What better way to bring to life the new Cultural Strategy for Dorset than shining a light on the gems of arts and culture in our county? 

The best way to demonstrate the new Cultural Strategy, which we wrote for Dorset Council, is in the context of the fantastic work in the arts, heritage and culture sector that is already happening – because it isn’t a start from scratch, but builds on the remarkable network that already exists. So we have decided to explore projects and individuals to highlight the diverse range of creative work taking place across the county.

We start our series with Portland Museum which has recently been awarded National Lottery funding to launch a digital volunteering initiative and break down barriers to heritage.

Our CEO, David Lockwood visited Portland Museum and met manager, Lucy Watkins and volunteers

What would happen if a cultural organisation put its volunteers at the heart of everything they did? How much more would they be part of the civic life of their community?

Housed in a pair of cottages at the end of a long, terraced street, Portland Museum was gifted to the people of the island by controversial pioneer Marie Stopes in 1930. There’s a quiet radicalism in its DNA that, nearly a century later, remains visible just beneath the surface.

Volunteering doesn’t appear sexy. It conjures memories of fluorescent-jacketed stewards in makeshift carparks or historic people in historic homes reminding you not to touch things. But that’s not how they do things in Portland. Here, volunteering is dynamic and instrumental in the purpose of the museum. It’s why we’ve chosen Portland Museum as the first in our monthly case studies on the incredible achievements of Dorset’s cultural community.

I meet the team on an epically wet and windswept early spring day. “Suitably moody” for the bleak island, I suggest. “It’s always moody on Portland”, I’m told. This is a place that embraced the phrase “Keep Portland Weird” (borrowed from their namesake in Oregon). It’s a small island, connected by a thin bridge-road to the mainland, and divided between areas of affluence and significant poverty.

The volunteer army that keeps the museum going includes people from both sides of the tracks. There’s a strong sense of community in the volunteers digitally recording wreckage from the shipwrecked Earl of Abergavenny, a project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It’s something of a coup for this small museum to work on this project. There’s a concentrated focus and shorthand camaraderie in the museum as the wreckage is catalogued, an energy somewhere between an operating theatre and a hive of bees.

How do they do it? Lucy Watkins, the Museum Manager, is self-deprecating. “We don’t do anything special”. But then she tells me about working with her volunteers. “If someone looks bored, I’ll go down and give them a bit of support, have a chat with them.” Lucy talks about how the volunteers “know they’ll get training in whatever’s useful for them”.

When the pandemic struck, creating an existential crisis for most in the cultural sector including Portland Museum, Lucy pinpointed individual volunteers most likely to be impacted by loneliness. She made sure they were looked after. They’ve returned this selflessness – all volunteers bar two have returned to the museum as the pandemic loosens its grip (those two have moved elsewhere) whilst new volunteers are joining.

They join often on recommendation from others – “I’ve a mate who’d love this” – and because of the spirit of the organisation. It’s one of collective endeavour, empowering and transformative.

The attitude to volunteers isn’t purely selfless, even if that is where it starts. The most used word in feedback is “friendly” with visitors commenting on the welcome and knowledge of the volunteers. This leads to favourable social media comments, driving up visitor numbers and therefore income (it’s free for Islanders, but tourists pay for entry).

But Portland Museum isn’t about numbers. It’s about people. It’s an organisation that recognises its place within its community and the transformative impact it can have on people’s lives.

Volunteering builds confidence, it gives skills and increases employability. We all know that. But more than that, it can create connections and give experiences that change lives. Portland Museum knows that.

You should check them out.

Portland Museum opens for the 2022 season on 4 April and is then open to visitors
7 days a week.

We will highlight more organisations, individuals and projects in the course of this year.
If you know someone who you think should feature, we would love to hear from you – just contact us on hello@theartsdevelopmentcompany.co.uk.