Learning and sharing social history gives volunteers a buzz

'I have a great love in my heart for Bendigo,' says Lyn Wright. Combined with her enthusiasm for local history and archaeology and a passion for sharing her knowledge with people, this makes a volunteering role at Bendigo's Post Office Gallery a perfect fit for her.

Fellow volunteer Jan Monro feels the same. She loves to educate and to share her passion for local history. 'I've always been interested in the social history of Bendigo,' she says, and I love helping children engage with their local history.'

The Post Office Gallery opened in 2010 as a satellite space of Bendigo Art Gallery, with a special focus on the social history of the Bendigo region. As well as individual visitors from the local area and wider Victoria, the gallery also attracts visitors from other Australian states and even international visitors. Volunteers provide help and information about the gallery and the current exhibition.

Their roles as volunteer attendants have Jan and Lyn welcoming visitors, providing information and insights into the exhibit and following up on answers to some of the trickier questions that people ask. Each Post Office Gallery volunteer has their own arrangements – with some doing a regular shift and others filling in depending on availability but no matter what day you visit the Post Office Gallery, you'll be greeted and helped by a volunteer who's passionate about local history and happy to answer your questions. They are also happy to leave you to it if you'd rather browse quietly on your own.

Both Lyn and Jan comment that people are really surprised when they find out how important Bendigo has been in the history of Victoria. 'Most people don't know, for example that the Myer department store started in Bendigo, not Melbourne.' says Lyn.

'We hear some funny stories,' says Jan, 'and it's wonderful how many people come up and tell me they have a relative who was involved in some part of Bendigo's history.

Sometimes people will come in and mention they are from the 'so-and-so' family and they look at you expecting you'll know exactly who they're talking about. People feel very proud of their connections to this place.'

A challenge for both Jan and Lyn is just how much they need to learn – but they really enjoy this aspect of the role too. 'I love to learn so I can share,' says Lyn.
'The curator is wonderful to work with,' Jan says. 'She knows so much and the information is always really interesting.' Both Jan and Lyn agree that volunteers at the Post Office Gallery receive excellent support from gallery staff.

The gallery's curator puts together a booklet of information for each exhibition. Volunteers use this information to familiarise themselves with the exhibit. There's also a briefing and the curator provides activity sheets and other resources for schools. Lyn likes to do her own research too. 'I like to take my time walking through the exhibition when it opens, reading everything and getting the whole picture,' she says. Jan likes talking to the different visitors, particularly children. 'A challenge that I really enjoy is to take the information we've been given about the exhibition and present it to groups in an age-appropriate way,' she says.

Sometimes visitors have questions that a volunteer can't answer and they'll offer to follow it up with the curator and forward an answer on. 'We write it down and follow up, says Lyn, 'and then next time somebody asks the same question, hopefully we'll have an answer!'

Jan has been volunteering in the local community for around 30 years, with involvement in all sorts of organisations. Lyn is newer to volunteering but they've both been with the Post Office Gallery since it opened in 2010.

They both love what they do – and it's not all about the history and learning aspects. They get to meet and work with other people who care about Bendigo's social history as much as they do. They were both happy to offer advice to people considering a volunteering role. For both of them, a positive attitude is the most important thing.

'Pick an area that you love,' says Jan, 'the wellspring of enthusiasm has to be there. It all shows.'

Lyn feels the same way. She also encourages people to consider volunteering in new areas, but to be sensible about it. 'Give it a bit of a go,' she says, 'try it and see if you like it. It's always best if you really enjoy it, because people can see that.'

To see more about volunteering at Bendigo Art Gallery, visit the volunteering page on their website.