental ill health had left her isolated and excluded from the world. She lost interest in everything, particularly thoughts of further education or a career.

But thanks to a few dedicated education workers and academics, and thousands of dusty museum artefacts, including a mummified cat, she is one of many people excluded from mainstream jobs or education to have gained new confidence and skills.

Nearly 12 months ago she joined a group of volunteers, including ex-offenders, people with learning disabilities and those who had left school with no qualifications, who were learning to become archivists at the Museum of London.

The Archive Volunteer Learning Project, funded by Heritage Lottery money, has proved a benefit to both sides. The museum gets help with the task of modernising the storage of tens of thousands of artefacts in its massive archive and seven of the 33 volunteers who took part have gone on to full-time jobs or further education.

All 33 volunteers enjoyed the project. Some liked it so much that they have stayed on as volunteers. They took part in archaeological digs at the remains of a castle in Tottenham, and they excavated a park in Shoreditch and found the remains of a street that was bombed in 1940. The dig featured in Channel 4’s archaeology series Time Team.

But there is a downside. The £50,000 one-off funding has all been spent and the museum is seeking new funding. If it doesn’t get it, at least one of the workers who did so much to kickstart the scheme will lose their job.

Roy Stephenson, the museum’s archaeological archive manager, says the scheme was a success on a personal level for the volunteers. But it has also opened the museum’s doors to people living nearby who would never have dreamed of paying a visit.

Stephenson says: “We need to secure some longer-term funding so the project can continue, as it was a success on many levels and led to people getting real jobs.”

Mark Thornhill was the education worker behind the scheme and it is his job that is now at risk. He says the short-term nature of the funding made many organisations such as prisons, charities and mental health organisations that work with socially excluded people reluctant to come on board.

This is unfortunate as the volunteers have nothing but positive things to say about the project. Nineteen says: “I had been unemployed for a long time because of mental health difficulties and lost all my confidence about getting back into work.

“Now I want to make a career in libraries and since being on the scheme I have got an internship with Tower Hamlets libraries. And I am starting a fine art degree in September. I thought I would never get the chance to do those things.

“My health is a lot better. My self-confidence is still a bit short, but much better than when I first came. The experience has been all positive, I even got a reference out of it. The only negative is that there isn’t the money to let it continue, which is a shame.”

Jamie Reynolds, 20, has been on the scheme for eight months after a long period of unemployment. Although funding for the formal project has finished, he enjoyed it so much he has become a regular volunteer.

He says: “The weirdest thing was finding a mummified cat and using it as the centrepiece of one of our displays on how animals lived with humans in London. I have really enjoyed working in the archive. I enjoyed driving the forklift and it has made me want a job in warehousing.”

Reynolds volunteers with his 15-year-old girlfriend Caroline Scroby, who has been excluded from school because she was being badly bullied. Staying at home led to agoraphobia, isolation and a loss of confidence. But as a result of the scheme she now feels that she can take a GCSE in English.

“Most jobs seemed boring but the work here was really interesting. I am having home classes now and I am going out and going shopping on my own. It was really interesting going on digs and finding glass, bottles and tiles from so long ago.”

➔ For more information about the project, including people interested in making donations to keep the project running, contact Roy Stephenson 

Lessons learned

The scheme resulted in improved numeric, literacy, IT and other essential life and work skills, as well as allowing volunteers to come away with a reference for potential employers.
Bringing unemployed volunteers from marginalised groups on board enhances community cohesion and reduces isolation.
Anyone interested in setting up a similar scheme should have good relations with referring agencies as volunteers need close support and help. Where possible, securing longer-term funding acts as an encouragement for referral agencies to stay engaged as there is less chance for their clients to get into long-term employment via short-term schemes.

This article appeared in the 26th July issue under the headline “Door to the past opens up a future”

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