River and Rowing Museum

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Communication Concern

The River & Rowing Museum in Henley on Thames is located next to the River Thames in an award winning building and showcases art, history, conservation and the international sport of rowing.

It has five permanent galleries each with its own focus:

The River gallery explores the natural history and stories of the Thames from prehistoric times to today, while the Rowing gallery dives into the history of boat racing on the Thames and the world of competitive rowing. 

They have the only gallery in the country dedicated to the local Modern British artist, John Piper as well as both the Henley gallery that showcases the history of the town and the Wind in the Willows experience which lets you immerse yourself in Kenneth Grahame’s story.

With such an eclectic selection of items and artefacts the range of visitors that come to the museum are equally diverse and Debbie McFadyen the Visitor Operations Manager was looking to expand the volunteer team’s role so that they spent more time in the galleries interacting and talking with the visitors. She wanted to make sure that whatever the reason someone came to the museum, they learnt something new and interesting that they wouldn’t have known about without talking to one of her team.

Partners With You were recommended to the museum as they looked to build a programme of training for their volunteers. The programme needed to be designed so that interested volunteers could build their skills to the level of involvement that they wanted and also allow the museum staff to be able to train new starters as they built the volunteer team.


It was agreed that Partners With You would devise three levels of training. All volunteers and front of house staff would attend a day of visitor welcome and engagement training which was to include being able to handle an unhappy visitor.

Sally Hindmarch, MD of Partners With You explained their approach. “We spent a lot of time understanding the flow of the museum and how Debbie’s team wanted their visitors to experience the museum. We agreed that the Level one training for all would be the base level. And after that the volunteers would decide the level of responsibility and interaction that they wanted and would then self-select for levels two and three training.

“Those that wanted to interact with visitors around the museum and spend some time in various galleries would be able to choose to attend the level two training which would help them to get comfortable asking questions, talk on an ad-hoc basis and deliver short introductory talks. These talks would explain what visitors could see while in the museum and act as a taster for the gallery talks of the day.

Finally, if they chose to deliver longer gallery talks, the third level of training would help the volunteers to create their own themed or item focussed talk. The plan is that once the volunteer team is large enough there will be a daily menu of gallery themed and item focussed talks depending on the volunteers in the museum. Between the training for each level the volunteers had time to put the techniques they had learnt into practice.”

Debbie was delighted with the format saying “I think that the way the training was structured, worked very well. The best thing, from a personal point of view, was that Partners With You made the training fun and interesting; we didn’t feel we were being trained, we were having fun; learning skills which would be very useful in everyday life, as well as the situations that we’re presented with”.

Debbie continued “The way that Partners With You projected what was needed made us all feel very comfortable and willing to really want to get involved. And certainly, subsequent to the training, the enthusiasm for being able to use the skills we learnt and share our knowledge of a particular area (and to know how to do that in an interesting way) has been great.

“We were really, really happy with the way it evolved. I think the spacing of the workshops was good, so we had time to think about what we’ve learnt so far and come back. It’s given all of the front of house team some really good skills, which we can continue to use.”



It’s great that the training was popular but the important thing is that the team have gained the skills they need and that the museum’s vision has been held.

Debbie certainly seems to think so. She continued “I think what we’ve got out of it is being able to give our visitors another option, another experience. We’re a small museum but we wanted to be able to tell our visitors about what’s here.
I love going to a historical house and someone being able to tell me about a picture on the wall or a costume I’m looking at. I love that and it’s great to be able to offer that to visitors here. The proof of course is in what the delegates say:

“And I think it’s worked really well. We have notices saying, we’re offering a talk at X time, and there is enthusiasm for it …. it’s another experience we can offer our paying visitors. And in some cases, we can mould it around what they want, if they’re asking very specific questions about the gallery.

“I think the key is being able to bring the museum to life for people who want to know more; who are curious. Our volunteers are comfortable being up in the gallery now and even when we’re too busy to have them chatting freely, we can offer a timed session when we can meet visitors in a gallery and tell them more or answer any questions.

“That kind of thing is a really nice offering, and has been very well received, not just by visitors but also by the trustees and senior staff at the museum, who were very happy that we were offering something different and original.

“It’s been a great experience for us. And one I definitely want to expand on.”

It’s been a great experience for Partners With You too. Sally noted that “this project proved to us that the techniques that help you to “wow” your visitors in a large museum or attraction can be adapted to work in a venue of any size. You have to want to invest in your staff or volunteers and the River and Rowing Museum have done exactly that”.