British Motor Museum Volunteers

British Motor Museum Volunteers

Friday 12 April 2024

Don't Just Sit There - Volunteer!

By Cameron Slater

In January, the organisers of Retromobile, one of the biggest European classic car shows, offered British Motor Museum the opportunity to provide the centre piece for the 2024 event marking 100 years of MG. They also provided a stand and, for the first time ever, volunteers who spoke French were needed to help run the stand. I’ve always wanted to visit this event and I’ve been a volunteer for the past eight years, speak passable French and I rather liked the idea of a few days in Paris at someone else’s expense so of course I signed up. 

Sadly, I didn’t see anything of the City of Light. Three staff and two volunteers (the French speakers!) were cocooned in the Porte de Versailles Exhibition Centre for the first three days of the show. And what a three days! The Museum’s stand displayed Paddy Hopkirk’s Monte Carlo Rally Mini Cooper S which attracted loads of French people who were passionate about the Mini. One man had 30! It was absolutely a great experience.

Now, volunteering isn’t always as glamorous (!) as the Paris event but it is always interesting and rewarding. Normally, my job is looking after the cars in the Collections Centre and answering visitors’ questions. But they don’t ask many questions - they just want to tell stories about their own cars, about childhood memories of cars, about going on holiday to the seaside with the whole family of five and their luggage for the fortnight in a Mini! I think sometimes memories are exaggerated but they’re always endlessly fascinating.

So my role is actually a listening one but on the guided tours of the Collections Centre the visitors listen to me – mostly! A successful tour is one where the visitors laugh at my jokes or give me a round of applause at the end. But the real reward is when someone says, ”You’ve made my day.” 

I also volunteer in the History Talks project, and give presentations such as The Jaguar E-type, The Land Rover or The Mini, and we’re now working on The History of MG. We’ve visited clubs and societies in Northampton, Banbury, Kineton, Bloxham and the Warwick Words Festival three times. 

So book one of our History Talks for your club. Morning, afternoon or evening, we’ll be there. 

Friday 22 March 2024

The British Motor Museum Oral History Project

Almost since the Museum’s volunteer programme began, Vince Hall has been leading the Oral History Project. Here he gives an excellent account of the project so far. 

I think many people would picture an archive as a physical collection of material in many forms: letters, books, brochures, and drawings. In this day and age, however, an archive can take many other forms, often digital. That is certainly the case with our Oral History work at the Museum.

The project has been running since early 2013, not long after the first group of British Motor Museum volunteers had joined the Museum. The Collections Centre was still being planned and funded and we were all at work on various tasks, such as data gathering, assessing vehicles, and undertaking restorations. 

An opportunity was identified to try to capture spoken memories and reminiscences of the motor industry and its influence, especially the post-war giant carmakers of the West Midlands. After some training from an outside expert, a small group of volunteers began to practise, starting by interviewing each other and then other volunteers – an easily reached captive audience. Since many of our volunteers have some sort of motor industry connection, it quickly provided quite a wealth of material (and continues to do so as more volunteers join us). I remember some of these interviews taking place in the back seats of our royal limousines, apparently an excellent acoustic location. See below.

Volunteers Leslie and Chris during an interview session

Soon other interview subjects were being identified, particularly visitors to the Museum and people donating material to the archive department. The interviews took place either in the Museum, or in several cases at the homes of more elderly folk. 

Over the following years we have collected memories from much of the Midlands car industry: Austin, Rover, MG, Jaguar, Daimler, Triumph, suppliers such as Dunlop and Lucas and more widely Ford and Bentley. Recurring themes in these stories are apprenticeships and their value, industrial unrest, and family connections. We even have some memories of working in the factories during the war.

As we began to gather interviews and stories, we were also able to link up with some of the Museum’s community and outreach work. The ‘Car Stories’ project involved visiting care homes and schools to collect stories and provided some lovely anecdotes in support of the final exhibition. More recently, we’ve helped with the ‘Factor Us In’ exhibition, recording the experiences of workers and their families who grew up in the shadow of huge manufacturing sites such as Longbridge and Canley.

Most of our interviews have been with individuals, but we have also hosted and recorded some group discussions, including a group of Dunlop veterans and a group of Rover engineers who are currently reliving memories of the ‘Fifty 50 Challenge’ – driving Freelanders through fifty countries in fifty days - to support the launch and Land Rover’s fiftieth anniversary.

