The initial attraction of this Shared Learning Project was its location. The buildings and situation of the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) at Greenwich have long been one of my favourite places in London.
My first job was to meet the team at the ORNC and assemble a group of volunteers. This was the first time that such a special exhibition had been mounted in the Visitors’ Centre and, with a limited budget, the staff, led by Sarah Duthie, Director of Public Engagement, were keen to harness all the expertise and enthusiasm that U3A could muster.
The research phase involved on-line investigations, interviews with past and present Wrens, visits to archives and museums across the South East and collecting and sharing documents, artefacts and photographs. We met fortnightly to share findings and decide what further investigations could be fruitful. Teams of volunteers grouped and re-grouped in order to follow-up leads and make new contacts.
I imagined that once the research was completed the role of the volunteers would be over. However, there were still opportunities to share in the detailed planning of the exhibition itself. We met with the staff to select from the material, suggest the layout and design of the exhibition space, edit information text and agree publicity material. The opening of the exhibition – WRNS Untold Stories, the Women’s Royal Naval Service in Greenwich – was the culmination of nearly a year of work and a rewarding and satisfying end to the project.
Greater than the sum of its parts
U3A is founded on the belief that we all continue to learn well beyond formal education and that we learn from each other as well as from specialists and experts.
We have learnt a great deal about the impressive and, sometimes, formidable women who formed the WRNS, some of whom we have met and collaborated with. They include Dame Katharine Furse, the first Director, Vera Laughton Matthews, Director during the second World War and Commandant Anthea Larken, the current President of the Association of Wrens. But there have also been the many Wrens who gave of their time, memories and memorabilia so generously.
We have learnt from the very professional team at the ORNC. They treated the volunteers with interest and respect and never failed to involve us in the decision-making and to take our ideas seriously.
We learnt from each other. Some had been involved with Wrens in the past, others had expertise in IT or research, interviewing and taking oral histories. We can all be proud of the achievements of a project in which the whole was certainly greater than the sum of the parts.
Not the end…
The final accolade came from the London Volunteers in Museums which highly commended the exhibition and named it as runner-up in the 2017 awards.
Volunteer Manager at the Old Royal Naval College, Anne Burton said “The U3A team is truly outstanding because of the empathy they developed with their subject and the bond they formed enabled them to work as a whole team as well as in sub teams to produce work that is truly exemplary.
The project is a milestone for the organisation and the group have shown us what can be achieved and have inspired us to rethink how we use the Visitor Centre space in the future.