Hi, we're Sarah and Claire and we've been spending our time as volunteers at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) evaluating the First World War exhibition, Soldier Stories. The exhibition brings together objects from the BMAG collections, as well as loans from Royal Warwickshire Regiment collector Dave Vaux. From 1914-1918, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment raised 30 battalions of soldiers, who served in France, Belgium and Italy as well as Gallipoli and Mesopotamia.
The two of us both studied undergraduate degrees in History at university before deciding we wanted to pursue careers in museums and heritage. Between us we've volunteered at a wide range of museums in our home towns of Hereford and Manchester, but have really enjoyed our experience at BMAG. We now both work for the National Trust and continue to build up our CVs and climb further up the museum job ladder!
We surveyed visitors to the Soldier Stories exhibition on five separate days, on average once a month between September 2014 and March 2015. Through the evaluation we were aiming to find out what had attracted visitors to the exhibition, how visitors had responded to the interpretation and finally we wanted to understand the impact of the Centenary. Our findings were used by both the Curatorial and Learning and Access teams.
The evaluation generated a huge amount of positive feedback. The exhibition has a strong emphasis on objects, which clearly succeeded in moving and engaging visitors by helping to tell a more poignant and personal story. Many visitors found they could relate to certain objects and make links with their own family history. 60% of those interviewed came from Birmingham, suggesting the exhibition's local focus had an impact.
The favourite object by far was the soldier's jacket, named as the most moving and interesting object by 27% of visitors surveyed. The jacket itself is very intriguing. It was found in a garden shed in Erdington, with no clues as to who it belonged to or why it was kept. It is clearly the unique nature of this object that appealed to visitors. This was our favourite object too. The mystery behind who it belonged to makes it fascinating, but its lack of identity highlights the tragic nature of the First World War, in the way that there were so many men that died fighting for their country that we don't know the identity of.
We found it really interesting how much visitors seemed to be interested in the wider context of Centenary events and had clearly been stimulated to carry out further research. 64% of those we surveyed were already doing their own research before coming to Soldier Stories and a further 20% were inspired to do so after visiting. Interest in the Centenary and family history were also the main reasons why people decided to stop and take a look at the exhibition as they passed through the Bridge Gallery on their way to the rest of the museum.
If you haven't visited Soldier Stories yet, make sure you do before 26th July. The local focus of the exhibition makes it even more interesting for those from the Birmingham area and presents the First World War in a way that makes it easier to relate to. We both found the exhibition really interesting and thoroughly enjoyed talking to visitors about it and seeing what they were taking away from it.
The two of us have loved being a part of BMAG for our volunteering project. As well as being able to talk to visitors and gain some valuable experience in exhibition evaluation, we love the fact we got to meet each other! It just shows how great it is to volunteer for organisations like Birmingham Museum, as you get so much out of it. We can't wait to see where our next role will take us, whatever that may be!