Ruth Childerhouse is a second year English student at LJMU. Here, she reflects upon her volunteer role as a guide and conservator at the National Trust Hardmans’ House, on Rodney Street.
I have always loved museums. There is something beautiful about being in a space dedicated to a collection of objects filled with history. Even the most insignificant paperclip can become a story. It’s magical.
I began volunteering for the National Trust in the summer of 2015. The property, Hardmans’ House, is a tiny, overlooked photography studio which ran from the 1920s to the 60s. During the open season I work as
a room guide, showing visitors around, and during the winter, when the house is closed, I work on conservation. We are often freezing cold and frantically scrambling to cover the fact that we are short staffed. It’s the highlight of my week.
The photographers who ran the business, Edward Chambré Hardman and his wife and business partner, Margaret, were brilliant people. Both were talented artists and Margaret was a formidable business woman. When Hardman died, he left the contents of the house to a private trust. In later life he had become a hoarder and a recluse, and so the house is overflowing with clutter. One of my favourite stories about the house is the treacle fiasco: Hardman had kept a tin of treacle for so long that by the time the Trust came to restoring the house, the tin had exploded and treacle had to be scraped off the ceilings. From crates of old rocks to unlabelled bottles of mysterious chemicals, the collection is full of fun and often inexplicable items.
My favourite part of guiding is the freedom the house staff give us. Everyone has their own unique style and we are encouraged to customise each tour to the interests of the guests and to our own passions. Some volunteers are experts on film photography, some know a lot about the business aspect of the studio, some (well mostly Alan, who has been a guide since the house opened) seem to know everything that happened in the building since the dawn of time. Personally, I enjoy talking about the humanising aspects of the Hardmans’ House; the staff Christmas dinners in Chinatown, the love affair between the Hardmans and the letters they wrote to each other while she was studying in Scotland, Margaret’s talent for dressmaking, and their dog, Bick.
One of the challenges of the job is getting visitors to connect with the reality of life in the twenties. I like to remind people that they aren’t just a Wikipedia article, these were real people who gossiped and yawned and listened to bad music. Especially if there are children on a tour, the things I’m explaining can be difficult to relate to. One of my best days at the Hardmans’ was when I took the tour down to the cellar and showed them a crate of rocks that the Hardmans would bring back from holidays to the coast as souvenirs. A little boy grabbed his mum’s arm and said we had to count them at once, because he wanted to know if they had more beach pebbles than he did. It’s such a small thing, but it was a line of connection from this boy to someone who died thirty years before he was even born, and a way for him to understand them.
Every day I spend volunteering, I learn something new. Sometimes it is from other volunteers, giving advice about how to engage with a particular group of guests, or from the house steward, lamenting over restoration costs (do you know how much it costs to repair a stuffed leopard’s teeth? I do), or from a guest who is sharing their memories of going to a photographers’ studio in the 1950s. I never know what to expect and it is always exciting. I should probably mention how important it is for employability too. I am networking with professionals in a competitive field, it looks good on my CV etc. etc., but honestly, that is all incidental. To me, the most rewarding thing is finishing a tour with guests who stop me to say how much they enjoyed their visit and that they really liked the way I gave the tour, or having the chance to chat to the house manager about how well the day went.
I love spending time as a National Trust volunteer and I would encourage everyone to do something similar, if they can. It’s an excuse to be unbearably enthusiastic about something, and to share that passion with the people around you. I have found it to be a really worthwhile experience.
Definitely come to visit Hardmans’, too. Buy me coffee and I might even get you in for free on my volunteer’s membership….
Has Ruth inspired you to volunteer? If you’re studying English at LJMU, why not follow @ for ideas and support? And if you have your own volunteering story to tell, email Alice Ferrebe.