Blog post by Francesca Laws, Schools Manager and Sara Manzanares Rubio, Volunteer Development Manager.

Volunteering is more relevant than ever. During the last couple of years especially, we have seen people wanting to step in to help others, engaging, formally or informally, to support the NHS, reach out to their neighbours or welcome refugees into the country. Volunteering is a powerful tool to strengthen our communities and organisations, but it also gives individuals the opportunity to gain skills and try something new.  

As a charity, volunteers bring added value and their diverse life experiences to help us go the extra mile. Our programme, created as part of our transformation project, Inspiring People, provides a welcoming environment for volunteers of all backgrounds to gain skills, while making a meaningful contribution to the work we do. Our opportunities are open to everybody  and offer meaningful tasks across a wide range of departments.

One of those opportunities has enabled us to engage a diverse team of volunteers with our Schools programme. To celebrate Volunteers’ Week, we want to tell you a bit more about them.

During 2022, Schools Volunteers have been supporting the Gallery’s artist educators to deliver our schools outreach programme Faces and Places in classrooms around London. The programme connects portraits in the Gallery’s collection to seven London boroughs through a hands on resource box, training for teachers and creative workshops for students in participating schools.

Children taking photo for portrait

    Children from the spring and summer term workshops 2022

During the workshops, pupils analyse the portraits to learn more about the people portrayed. They consider how the portraits were made and why the artist used particular techniques to represent the person in each portrait. They have the opportunity to re-enact the portraits, taking on the poses and gestures included in the artworks, and then test out different portrait making methods such as drawing, collage and photography. Students from year one up to year eleven have created their own versions of the Faces and Places portraits, as well as self portraits and portraits of their classmates. We have loved seeing the displays of the students’ work come together in schools, celebrating their local community and history.

Schools Volunteers have been integral in supporting artists to lead these practical and discussion based workshops, ensuring the smooth running of the workshops, assisting with managing materials and equipment, as well as providing encouragement and guidance for the participants. 

Out artist educators have really appreciated the wealth of experience and enthusiasm that the Schools Volunteers bring with them into the classroom.


Children from the spring and summer term workshops 2022

“Having the support of volunteers during the workshop allowed me to really focus on the group and individual conversations and activities. The volunteers added into these conversations, sharing the portraits and stories with the class.”  Marysa Dowling, Lead Artist, Faces and Places workshops with primary and secondary schools

 “During the outreach Faces and Places workshops at Greenvale SEND School in Lewisham, May 2022, I was most fortunate to be joined by Johanna Cole as a Schools Volunteer. Jo has a special interest in postcolonial readings of museum culture and she brought her expertise and knowledge of the portraits and issues around diversity to the students with great sensitivity and kindness. The ten focus portraits from the NPG collection all have links to Lewisham. Jo supported me throughout two days, supporting discussions and organising all the practical activities for the students, so that everything flowed magically! Added to this, our discussions in the lunch breaks felt like the most thought provoking CPD sessions for me. So, I can only send Jo my heartfelt thanks.”  Marc Woodhead, Lead Artist, Faces and Places workshops with special schools and primary schools.

Our volunteers are at different stages in their careers – some are at the early stages, looking for experience; some are changing career and are keen to support the work in action; and some are now retired and want to give something back. All of our volunteers are interested in how portraits can be accessed and used for learning, and have a keen interest in art and history.

We asked our volunteers what their motivation was for volunteering on the schools programme, and to tell us about their experiences in the classroom.

“I decided to volunteer because l had undertaken the training to assist with the schools programme. Initially, obviously, l had wanted to be in the Gallery itself. However, it was quite rewarding to go into the schools. It felt as if the programme was a big departure from the standard curriculum and appreciated by the children. It was quite new and challenging. Their enthusiasm was quite invigorating. Some of them found it difficult to concentrate and follow instructions. It felt as if the pandemic had really impacted on these younger age groups and made the exercises more taxing but also more essential.”  Christine Noon, Schools Volunteer, Faces and Places workshops with primary schools


                              Johanna Cole

“I originally joined the Schools Volunteer team in 2020 after deciding on a career change, wishing to move from the television and film industry into gallery education. Volunteering with the National Portrait Gallery offered a great opportunity to get involved, gain experience in the museums and galleries sector and explore my particular area of interest. Following the Gallery’s closure, the outreach programme offered a great way to continue this experience, and it has been very rewarding so far. It has been great see the students interact with the artists and the discussions around portraiture. I was fortunate enough to be part of the photography workshops and it was great assisting the students and artist with the equipment, shot styles, framing etc. The students really did produce some amazing work!”  Johanna Cole, Schools Volunteer, Faces and Places workshops with special and secondary schools


                       Sharare Samaie

“When I asked the children to choose their favourite portrait amongst the ones we had supplied from the Faces and Places pack, the explanations made me realise how important the work we are doing is. One child chose a portrait of Malorie Blackman, because she looked like his mother. After our session had concluded, many students the next day expressed to their teacher that they had no clue so many famous people had grown up in their area. The importance of teaching them about their own area and people who lived within it and letting the children see important figures that looked like themselves helped them feel represented and connected to their borough.”  Sharare Samaie, Schools Volunteer, Faces and Places workshops with primary schools

"I'm a retired teacher (FE college lecturer), my wife is a retired primary school teacher and my daughter is a primary school teacher, so education is 'in the blood'. Helping out on the Faces and Places programme gives me the opportunity to encourage children to be excited by the materials and I enjoy helping them with the creative activities. I love portraiture and portrait photography and I have been constantly amazed by how enthusiastically the children take on the tasks and how they can produce really fresh and vibrant work."  Steve Lockett, Schools Volunteer, Faces and Places workshops with primary schools

Faces and Places is a great example of the amazing contribution that volunteers are making across the Gallery, but we want to take this further. Opportunities to become involved at the Gallery have increased during closure, as we are now able to offer a mix of onsite, remote and outreach activity. We are already working on our ambitious volunteering vision for reopening, and we cannot wait to see our volunteers helping to bring the new galleries and Learning Centre to life.

Children's portraits from the spring and summer term workshops 2022

See more on our Faces and Places blog

To our priceless NPG Volunteers: Thank you for generously sharing your time and passion with us – you are wonderful. Your contributions make a huge impact and are instrumental in achieving the Gallery’s vision for the future, bringing new perspectives to the way we engage with audiences. We hope you enjoy your experience in the Gallery as much as we love working with you all!



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