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Volunteer Interview

This week, from 01 to 07 June 2019, is Volunteers Week. This annual event is a chance for organisations to say a BIG thank you to volunteers for their invaluable contributions. Here at Bethlem Museum of the Mind we have around 35 volunteers helping us out in a number of different roles, from supporting our Learning team to being the first point of call in Front of House. Without them we would simply not be able to function and if you have visited the museum you will most certainly have met one of our wonderful volunteers.


Cheryl, one of our amazing volunteers, in front of 'It Has Not Worked' by Charlotte Johnson-Wahl

We took the opportunity to grab volunteer Cheryl away from her post in the museum to find out more about what it is like to volunteer here at the Museum and what volunteering means to her:

How long have you been a volunteer at Bethlem Museum of the Mind?

I started the application process around 16 months ago and I have been volunteering here at the Museum for just over a year.

What does a typical shift at the museum involve?

Normally I am upstairs on the landing between the Museum gallery and the temporary exhibition area. A typical shift involves greeting people as they come up the stairs to the Museum gallery. Sometimes people prefer to be left to enjoy the museum alone, but nine times out ten people want to chat so I will greet them and welcome them to the museum and ask if they have been before. If they say no I ask if they would like an introduction, quite often people say yes which gives me the opportunity to tell them about the timeline of the hospital and introduce the exhibition and museum. The museum is easy to explore in any way people would like to, though I usually direct people to start with Diagnosis and Labelling, then through to Treatment, and then Recuperation and Rehabilitation.

As a retired Art and Photography teacher art is my main interest so I always ask people if they are interested in knowing anything about any of the artworks on display, if so I give them an insight into the work of Richard Dadd, Louis Wain, William Kurelek, or Charlotte Johnson-Wahl (not many people realise that Boris Johnson’s mother was a patient at Bethlem.)

I make sure that I make myself available for any questions or further information and I encourage people to use the interactive side of the museum - don’t be afraid to get involved and open drawers etc!

What do you enjoy most about volunteering?

I like talking to the people that visit and I enjoy it when they are interested and want a lot of information about the artwork. I have learned a lot about mental health issues since starting volunteering here. My background is creative and I had very little background knowledge of mental health issues and the services on site here, so when I first started I would read the display copy books from the shop during quiet periods to learn more about the history of mental health treatment. I also learned about some of the art in more depth, in particular I read Charlotte Johnson’s biography, Minding too Much, which I found so interesting, but also sad - a woman who on the face of it has everything but is struggling to handle life.

What was it about the Museum of the Mind that made you want to volunteer for us?

For years I had taught art and photography at a local school. Whenever they got an exam paper I noticed that the subject of mental illness, schizophrenia, or anything similar was a real creative force for them – they were very fascinated by it. So I would send them here to look around but never actually came myself! It was on my to do list as I live locally and like a lot of local people I had no idea what to expect. When I came along to visit I could not believe how inspirational it was, I was so impressed. At the time the temporary exhibition was the Art of Recovery – an exhibition of sculptures created by wounded, sick and injured service personnel and their families - and I was so inspired by it.

I have lived locally for many years and I could not believe I had never visited this hidden gem. I spoke to the lady on the front desk to ask about volunteering as I had just retired, it just so happened the Museum was recruiting volunteers so it was perfect timing!

What have you learned since starting volunteering with us?

I have learned a lot about the history of mental health treatment in this country and the treatments that have been tried throughout the years. I find the mix of the art with mental health issues both fascinating and inspiring.

Do you have any particular favourite artworks or artefacts in the Museum and why?

I really like the works by Richard Dadd, and I love the Charlotte Johnson-Wahl Ask, And Get, No Reassurance picture which to me represents anguish. I also love The Maze by William Kurelek - I love talking to people about the before and after paintings, when they see the Out of the Maze painting so many can’t believe they are by the same artist.

There’s a section in the museum with drawers displaying different photos and stories from Brian Moody’s 2002 exhibition “1 in 4”. There’s a very telling story from TV presenter Trisha Goddard about a trip in a London taxi when the driver was calling the previous passenger a “nutter”. She told him one in four people in his cab would have had a mental health problem - you can’t tell by looking at people. The Museum has a fascinating mix of history, art and stories.

Richard Dadd At His Easel 1850S A

Richard Dadd - one of Cheryl's favourite artists from the Museum collection

Without our volunteers the Museum would not be able to function, thank you for all of your hard work and dedication. What do you think the most important part of being a volunteer is?

The place wouldn’t run without volunteers but it is definitely not a one-way thing - it’s reciprocal because I am getting so much out of it and I feel that I am giving back to the local community, and I am still using my brain now I am retired.

I find it a very calming environment– the few hours I spend here I find really therapeutic.

Thank you so much Cheryl and all our volunteers!