Volunteers Week: 20 Years at Manchester Art Gallery

Group image of 5 volunteers stood in front of the glass stairs in the Atrium.

To celebrate International Thank You Day (11th January), we have chosen to spotlight members of our Volunteer Team who have been guides with Manchester Art Gallery for 20 years.

An integral part of the gallery, the volunteers love connecting art and people and lead much of our engagement and learning activities. They deliver guided tours, facilitate discussion sessions and support creative workshops for families and adults. 

20 years of service is a huge milestone in any role, no less when time is given up for free. As dedicated, knowledgeable and friendly faces in the gallery we want to extend our thanks and find out more about their experiences of volunteering here. In this special thank you blog, Janet, Ann, Isabelle, Alina, Christine and Vincent reflect on two decades of delivering guided tours at Manchester Art Gallery. 

Portraits by Marni V Photography


Why did you initially want to volunteer at Manchester Art Gallery? 

Janet – To improve my knowledge of art history and, therefore, of history.

AnnI have always loved art and Manchester Art Gallery. I went into the gallery one day following it being extended and heard the announcement for a guided tour. I went on the tour and really enjoyed it. I’d recently obtained my BA (Hons.) in Art History and Classics and I felt that I would be able to inspire people to enjoy art as much as I do. 

IsabelleI enjoyed visiting the gallery and wanted to find out more about the collection. I enjoy meeting people and wanted to share my love of art. 

ChristineI studied Art History at University and wanted to keep it in my life and keep learning, also at a time when I was in difficult personal circumstances the time, I spent giving tours was a pleasant respite to my worries where we were all focused on the paintings and not me. It really helped me to turn a corner. 

Vincent – Forty years ago when I was on my gap year in Australia, I signed up for a series of art lectures at the Victoria Gallery of Art in Melbourne. The man who took the lectures was so inspiring. At the time I thought how wonderful it would be to do something similar. 20 years ago, the dream became a reality!  

Portrait of Ann standing outside the entrance to the gallery

What has kept you volunteering at the gallery? 

JanetIt took on a life of its own. I would really miss the friendship of the staff and the other volunteers. The research involved has been of great interest and continues to be. I like being involved with an important city organisation, and finding that those joining my tours appreciate them.

AnnMy love for the gallery has grown with the years. I love letting people know the extent of our wonderful collection – the different periods, movements and styles of art to be found there and the diverse nature of the collection, from paintings to chocolate tins; from sculptures to fans and a cocoa coffin. We also have works by major artists of the canon of art – Duccio, Goya, Guido Reni, Abraham Bloemaert, as well as a fabulous collection of 19th, 20th and 21st century art. 

IsabelleThe gallery has opened up many exciting opportunities for me. I love working with gallery staff and the volunteers – being part of the family. There is so much to learn, and I really enjoy researching the collection and sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with visitors. There is so much to learn about everyday life too through the gallery’s work with marginalised groups. The gallery is an important and joyous part of my life! 

AlinaHow interesting the role turned out to be. 

ChristineMy passion for making art accessible to all comers. I came to art history by accident and relatively late in life and couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. I’ve been fighting the snobbery and connoisseurship that is often associated with art galleries ever since. And of course, the lovely, helpful and welcoming people at the gallery. 

Vincent – THE BUZZ!


Portrait of Christine with Angelica Kauffman's painting of Ellis Cornelia Knight against a red exhibition wall
Christine with Angelica Kauffman's portrait of Ellis Cornelia Knight

What have been some of the highlights of the last 20 years at Manchester Art Gallery? 

JanetI liked researching and guiding the temporary exhibitions e.g. The Sensory War – I seemed to live with Google and the atlas for that one! 

AnnThe highlights for me are the blockbuster exhibitions we’ve been involved with. We’ve had some fabulous training for wonderful exhibitions such as Angels of Anarchy; 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition Revisited; The Sensory War; Ford Maddox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer and the wonderful Edwardians exhibition. A personal highlight was to have 1:1 coffee with the amazing pioneering photographer, Dorothy Bohm during her A World Observed exhibition. 

IsabelleThe many fantastic exhibitions – Art Treasures, Women Surrealist Artists, First Cut, the Da Vinci drawings. The Royal visit of Prince Edward. The privilege of leading tours of the Da Vinci exhibition. Meeting visitors from Manchester, the UK and from around the world. Delivering and hosting Zoom presentations during lockdown. The joy of researching the collection. The friendship of the guides’ team, gallery staff and volunteers. Taking care of the Gallery Café garden – experiencing nature right in the heart of the city and hearing the appreciative comments from visitors. 

