There are many perks to being a volunteer at the V&A, and after-hours volunteer events are one of them. This time last month, I was looking forward to my first volunteer summer party and yet I was so nervous. I have always loved summer parties, but, this was the first time I had ever attended one as a volunteer at one of the world’s most famous museums!
This blog post will paint a picture of what a our summer party at the Victoria and Albert museum is like, especially for someone like me, who has autism. I would also like to tell you a little history about my favourite museum.
By the time our volunteer party was due to take place, the museum had already held other staff parties in that week. Even other London arts organisations, like the Courtauld Institute, had had their summer parties in the John Madejski garden, which made the place feel buzzing with activity.
One of my favourite parts of the V&A museum is the courtyard, otherwise known as the John Madejski garden. The courtyard is a beautiful feature of the museum, and was enhanced in 2005 when the water was added and the space re-landscaped entirely. I think that I first visited it when I was 11 years old with my older brother. I didn’t realise then that years later I would be back for a party…
Sir John Madejski OBE was born in 1941. He has been the Chancellor of the University of Reading as well as the Chairman of Reading Football Club, the Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire as well as the founder of the Thames Valley Trader, which later became Auto Trader. My favourite quote of this business man turned philanthropist goes something like this, ‘People can think what they like about me. I don’t care. It’s never been a popularity contest. I do it for all of the community. In my view you start with nothing and you end with nothing. I’d like to enjoy it all before I kick the bucket.’ I should like to interview him one day.
The courtyard was built over a 50-year period, starting in 1851, and it opened in 1909 to the general public. It’s a quadrangle courtyard, and the door to the museum’s café was once original front entrance to the museum. The magnificent set of bronze doors in the courtyard bear the words: ‘better it is to to get wisdom than gold’. On one side of the bronze doors Issac Newton is depicted along with other famous scientists, and the facing door depicts sculptors and painters.
I found out on my very first tour that Henry Cole’s dogs Jim and Tycho are buried in the courtyard. I wanted to see the plaques where the dogs are buried and fortunately you can still see them. Ask any tour guide and they shall show you exactly where are!
I have so many stories about the courtyard, but I was told one of my favourites by another tour guide. Apparently, the story goes like this; a man had met his girlfriend here at the museum (as it is a great place for dates), in the garden. Deciding he wanted to marry this woman, the man had an idea to write to the director of the museum asking if he could propose to his girlfriend. The Director said, ‘yes!’ At first the man thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to have lots of cameras watching them as he proposed, but at the last minute he changed his mind, opting for privacy and walking away just before he popped the question. Fortunately, the girlfriend said ‘yes’, but to this day neither of them have realised that there were lots of staff watching them, from the balcony, ready to shower them with congratulations and confetti!
I like to think that I do OK at parties, as I am not afraid of introducing myself to people. Luckily for me I had been spending many Thursdays at the museum, and therefore I had been able to get to know some of the Thursday team, some of which were at the party. They were kind enough to introduce me to other tour guides – and in this way I began to create a social network within the museum, which has been really lovely.
There was a speech from the volunteer manager, and I thought she did her speech very well, as it was both charismatic and fun. She must have great experience in public speaking, and I hope one day to be as good as her as I start to lead more tours. I think that when I train as a tour guide, it will take a little while to get used to talking in front of 50 people at a time.
Overall, it was a lovely party. It was the first time that I had been in the museum after hours. I have been invited into the family of this spectacular museum and I really love spending my time here, both as a volunteer and as a visitor. As a volunteer I want to take all the opportunities that are available to me and going to this party meant I was able to meet more of the tour guides and experience the great museum community. This was my first volunteer summer party at the V&A, but I hope it is the first of many.