Oral History work is not just about interviewing. Clearly putting a subject at ease and drawing out the stories is a key part of the process, but subsequently it’s important to summarize the interview in document form so that it can be catalogued and listed. 

Although the whole interview is retained verbatim for the archive, another activity is to identify potential ‘soundbites’ – short clips of particular themes or anecdotes - which can be used separately, perhaps to support an exhibition. Currently, there are two ‘listening stations’ in the main Museum (under the mezzanine) with some great examples of these edited highlights. Below I’m pictured at one of the stations.

In summary, the Oral History activity is proving to be a truly valuable way to preserve the past, not only the history of the industry, but the social history, which is inextricably linked to it. We’re thinking about other ways to use all the material we’ve amassed. Clearly these activities are fairly time consuming and with our original pool of volunteers having dwindled over the years, there may also be some opportunities to help with interviewing, summarizing, or editing.

We are of course continuing to conduct interviews as subjects are identified. If you, or someone you know, has a car industry background and has a story to tell, please do get in touch.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Volunteers Outing to Bletchley Park

Volunteering at the British Motor Museum offers many highlights throughout the year, whether it's new and exciting vehicles being added to the collection, new projects and activities, or engaging with the many interesting people who come to visit the Museum’s extensive collection of historic British cars.

Another highlight, that comes every year is the Volunteers' "annual outing". This often involves a trip to another museum, such as the new Silverstone Museum last year and Brooklands the year before that. We’ve also been fortunate to view the London Transport Museum Reserve Collection and the Jaguar Land Rover Classic workshops near Coventry. 

Most years, our outings are related to vehicles or transportation, but this year, the Museum had arranged something rather different for us – a visit to Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes. So, on 13 September, nearly 50 volunteers boarded the coach at the Museum for the 45-mile trip to Bletchley. A great benefit of the Museum's location, right on junction 12 of the M40, is that we can easily get to most places. Upon our arrival at the Visitor Centre, we were greeted with tea, coffee and biscuits, plus a brief overview of the museum’s large layout and attractions. We also split up into two groups for an hour-long guided tour.

Bletchley became the principal centre of Allied codebreaking during WWII. It housed the Government Code and Cypher School, which regularly penetrated the secret communications of the Axis Powers. The most important and well-known were the German Enigma and Lorenz cyphers, decoded by people like Alan Turing.

The main office at Bletchley Park

In addition to our guided tour, a great audio tour was available to fully explain how the whole site at Bletchley was run during the war in great secrecy. At its peak, nearly 10,000 people, three-quarters of whom were women, worked at Bletchley and its outstations. This is reflected in the large number of buildings on site, referred to mainly as huts or blocks, with the centrepiece being The Mansion (the main headquarters), built in 1883.

Finally, for those interested, the garages and stables that adjoined the Mansion contained several fascinating wartime vehicles. The day was another excellent outing, for which we volunteers must thank the British Motor Museum and our coordinator Hannah Leese for organising.

Monday 27 March 2023

Volunteer Update and News - March 2023

Our last blog was dedicated to Sonja Dosanjh, who retired as our Volunteer Coordinator after a 17-year association with the Museum. So, we’ll start this one by welcoming our new Coordinator, Hannah Leese, who takes over the mantle of looking after the 92 strong volunteer work force. Hannah, a native of Devon, studied Film & TV production at university and has been working at the Museum since 2016. She started in the Marketing Department, but then in 2019 took on the role of HR Coordinator, which now encompasses this additional role.

At the end of last year, 18 volunteers received their 10-year service awards from Museum MD Jeff Coope. All were from the initial intake of 30 volunteers, recruited during the summer of 2012. As explained in our last blog, vehicle inspection and recording data were the first tasks undertaken, before the new Collections Centre came on stream.

However, since then volunteer numbers have significantly increased, as have the numerous tasks we now undertake, both inside and outside the Museum.

The bulk of the volunteer force is still very much involved with guiding and tours. Whilst this was originally just focused on the Collections Centre, as the Museum expands, we are now assisting with guiding in the main building as well. We’re also getting involved in the many special events, such as quiz nights, car gatherings and shows that the Museum regularly puts on.

Four volunteers are still involved in vehicle data collection and recording, as the Museum collection constantly grows with new acquisitions. A more recent sizeable acquisition was the transfer of around 50 vehicles from Vauxhall Motor’s vehicle collection, which now reside at the Museum.

