Last Saturday I started my first shift as a volunteer at Dr Johnson’s House. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, to give my weekend a little more structure, spend some time with different people, have the chance to welcome people to a place that’s important to me and have a glimpse at what it’s like behind the scenes.
My position is at the front desk. Visitors enter through the side door into the old parlour, which is where they pay a little to enter (£7, cheaper than most) and can buy books, postcards and various doodads. My job is to be welcoming, handle the transactions and give visitors the information they need to navigate the rest of the house.
One of the biggest surprises, sitting at the desk, was how well I could hear people outside. The building had always seemed so solid to me but listening to people point out the house as they passed, discuss whether they wanted to visit, tell each other a little about Samuel Johnson - it felt like there was only a thin film separating me from the outside world.
The other delight was the different reasons people entered. Some wanted directions to other places, some wanted to suggest future events, some came just to catch up and browse the bookshop. Even with the people who actually came in, there was huge variety. There was a couple most interested in Hodge the Cat, whose statue lies just over the square. Another man was making a return visit, having been in the house forty-nine years before. There were some Johnson-a-philes and quite a few newbies. It was funny, as deep and long as I’ve steeped myself in Johnson to found myself completely stumped by a question about when he moved out (1759).
When there weren’t visitors to welcome, I had a good chance to read. One of the leaflets for sale is a copy of Tetty’s funeral service, written by Johnson but not read. For all Boswell’s implications that she was a drunk, irritant and no suitable for Johnson, his own description of her personality was very touching, he praised; “the extent of her knowledge, the acuteness of her wit, the accuracy of her judgment, the force of her sentiments and the elegance of her expression.” It’s a far warmer portrait of her than he even gave in most of his anecdotes. (Though I love the one where she reads one of his works and is proud of him).
I also drank a lot of tea. Books, conversation and tea - Johnson would be proud.
As for behind-the-scenes, my favourite little titbit was a look at the document created for firefighters which lists which items are priorities to save in each room. I was also surprised by the fact that official instructions are to hurl the books out of the library window as it is easier to fix bindings than to restore burnt or flooded books. I also read a bunch of policy documents, which reminded me a lot of similar ones at school and it was encouraging to see the importance of sharing Johnson’s story to as many people as possible, overcoming as many barriers to it as possible. The chief aim of the museum is to hold and share that story with as many as possible.