Rotorua Museum volunteers support textiles storage project

By Rosemary Deane, Collection Curator – Social History, Rotorua Museum

Recently Rotorua Museum embarked on a recruitment drive for volunteers to make new storage covers and hangers for our textiles collection. The result was 27 people signing up to help with this project and a number of positive outcomes for both the museum and the volunteers.

The project was identified back in May 2015 when Sir James Fletcher Kawerau Museum Curator, Irene Sandle, was undertaking a museum qualification through ATTTO (now rebranded as ServiceIQ). Irene needed professional guidance from another institution and through National Service Te Paerangi she was introduced to Cat Jehly, now Collections Lead (and my manager) at Rotorua Museum to support her study.

Irene also came on board as a volunteer at the museum and was asked to make some covers for new additions to our textile collection, as she had already made covers for the entire collection at Kawerau.

At Kawerau Museum, Irene had used Tyvek rather than calico for textiles covers because of Tyvek’s waterproof and hard-wearing qualities. All of our hanging textiles had calico covers over the shoulders, but the calico had not been washed properly and still contained dressing. The textiles also sat on calico covered hangers which had sticky plastic tubing covering the metal hooks. Our desire was to replace the calico covers with Tyvek ones.

Hanging textiles with original calico covers. Photograph courtesy of Rotorua Museum

Irene came over to Rotorua one day a month for a year and a bit – a total of 15 days. During this time she made about 50 covers and hangers. The hangers were hand sewn and the covers involved the use of a sewing machine and overlocker. At the end of her year of volunteering Irene wrote an instruction manual for us and a few volunteers were brought on board to continue the project in her absence. She also very generously donated an overlocker, to go with our aged sewing machine, to help us finish the project.

It was then up to me, having recently started at the museum, to take over and continue the momentum started by Irene. As we had another 800 hanging garments to cater for, it was clear it was going to take a number of years to cover everything.

We decided to embark on a volunteer drive to enlarge the volunteer base to speed the project up. Our Volunteer Coordinator, Julie Parsons, suggested an event where potential volunteers could come and learn about the project and have a cup of tea. This was held in the Runanga Tearooms, which are located in Government Gardens, not far from the museum itself. It was promoted via the museum website, on social media and in the local newspapers The Daily Post and The Weekender, where it received front page coverage.

Read ‘Rotorua Museum looking for help with sewing’ in The Daily Post

By this time, the Rotorua Museum, which is located in the old Bath House, had closed due to earthquake assessments.

About 25 people turned up for the event. Irene and other existing volunteers were on hand to demonstrate what was involved. Everyone who came signed up to help, and others came forward after reading about it in the paper.

(above) New volunteers at the recruiting event (above). Irene Sandle demonstrating at the recruiting event (below). Photographs courtesy of Rotorua Museum

Some people wanted to do the hand sewing of the hangers, and some preferred the machine sewing of the covers. Some people wanted to work from home, and others preferred to work at the offsite store, where the collection is held and where the Collections team is based.

People had various reasons for volunteering. There were some people new to Rotorua who wanted to meet other people. Some people were looking for work and wanted a volunteer ‘job’ in the interim. Some wanted something to do with their hands, while watching TV. There were even two women, one in her 90s, from a local rest home who had been encouraged to get involved by a staff member at the rest home. There was even a group of five women who decided then and there they wanted to work as a team.

Some people could overlock, some people could not, some people could bring their own sewing machine in, and others didn’t own one.

The next step was for me to work out a plan based on this generous offering of people’s time and enthusiasm. I had asked everyone to record on a form their preferences, skills and availability of machine/overlocker. Then it was a matter of working out a plan that worked for us and for them to keep the momentum going from the first event.

I decided to have two half days a week when people could come in and sew and/or pick up materials to take home. We started the very next week. We were able to accommodate the five women who wanted to work together, along with some others. Volunteers brought in their own machines and overlockers to supplement ours.

You can see from this photograph that they were a very happy team. They helped with suggestions of quicker and cheaper ways of doing things.

Wednesday afternoon volunteers. Photograph courtesy of Rotorua Museum

Some of the volunteers have experience in the clothing industry, including cutting. Their thinking has made us consider how we do things, and refine Irene’s instructions a little bit.

At the moment, the challenge is keeping our volunteers happy and busy.

Work in progress. Photograph courtesy of Rotorua Museum

There are a few things you should consider before embarking on a recruitment drive like this:

  • Do you have the physical space and resources to offer the volunteers?
  • Do you have the staff time to put into organising a large team of volunteers?
  • Can you afford the materials for the project to be completed quickly rather than over a few years?

This third consideration has been the most problematical for us so far, especially with the museum closed and with limited resources. With the cost of Tyvek being considerable, we have managed to find a cheaper source, and are investigating funding to assist with costs so we can keep the project on track.

If we can manage to do this, and our volunteers want to keep coming in, it will be a very successful project all round. They might even want to continue to help with the myriad of other projects we have planned at our offsite store…

Garments on the new padded hangers awaiting covers. Photograph courtesy of Rotorua Museum