Volunteer Voices

Volunteer Voices: a pilot training programme for heritage volunteers 

Volunteer participants and the project team at Newcastle University. Photo: Jonny WaltonVolunteer participants and the project team at Newcastle University. Photo: Jonny Walton. 


The MCAHE project showed that heritage volunteers are a key, but under-used, public resource in contemporary art in heritage practice. Heritage volunteers are rarely offered any support to help them interpret contemporary artworks or provided with much background information about the artworks or the artists being presented at their properties. Nor is the heritage organisation’s overall rationale for commissioning contemporary art for heritage places well understood by volunteers. While heritage organisations rely heavily on volunteers to provide high quality and informative experiences for their visitors, pointing visitors to interesting features and the sometimes hidden historical narratives associated with their properties, in many cases a meaningful discussion about the contemporary artworks commissioned for a site is missed. In failing to prepare volunteers for, or capitalise on, such opportunities the full value of investment in a contemporary art project – time, money, organisational input, and the creative energy of the artist – may not be properly realised.

Our aim with ‘Volunteer Voices’ was therefore to design and pilot a new model for heritage volunteer training that would focus specifically on giving volunteers a better understanding of contemporary art in heritage practice and through that, building their ability and confidence to speak about contemporary artworks to their visitors – enriching the overall visitor experience, but importantly also the satisfaction gained from their own volunteering.

Our pilot training programme involved a cohort of volunteers working at six very different north-east heritage sites: Durham Cathedral, Belsay Hall, Cherryburn, Gibside, Hadrian’s Wall and Ushaw Historic House, Chapels, and Gardens. It was structured around a series of online and in-person workshops, artists’ studio discussions and site visits taking place over four months, April – July 2021.

Group learning from these activities is captured in four short training films where participating volunteers and artists, heritage site staff and members of the Volunteer Voices project team share their own interest in and experience of contemporary art in heritage.

What is contemporary art?

Why do artists like working with heritage?

Talking to visitors

Paul’s Story

Full details of the ‘Volunteer Voices’ pilot training programme and practical recommendations arising from the project are provided in our Volunteer Voices Industry Stakeholders Report.

‘Volunteer Voices’ was led by a project team based in the School of Arts and Cultures at Newcastle University (Judith King, Rebecca Farley, Kiki Claxton, and Andrew Burton) and was delivered in partnership with Arts&Heritage, National Trust, English Heritage, Durham CathedralUshaw Historic House, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and the Heritage Volunteering Group. It was funded by Newcastle University and AHRC.