Earlier this week, I was checking some of the objects in the Fusilier Museum’s collection in the Tower of London when I came across a very faded, sad looking set of medal ribbons. Nearly all the colour had gone from them and they didn’t seem very exciting. But when I looked them up on the museum catalogue, I found out that these were medal ribbons from the Crimean War and that one of them was the Victoria Cross - the highest military decoration of all. The recipient, a Scotsman by the name of Lieutenant William Hope, was one of the first to receive the VC, as the award had only been introduced a couple of years previously. I googled him and soon had his life story, his photograph, and an account of how he had saved a wounded comrade under heavy enemy fire.
I have been volunteering at the Fusilier Museum for just over a year now, helping move the museum’s collection to a new bespoke storage room. The museum traces the story of the Royal Fusiliers. It’s one of a number of museums I volunteer at across London - although it’s probably the one with the best location.
I began volunteering when I took a career break after working for many years as a lawyer. I enjoyed volunteering so much that I quickly knew I couldn’t go back to law. I was much more interested in history and always had been. As a kid I was fascinated by castles (I grew up in Wales so there were plenty of them around) and I remember that to visit one was to be transported to another world – like reading a really good book, except that the stories you found there were true. As an adult I became more interested in social history and spent six years doing a part-time research degree for an M.Phil. I found out that you could discover an untold wealth of information about how people lived their lives two hundred years ago. And this is really the key for me as to why the past is such a fascinating topic, because you’re discovering the lives of people who went before you – whether it’s William Hope on the battlefields of the Crimea, ordinary sailors in the merchant navy whose names are unknown (unless you’ve read the ship’s crew lists) but whose deeds were extraordinary, or the bohemian literati of Georgian London. I’ve learnt about all these from my time volunteering.
As well as the Fusilier Museum I have also volunteered at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, at an historic house just off the Strand, and at a project digitising historical watercolours. I was never particularly interested in things military or maritime, but these seem to have emerged as a theme. But it really doesn’t matter what period or subject you choose to delve into, if you volunteer in the museum or heritage sector you always end up learning about ordinary, everyday people, and how they lived their lives, and along the way you discover aspects of the past you never knew about. There is nothing as rewarding as this, because it’s true what they say – you can’t understand the world in which we live if you don’t know anything about what went before. When you come to know a little about the people who lived before us, you come to know more about people in general, and ultimately you come to know more about yourself.
And on the subject of people, another great joy about volunteering is the friendly, interesting people you meet – people from walks of life you might not usually come across, but who are all like-minded and share the same passions you do. There’s endless variety and interest to be had in volunteering. I’ve been doing it in one form or another for a year and a half and I’ve learnt a tremendous amount in that time. It’s an opportunity not to be missed and I’ve never regretted a minute of it
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