A small team of volunteers continue with various restoration projects, the most recent one being the refurbishment of the large collection of display engines the Museum had in store. Their current project is the part restoration of a 1936 Rover Speed 14 - pictured below with doors removed.

Refurbish projects – the 1936 Rover and numerous display engines

The Museum’s archive section has always had a volunteer presence and the number has increased to around eight over the last few years. Recent additions to the archive collection have come from both Lucas and Vauxhall, which all need sorting and collating. It’s an interesting fact, that hardly a week goes by without someone donating something from the motor industry’s past, all of which need attention.

Recording history, literally has been largely the task volunteer, Vince Hall. Oral history is an important and always interesting part of the Museum’s mission. Vince interviews people involved in the motor industry, both past and present, many of them his fellow volunteers.

Whilst the above activities have largely been in place since the beginning, it’s the creation of what is known as the Outreach Team that has generated many of the new projects over the last couple of years. Led by Emma Rawlinson of the Learning and Engagement Team, approximately 25 volunteers are now actively involved.

One of the first projects was going out into the community, visiting care homes, dementia cafes, health and well-being groups and schools, with a large collection of motoring memorabilia. This has recently expanded during the cold spell and current economic climate, with Warm Hub centre visits, which have sprung up in the area. Not only have these been a success and a great stimulator, but they have also helped in promoting the Museum and its mission to serve the community. Some of the groups mentioned, particularly schools, also make visits to the Museum and again the volunteers assist with the tours and object handling.

Volunteers at their first Warm Hub visit

The Museum was an early contributor to the STEM project, which has now grown into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths). Recent projects have included helping nearby MOD Kineton with a series of learning sessions, whilst six volunteers are currently preparing and distributing STEAM bags as part of the Community Pantry project.

Finally, we have around 18 volunteers, who over the last couple of years have been preparing and are now delivering talks on various as aspects of motoring history related to the Museum. 7 talks have now been completed and approved. They are: Wizardry on Wheels – The Mini; The Most Beautiful Car in the World – The E-Type Jaguar; From Farm to Front Line – The Land Rover; History of the British Sports Car; Evolution of the British Motor Industry; The Car’s the Star and The Crown and the Car. All run for around 45 minutes, with over 60 relevant and interesting slides for most talks. All talks can now be booked, for delivery at an outside venue, or at the Museum.

It is hoped most, if not all the talks, will be delivered during the Museum’s 30th Anniversary week - 14th to 20th August. More news on that will follow, but one thing is sure, the volunteers will be playing a big part during the week.

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Thank you and a happy retirement Sonja

As the year comes to an end, the volunteer team at the Museum is marking two significant milestones: the tenth anniversary of the start of the volunteer programme, and sadly, the retirement of our Volunteer Co-ordinator, Sonja Dosanjh. 

This blog is all about Sonja, whose retirement concludes a 17-year association with the Museum. It all started in 2005 and for the first five years she did part time casual work in the shop, the pay desk, and as an educational assistant. She was also running her own dog walking business at the time.
Sonja’s previous and successful career was working in backstage managerial roles in the world of theatre. In 1972 she was Assistant Stage Manager with The Cambridge Theatre Company, followed by stage management roles at The Belgrave Theatre and The Oxford Playhouse. She had a short stint at BBC Drama. In 1982 she became Company Manager at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, a role that lasted for 20 years. Her career has seen her rub shoulders with some of this country’s leading actors: Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench, to name a few. 

Towards the end of 2011 the Museum’s plan to build a new Collections Centre was well underway and this included the recruitment of a team of volunteers to help run it. A volunteer co-ordinator was required and the right person, at the right time, was already working casually at the Museum! Sonja applied and was awarded the position in January 2012. 

Her first tasks were installing risk assessments, policy and procedures, as well as setting up a recruitment programme. In March 2012, the Museum took a small stand at the Classic Car Club Expo and recruited MG aficionado Brian Rainbow as its first volunteer. Other recruiting initiatives were undertaken and interviews with Sonja and the curator started in the July. An initial group of 30 volunteers was assembled by September, with its first task being to survey the Museum’s 250-plus reserve collection of vehicles. The Collections Centre was completed in November 2015, with the official opening in February 2016. 

Since then, a lot has happened and Sonja has been at the forefront of it all. We currently number 94 volunteers, all recruited, interviewed and managed by Sonja. We carry out many different roles throughout the Museum, working as Museum & Collection Centre Guides and supporting areas including oral history, archives, family & lifelong learning, restoration and vehicle data collection. 

