Where can volunteering take you?

Volunteer Manager, Meg Parnell and Family Learning Manager, Katy McCall, caught up with former family learning volunteer, Tavia Panton, about the experiences in her life that have led her to where she is now.

Volunteer - Tavia

Tell us about what you do now for work?

Currently, I am co-producing a National Centre for Teaching Black History as Learning Programme Manager (Communities) for National Museums Liverpool’s Waterfront Transformation Project. I am working with education experts, local education groups, a panel of young leaders, plus other key stakeholders to develop this Centre. It has the potential to reach schools, students, educators, creatives, businesses and more. I have the ambition for the Centre to model coalition across our organisation internally, and externally to become a pivotal resource connecting learners and partnerships of all backgrounds and levels with resources and networks for understanding black history inspired by the National Museums Liverpool collections. The heart of this project is working with communities to co-produce a Centre that is of and for its people.

What experiences helped you to get to this point in your life?

My experiences in university are where my journey into black history began. The canon of art history, the syllabus, and the ‘arts scene’ seemed ‘male, pale and stale’ during that period, and my experience on the course didn’t reflect the creativity and innovation that first attracted me to the arts and heritage sector. In fact, it engendered isolation and ‘racialisation’. Upon graduating I sought to rediscover joy in the arts. As a volunteer (and later employee), contributing to these good experiences from the perspective of someone whose voice had been marginalised felt empowering. I liked the idea that the next person like me wanting to find a route in, would not have to contend with such an exclusionary rhetoric.

Volunteering at Manchester Art Gallery exposed me to the ways in which artists interpret art to create learning and participatory experiences for families. My subsequent role provided a crash course in interpreting English heritage through creative learning for a diverse range of people county-wide. I then became a guest artist, I undertook anti-racism training, I studied more history and read books by a variety of authors writing about black history and the black British experience. In my last role, I put these experiences into practise to co-curate an arts programme with local young people about the Colonial Legacies of their city. All of these experiences have given me the skills and the drive to break new ground with this National Centre for Teaching Black History.

Contributing to these good experiences from the perspective of someone whose voice had been marginalised felt empowering. I liked the idea that the next person like me wanting to find a route in, would not have to contend with such an exclusionary rhetoric.

What did you do when you volunteered at the gallery?

As a volunteer at Manchester Art Gallery, I prepared materials for family art sessions, and set up spaces for sensory play. However, my most impactful volunteer role, that made a big difference to my career, was talking to artists who had created the spaces and workshops. It helped me to gain confidence in the environment, and to position myself within a creative community. I also learnt about the internal structure of an institution and how it operates, it is crazy to think how much I didn’t know before this opportunity. Another important aspect of the role for developing my confidence was speaking to the public and interacting with families in a casual creative way. This helped me when I had to deliver sessions in more formal settings.

How did volunteering at Manchester Art Gallery help your future work/life?

My experience as a volunteer was the first time I was able to envision a future within the arts. I always knew I didn’t want to be an artist or an art teacher in a school but I didn’t really know what was out there career wise for me. I took a risk choosing to study art and history and I was uncertain about where it would lead.  

As a volunteer the pathway suddenly became clearer and from that springboard to progressing into my field has created a trajectory that I would not have walked if it weren’t for my experience of volunteering.

What would you say about volunteering to younger people of colour who might want to get into the visual arts?

Go for it. Try it out and use every experience as a chance to learn. I should note that I have not had an experience of volunteering that has been removed from the system of racism under which this country operates so it has not always been easy existing in certain spaces. Britain’s empirical exploits echo in institutions like Manchester Art Gallery. However, this truth shouldn’t put you off, these experiences can be meaningfully navigated to leave a positive impact on others and yourself. By learning how to deal with uncomfortable conversations, you can gain multifaceted opportunities and experiences that arise from being a volunteer. And yeah, as I’ve said, I wouldn’t make the reparative contributions for my ‘black’ community that I do now without having volunteered at Manchester Art Gallery.

What can we learn from Tavia’s experiences?

It has been great to re-connect with Tavia and hear about her experiences. At Manchester Art Gallery we have been taking a long look at ourselves with the support of critical friends at Contact Theatre and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre and Education Trust. Over the past year we have been thinking about the systems, processes, attitudes and gallery culture that are barriers in our aims to be truly an anti racist organisation that serves the people of Manchester. This includes thinking about how we care for our volunteer teams and our conversations with Tavia are now shaping how we induct and support new volunteers for the family learning team.

Interested in volunteering with us?

Please register on the MCRVIP portal where all our open volunteer roles are advertised including our current call out for family volunteers.