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Behind the scenes at Dunollie

Our Curatorial Apprentice, Shannen Calderwood, has kindly taken the time to share some of her thoughts, impressions and experiences she has had whilst working with us so far. If you're thinking of starting out in the heritage sector or love Dunollie Museum, Castle and Grounds and want to find out more about what's happening behind the scenes - this is for you!

This week marks the halfway point of my modern apprenticeship here at Dunollie – six whole months of being part of this incredible team! I have learned so much during my time here already that I wanted to take a moment and reflect on what a great six months it has been here.

This apprenticeship has provided me my first opportunity to get into the sector, so I came with no experience specific to working in a museum setting, just enthusiasm for learning and a personal love of Scottish social history.

I landed in the best place I possibly could have – working with the Hope MacDougall Collection. Miss Hope MacDougall was daughter, sister, and aunt to three successive MacDougall chiefs, with the current chief Madam Morag MacDougall being her niece. Hope had a true passion for social history, especially the working lives of people in the highlands and islands, and dedicated her life to amassing an incredibly strong collection, which now resides here at Dunollie. It is a brilliant comparative collection, telling stories about topics from agriculture and fishing, to Travelling communities in Scotland, to the domestic lives of those living in this part of the country – and much, much more. Being able to spend my time keeping this collection safe, as well as finding out about the incredible, one-of-a-kind person that Miss Hope MacDougall was, has been a dream come true for me. And there are still lots of things that I don’t know – watch this space for some Hope-related projects!

Outside of working with the collections, I have been lucky enough to hang out with our Heritage Engagement Officer, Jamie, when he has been hosting primary school workshops both before the season started and since. This has allowed me to spend time with young people from the local area, helping and encouraging them to engage with their local history and understand all of the incredible stories that the MacDougall’s were involved in. This gave me the idea to work on some interpretation signs for our museum which are aimed at children – they will be installed in our museum soon. These signs will hopefully help other young people engage with history – without all the boring parts!

At the start of the season, I began doing one day of guided tours a week. We deliver two tours here each day, Monday to Friday, which last around 45 minutes. Our tour tells the story of the site – from Mesolithic occupation to the great kingdom of Dalriada, culminating in the birth of the MacDougall clan who have occupied their clan seat here for almost 1,000 years.

I was initially – and, sometimes, still am – so nervous to undertake this as I wanted guests to Dunollie to have the best experience possible. But I have found the tour to be such a lovely way to share the history here with other people – especially as we get a lot of travelling MacDougall’s on our tours. A lot of our visitors are really engaged with the history, and sharing these stories with them feels so special – and often I learn something from them, too. I am so glad I was able to get over the nerves and take up the Monday tours because it can be one of the best parts of my week.

As well as the above, you’ll catch me at Dunollie being a jack of all trades, jumping in to cover the reception or kettle Café if needs be – as everyone here does.

The whole team here have been so helpful and supportive of me as someone coming into this job from hospitality, wondering if I will be able to learn the skills I need to effectively contribute to both the care of collections here and the team in general. I have learned valuable lessons and skills from all of our team members, and it is the most supportive and happy place to work. Dunollie Museum, Castle and Grounds is thriving this season and it’s because all of us are truly passionate about preserving and protecting the historic artefacts and stories which live here.

Here's to the next six months!


Shannen’s post is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund through the Argyll Aspires project managed by CHARTS (Culture Heritage & Arts Argyll & Isles). The Museums and Galleries Practice SVQ, a level 7 qualification, is supported by Museums Galleries Scotland and Skills Development Scotland.

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