All of our activities have been managed quietly and efficiently by Sonja, who works part-time on a flexible 3-day week as needs arise. Her main priorities have been creating and juggling monthly rotas, arranging private tours, administering expenses and logging our hours. In addition, Sonja has been instrumental in nominating the volunteers for annual awards at various local and national museum and heritage award schemes. Thanks to her efforts, we’ve been shortlisted for quite a few and in 2017, Vince Hall won an award at the West Midlands Volunteer Awards, for his oral history work. 

The Museum continues to be very generous in its support of the volunteers and this extends to providing an annual day out. Again, Sonja plays a big part, having arranged trips for us to the Land Rover factory at Solihull, Brooklands Museum, London Transport Museum and Bicester Heritage.
The last annual day out organised by Sonja – November’s trip to Silverstone Interactive Museum.

When asked what she’ll miss when she retires, the answer is very definitely all the friendships she’s made among the growing volunteer force. She always tries to meet the day’s volunteers for a morning coffee before they start and this will leave a big hole in her morning routine. She says she enjoys the many fascinating stories that emanate from volunteers past careers. 

The other question we’d all like to ask is, what will she do following retirement? As we expected, Sonja already has plans: she’s going to do some volunteering! She is exploring opportunities with The Heart of England Trust, The Canal and River Trust and the local mobile library. Also - and we volunteers may be able to help here - she’s on the lookout for a small reasonably priced camper van. She loves independent travelling and exploring. 

We’re all going to miss you Sonja and must thank you for all the behind-the-scenes work you do to make volunteering such a pleasurable experience at the Museum. We’re sure you’ll be allowed the odd free pass to pop in and see some of us occasionally, for morning coffee, in the future. 

A big thank you, on behalf of all the volunteers.


Wednesday 17 August 2022

Life in Cars

‘Life in cars’ is an inter-generational project which will help the Museum create connections with local communities and for them to engage with each other. This involves telling life stories with cars, through art.

Volunteers clay modelling cars with the elders

The Museum chose to connect with two communities, one a group of young people with autism, learning disabilities and people with other differences. They all enjoy art and creativity. The second group are the ‘Elders’ a mix of two communities, one from an African-Caribbean Dominoes group and the other, an isolation and loneliness group in an inner city. All the Elders have a story or two to tell us about life and cars!

African-Caribbean Dominoes group crafting

A team of our Volunteers have been working alongside the Museum's Life Long Learning team to collect and record stories from the Elders, for the young people to create artwork from in various mediums such as storyboarding, hand printing and ceramics.

Admiring the lino cut artworks

The finale will be an exhibition of this journey and work, to the general public which will open  in late  August 2022. The Exhibition will be a body of work encompassing the story of stories that have been embraced by the young people as artists.

Wednesday 20 July 2022

Meet our Volunteer Co-Ordinator

I’m Sonja Dosanjh and my role as Volunteer Co-ordinator involves overseeing all aspects of volunteering for the British Motor Museum. I work three days a week. I work with my colleagues across the Museum to identify Volunteer projects and to help turn them in to reality, writing role profiles (job descriptions), leading to advertising opportunities and following through with the selection and induction process.

Sonja Dosanjh on the right

Each month I produce a rota, which informs our Volunteers and the organisation of who’s doing what and where, over a seven day opening. Allocating guides for public and private tours, arranging Volunteers for special events, on and off site, making sure everyone has the correct uniform and name badge, being a listening ear and providing the always essential cake, are all in a day’s work.

There are risk assessments, procedures and policies to keep track of and application forms to absorb and act on. I record Volunteer hours and prepare an expenses spreadsheet each month. 

National Volunteers Week occurs in early June each year, giving us the opportunity to publicly thank our team. This year some short videos were made of Volunteers talking about and showing the projects they are involved with. You can watch these on our YouTube channel.

2014 Volunteers visit to the London
2014 Volunteers visit to the London Transport Museum Store

Each year I organise a Volunteers’ ‘annual outing’ to see how other places do it. We’ve had a bit of a gap with Covid but it’s returning this year, with a trip to the SS Great Britain in Bristol. Previous trips have included visits to Brooklands, London Transport Museum Stores in Acton and Birmingham Museum Stores.                            

2019 Visit to Brooklands 

2013 Volunteers with restored MGA chassis