18 Oct 2018

It's been a busy year for tours at Reading Museum, thanks to the Reading Abbey Revealed project. We've offered tours galore - from Reading Abbey-focused gallery tours around the museum in the dark months to the new Reading Abbey Ruins and Abbey Gateway tours this summer and autumn.

One of our museum volunteers, Judith, started volunteering last year to help us with the gallery tours before moving on to do the Abbey Gateway tours.

Here she shares her experience of what it's been like and how it's led her to take part in other volunteering opportunities at the museum.

Judith giving an Abbey Gateway tour

Why did I volunteer for Reading Museum?

"In my previous paid role I worked for many years as a careers adviser, both with young and adult clients. After voluntary redundancy, I was keen to try something new. I love meeting people and when I stopped work, I found that I missed this interaction.

I’m interested in local history and have always been fascinated by the ruins of Reading Abbey. I remember first visiting them many years ago, wandering through and around the massive walls. However, there wasn’t much explanation or interpretation of the ruins then, so it was hard to know what you were looking at! [The Reading Abbey Revealed project has now sorted that with the new interpretations boards around the ruins and wider area].

So when the 'Reading Abbey Revealed' tour guide volunteer role was advertised, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to combine these two interests.

Training as a volunteer tour guide

Fortunately we weren’t thrown in at the deep end! During our initial training we examined the role of the tour guide, why people visit museums and our own expectations. With so much on show in the museum’s collections, we felt it was vital to focus on a small number of objects, to give visitors a taste of what they can see and handle, and hopefully whet their appetite so that they return for further visits.

With guidance from the Volunteer Coordinator, Nicolette, we each crafted our own gallery tour, highlighting the 'Reading Abbey Revealed' project and choosing 10 objects linked to the Abbey and Reading’s history. 

My chosen objects included the lovely 1970s Abbey model, a stone capital, a silver trowel, a Sudanese sword and a biscuit tin! Disparate objects perhaps, but I wanted to show examples of craftsmanship from the last 900 years.

We carried out practice tours on each other and this really helped boost my confidence. When I did my first tour - seventeen people turned up! Typically we'd had five or six people come along, so this was something of a baptism of fire. But as these were ‘drop in’ gallery tours, we don’t want to turn anyone away.

Learning on the job

Gradually building up my knowledge and confidence, and with invaluable support from museum staff and other volunteers, I felt like I was getting into my stride. On each tour I learnt more about the Abbey, and through researching objects and talking to visitors I learnt even more.

New words crept into my vocabulary, like voussoir (a wedge-shaped stone used to build an arch) and reliquary (the highly ornamented or jewelled container for a relic).

One challenge was coping with changes in the galleries, as some of ‘my’ objects disappeared on loan to other museums or were moved out in readiness for the new  'Story of Reading' gallery, which opened in February this year.

Together with the other volunteer tour guides, I also went to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford to meet their volunteer tour guides and see how they did their introductory tours and object-handling sessions.

This helped us when the gallery tours were adapted later on, to include offering visitors the chance to handle medieval objects found in or near Reading. Using the loans boxes, we shared facts about vases, drinking vessels, keys and a heavy replica Abbey Seal. While this represented another new challenge, it turned out to be great fun and invariably proved very popular with visitors.

Reading Museum volunteers enjoying a tour at the Pitt Rivers Museum

What's happened since

As well as doing the gallery tours, I’ve also been lucky enough to get involved in other museum activities. I helped do the short tours of last May's Reading Abbey Quarter: Then and Now exhibition, led a Heritage Open Day tour of the Reading Abbey Quarter and even dressed up in Tudor costume in town to get feedback on the prototype information panel! I found that coaxing people to come and chat to us was great fun and not quite as daunting as it sounds!

My knowledge of Reading Abbey, as a religious, political and economic centre, has increased tremendously since I started volunteering at the Museum. I’ve become more aware of just how strategic and important an institution it was and how it was the location for many royal weddings and funerals.

And I’ve now found out that I have a startling personal connection with the Abbey - but that's for another blog!"

Have you been on a tour yet?

There's still time to book on one of our Reading Abbey Quarter and Abbey Gateway tours this Autumn and you might even meet Judith!

The next Reading Abbey Quarter tour is on Saturday 27 October. For more information, click here

Take an Abbey Gateway tour on Wednesday 31 October and get to go inside this unique listed building. To book your ticket, click here