Alina – Meeting interesting people from around the world, who went out of their way to come to the gallery. 

ChristineEvery time I walk into the building it’s a highlight, I’m greeted warmly by familiar faces, then usually enjoy buzzing round the rooms to see what’s new or maybe find a different angle on an old favourite. 

I’ve never had a bad experience on a tour, but some have been quite wonderful. When the chemistry in the group is right and people ask questions and offer up their ideas and opinions. Or when they come up to me in the café or shop later to say how much they’ve enjoyed it and perhaps to discuss something further which has interested them. Sometimes people say they’ve come because they’ve been recommended by someone who was on one of my previous tours or they just come back because they’ve enjoyed it. I was interviewed for a job by someone who had been on one of my tours and she was so pleased to see me again and to be able to tell me how much she had enjoyed the tour. (I got the job!)

I’ve met some amazing people from all over the world and from all walks of life, including a family from Mexico at Christmas time who came back the next day to bring me a gift. I’ve made some lovely friends from amongst the other volunteers, staff and visitors. I never regret doing a tour and sometimes afterwards when I leave, I’m on such a high knowing that it’s gone well, and I have made people happy that I feel my feet have wings and I could fly out of that front door into the city. 

Vincent – The Anish Kapoor show, I always thought his take on sculpture was truly revolutionary. The Angels of Anarchy exhibition – I was already a fan of Francesca Woodman’s work and to see her so well represented was a delight. Meret Oppenheim’s, Object (Breakfast in Fur), 1936 always brings a smile to my face; so simple, and yet, strange, well it is Surrealism!

Portrait of Janet standing outside the gallery

Do you have any memorable or funny moments with visitors that you can share during your time guiding at the gallery? 

AnnI’ve enjoyed meeting people from all over the world. Very often, people in the tour groups give me invaluable information and see something in a work that I haven’t noticed – even after many years of looking. I met a German couple not so long ago and wanted to show them something originating in Germany from the collection. I showed them the model of Noah’s Ark. I then mentioned to them that we had had some wonderful work by Kathe Kollwitz in the Sensory War exhibition a few years ago. I quickly realised that my pronunciation of the sculptor’s name was not theirs! They gave me puzzled looks and the man thought I was talking about a town in Germany. Suddenly, he realised and said “Kathe Kollwitz” which bore no resemblance to what I had said. 

IsabelleI was just about to talk about Grayson Perry’s ceramic vase, Jane Austen in E17, when the curator arrived with gallery staff, opened the display cabinet and took it away! Meeting Prince Edward. Being up-close to the Da Vinci drawings and sharing my wonder and knowledge of them to visitors. Meeting a Buddhist monk from India, who was entranced by the gallery garden. Harvesting a crop of onions and green beans in the gallery garden right in the heart of the city! 

AlinaI started on the 1st of April. On entering the then Gallery 1, being very nervous and not looking at the wall but at the audience which was a good size group I started to talk about George Stubbs’s painting Cheetah and Stag, then turning I was shocked to see another painting in it’s place. The cheetah had gone out on loan I was later told. Very flustered, but luckily, I had researched several of the paintings in the gallery. Apologising, I turned to the Gainsborough. 

ChristineWhen I was talking about Holman Hunt’s ‘Hireling Shepherd‘ there was an old man standing nearby and he was aghast when he learnt of the painting’s religious inspiration. As a 14-year-old errand boy in the city centre, he would run to save time so that he could pop into the gallery on his rounds to see this his favourite painting, which he enjoyed as a truly romantic encounter between a shepherd and shepherdess on a summer’s afternoon. He had been visiting it all his life and he said I had ruined it for him! 

When explaining how Hylas was intoxicated by the nymphs, had drowned, someone countered, ‘Oh dear, but what a way to go!  

The most memorable was the very first event I attended at the gallery one winter’s eve in the late 90’s before the refurbishment. It was Female Pre Raphaelites, and I was very, very nervous to be driving into the city centre, tripping through dark streets and going into a crowd of strangers on my own. I had given a lot of thought to my outfit and felt ‘nicely neat’. A doorman opened the door and offered to take my coat. As I handed it to him and turned to face a packed room. I registered a shock on his face and looked down to discover that the little top I had bought specially for the occasion had risen whilst running from the car park and was sitting under my armpits. Consequently, I was stood there in my bra. I don’t think I’ve ever been nervous entering an event anywhere since! 

