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By Sam Terrace on

Volunteers’ Week: A day in the life of a Workshops Volunteer

Volunteers' Week begins tomorrow and through the week we'll be sharing an insight into what five of our volunteers get up to at the museum.

Today we’re joined by Workshops Volunteer Alan Shankster.

Alan is a long-term volunteer at the museum who has volunteered in lots of different roles. He currently volunteers with our Workshops team completing tasks which help them maintain the workshop. Alan volunteers behind the scenes so our visitors won’t often meet him—but they see the outcome of his activity when they view our workshop areas!

Our Volunteering Manager Emma Faragher-Smith says: “Alan was one of the first volunteers I met when I started working at the museum, his warm welcome made me feel at home straight away. Since then I always enjoy a chat and a catch up with Alan when I spot him at work painting the Triangle.”

Here’s what Alan has to say about his role…


What is your volunteer role?

I volunteer in the Workshop carrying out tasks that help keep the workshop tidy e.g. cleaning and painting floor surfaces, and pit walls and floors, removing swarf from switched-off machinery, cleaning workshop sinks.

A perk of the role occurred when I was asked to paint the inside of the Driver Exchange Tunnel in the tender of Flying Scotsman—you bet!

How long have you volunteered at the museum?

After taking two years to settle into a new house after retirement, in the summer of 2000 I cautiously approached the museum about volunteering. At the time I was offered a place on a team called the Tuesday Night Team, which I accepted. This team no longer exists, but I do.

And how long do you see yourself continuing to volunteer at the museum?

As long as I am physically able. To add to the 101 things I must do—including the ambition of riding on HS2 when it opens—I now also have another aim in life. I’m interested in seeing the redevelopment of the museum in coming years; particularly the proposed new central building between Station Hall and the Great Hall. This is a must-see.

Describe your typical day volunteering

I arrive about 11.00 and report to Security to be booked-in. I then proceed to the Workshop lobby where I put on my overalls, hi-vis vest, safety cap and gloves, then contact the Workshop Manager to discuss my duties for the day.

Currently this involves cleaning and painting the floor of an area called the Triangle, which is fenced off in Great Hall between the Workshop and the Sidings outside. Having ascertained that there are no vehicle movements expected, I collect my cleaning implements and go to the next section to be treated. First I use a scraper to remove deposits of oil and dirt, then I give it a wire brushing and finally sweep the surface to remove the deposits and dust. When the area intended to be treated that day has been prepared, I bin the waste, collect the paint from the store, and proceed to apply it. About 16.30, I finish painting, clean my brush, put away the paint and implements, change out of my overalls and report-off to my Supervisor and Security.

In view of the fact that most of the time is spent sweating and on my knees, I do take a couple of breaks! I do not often get to meet the public, but they sometimes attract my attention, asking questions, talking to their children, having a chat, or mischievously pointing out where they say I’ve “missed a bit”. I can also get stopped if I am walking in the museum and asked where things are.

Why do you volunteer at the museum?

You only live life once and I am going to enjoy it as much as I can. It is said that variety is the spice of life, and volunteering for the museum is part of my enjoyment. I meet different people, have made new friends, have access to a learning programme, visit different surroundings having the opportunity e.g. to travel to manufacturers and other museums sometimes abroad, get a Christmas dinner, and receive recognition for length of service.

What is the best thing about volunteering?

Feeling involved, even though it’s in a small way, in preserving an important part of our heritage and learning from the experience. Something I learned early on was that one takes an historic object as it is, and if it needs attention, any additions must be adapted to fit the original, not vice versa. I was once asked to fit a new metal name plate to a station bench and was quickly corrected when I suggested that the wooden cutout on the bench seat be extended to accommodate the metal plate.

What difference do you think you make to the museum in your role?

I believe my tasks contribute to colleagues’ working conditions in the workshop, and in the case of painting the Triangle helps keep our public spaces in good condition too. My cleaning and painting visibly improves the decor and provides easier-to-clean surfaces. The whee drop and pits beneath the rails were big black holes in the floor. After cleaning and painting they are much more presentable.

Some of my tasks also help others complete their work more effectively. For example, an inclinator [level indicator] was made for the Miniature Railway and after I painted it, now is part of the equipment used by volunteers and staff on the Miniature Railway, helping them welcome over 250,000 visitors on board a year.

What do you get out of volunteering? 

A feeling of satisfaction and pride when I see things restored to pristine condition, knowing I am leaving a legacy that will be present for years to come. I get pleasure from the variety of events and seminars which are arranged, as well as being grateful for the ability to browse the contents of the museum, not forgetting the cafe discount!

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