Seven years of Science Museum volunteering: not because it is easy, but because it is hard

I’ve been a volunteer at the Science Museum for seven years now, and this summer was lucky enough to develop and present a talk on one of our flagship objects: not a model, not a replica, but the actual command module from the Apollo 10 mission. This spacecraft brought three astronauts back from the Moon in May 1969 as part of the ‘dress rehearsal’ for the first Moon landing. It’s also the only Apollo command module currently in display outside of the US.

I delivered my talk to around 400 visitors of all ages, averaging about a dozen for each talk. I loved it, but it wasn’t easy. I’m not a natural public speaker and the last few months have been especially challenging.

When I’m going through a hard time, I usually stop volunteering, but this time decided to persevere. No matter how unmotivated I felt, I committed to giving talks once a week. In doing this I remembered the words of JFK: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.

Obviously, my weekend plans are on a slightly different scale to the Moon landings, but I think the point stands! Dealing with mental health issues means constantly finding ways to do what you want or need to do, even – or especially – when it’s hard.

Here are a few things I did to help me keep volunteering this summer:

  • I was anxious about memorising the whole talk, which was putting me off writing it in the first place… so instead I used a full set of cue cards for the first session, a smaller set for the second, then went without from the third session onwards.
  • I don’t like including lots of numbers in my talks, but knew from experience visitors would ask for them… so instead I focused on telling the story I wanted to tell and kept a list of relevant figures to refer to if needed. I also added to it whenever anything new came up.
  • Finally, over the last couple of years I’ve lost confidence in my ability to communicate science at all, which almost led me to give up volunteering… so instead I focused on connecting with visitors and learning from each talk. Through this I rediscovered how much I love talking about science, and I hope sharing that enthusiasm is valuable even if I’m not a great communicator.

I’m taking a break now but plan to write a new talk in time for the Autumn half term. Whatever form it takes, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard” will remain my mantra. If it’s good enough for the Moon landings, it’s good enough for me!

To finish, I wanted to share my favourite of the pictures I included in my talk.

Image courtesy of NASA

The Apollo 10 crew named their command module “Charlie Brown” and their lunar module “Snoopy”, so crew secretary Jamye Flowers decided to bring the eponymous hound along to wish the astronauts good luck as they headed for the launchpad. Clearly Snoopy did his job, because Apollo 10’s success enabled Apollo 11 to happen just two months later. The “first beagle in space” remains a mascot for safety and exploration at NASA to this day!

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