Vincent – Some time ago I was showing a man in his 60s and a Japanese woman in her 20s around the collections. He was now living in Hong Kong but told us of the years when he, as a child, used to live for the times when his parents would take him around. It was fab because he almost ended up giving myself and the young woman a guided tour when he talked about his favourite pieces! Whenever he was back in Manchester he always visited. The tour concluded with him inviting myself and the young woman to coffee and cakes.


Portrait of Alina sat next to a large blue vase in a glass cabinet
Alina with Prometheus Vase

From your perspective, how has the gallery changed since you started volunteering? 

JanetNowadays, the gallery seems to be trying to get the public involved, to address current issues and to be really accessible to a wide range of visitors. This has been a welcome change although, sometimes it does seem to be a bit ‘woke’. 

AnnI love the way we now incorporate Modern Art with the more traditional art forms. I love the way we now concentrate on themes, rather than dates and periods. When I started, there wasn’t a lot of Modern Art displayed and it was exclusive to one or two galleries, away from everything else. We seem to make better use of space now. When I first started, I loved the Manchester Gallery on the ground floor, but realise now how cluttered and how much of a mish mash it was. I think the Out of the Crate concept and exhibition was, and still is, a stroke of genius. 

IsabelleYes, the work with under-represented groups has increased and the gallery feels much more accessible compared with when I first became a guide. The display of historical and modern/contemporary artworks in the same space. The widening of “what constitutes an artwork” e.g, media, performance, audio. 

AlinaFrom a peaceful haven to active spaces with lots going on. 

ChristineIt’s a lot less formal, and more welcoming and the visitors are much more diverse and there’s more of them! 

Vincent – The gallery must keep pace with changing times. Art galleries cannot now afford to look like some dusty, fusty period piece even though they may house period pieces. The strength of Manchester Art Gallery is in it’s re-contextualising not only of ‘period pieces’ but of the more modern items that have been on show. This is necessary in order to keep fresh thinking alive and vibrant. We may not always agree with those opinions but isn’t that the point? I always feel that people should be ‘upset’ from their complacent thought processes. It may harden their outlook but it may also soften it and give them a different outlook.

Group image of 5 volunteers stood in front of the galls stairs in the atrium

If you could take one artwork home with you from the gallery’s collection, what would it be and why?! 

JanetDoves by Barbara Hepworth.

AnnThis is an easy question! Henry Moore’s, Mother and Child. I love it. It’s a very early work of Moore and he said in much later years that at the time he hadn’t perfected some aspects of sculpture – hence the mother has no neck, and the baby has no body. I think this adds to its delight. It’s so tantalisingly tactile and modern but combines aspects of ancient civilisations. The thought of taking it home with me has crossed my mind many, many times! 

Isabelle Winter Fuel by Sir John Everett Millais. It’s a huge painting but I would find somewhere at home to display it! Wonderful wintry landscape in Scotland – very atmospheric with incredible detail and featuring a young girl and collie dog both turned away from us and gazing into the distance – who are they looking for or waiting for? 

Alina If I had the room, it would be Minton’s, Prometheus’ vase. The modelling detail, the skill, the colour, the interpretation. My attention is always drawn to it. 

ChristineAs a feminist my favourite painting is Angelica Kaufman’s, Cornelia Knight. There is so much to talk about with that from Angelica’s participation in founding the RA, the friendship of two amazing, multi-talented women and how they each forged a path for themselves, not just survived but thrived in a stiflingly patriarchal world etc. and Cornelia is one of the very few women who is actively ‘doing’ something in a painting in the gallery rather than ‘being’. That said I think George Stubbs’, Cheetah and Stag would be with under my arm on the bus home, it’s just so dramatic, the cheetah is stunning, as are the keepers’ fabrics, colours, composition, story, I never tire of it and feel there is more to learn from and about it. 

VincentGirl with Beret by Lucien Freud – Translucent, spare, still.


Many thanks again to Janet, Ann, Isabelle, Alina, Christine and Vincent for answering all our questions and adding so much to what Manchester Art Gallery can offer our visitors.

Here’s to another 20 years! 

Gallery tours with the brilliant volunteer team take place every Thursday and Sunday, 2 – 3pm. No need to book. Meet in the glass atrium.

You can find out more about volunteering at Manchester Art Gallery here.