International Museum Day at Dundonald Castle

Written by Gwen Sinclair

Since 1977, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has nominated the 18th of May to be International Museum Day. It was set up to help increase public awareness that the role of museums plays in the development of society – it’s popularity steadily gaining momentum ever since –  even in 2020 despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic, some  37,000 museums, large and small, participated by celebrating their contribution to heritage and culture  in as many as 158 nations across the globe!

“Museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.”  International Council of Museums

At our Dundonald Castle Museum we like to think that we tick these boxes –  if you ignore the replica honed steel weapons, helmets, shields and armour that we have on display – which might seem contradictory to the mention of co-operation and peace among peoples!  However it could be argued that these are exhibited in order to predicate the sense of how life needed to be during the long period between the Bronze Age settlement, which archaeological evidence dates to Dundonald hill, as well as to the late 14th century Royal Dundonald Castle which stands there today – its arrow slits, giving us some measure of the need for defence in these troubled times from its days gone by. Our displays permit the curtain beyond then and now to open a little, highlighting the tribulations our ancestors endured, and so perhaps part of the purpose of our museum is to not only bring knowledge and understanding to an object or timespan, but also to crack open that window into the past, just enough, to further ascertain a sense of gratitude for the relative peace, and mod cons we can now enjoy! 

Shards from the past uncovered at Dundonald

Our museum is as much a space to display the past as it is to explore the shards of treasure which came from it –  some of which have lain hidden beneath the hill or around the Dundonald village gardens for centuries – unearthed by the community archaeological digs.

For International Museum Day 2021 we are reminded too of the past decades of visitors of all ages, from all nations and from all walks of life, who have come through the door of Dundonald Castle and Visitor Centre, and who have spent time in our Museum – sometimes to merely observe and imagine how lives panned out for the people who are represented in miniature – like the tiny sentries armed with spears who are always on guard to watch for trouble from atop wooden, or stone ramparts in the models of the 4 timeline versions of the strongholds which are thought to have been here on the hill; as they peer in through the display glass, and spot the sheep, or the dog, or the man that’s fallen over – the children often point and ask us: “Is he asleep?” We wonder if they are thinking perhaps that everyone from the past lived in a sleepy spell-cast world like a fairy tale.  In some ways this past year has seemed a bit too close to that for comfort,  and so aptly, the 2021 theme for International Museums Day is The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine.” 

We intend to continue to do just that: to provide the space for all who visit to immerse themselves in the luxury of the imagination, and to find out more details of just who the people were who inhabited the Bronze-Iron Age hill fort, and wonder about who was Donald, for whom the ‘Dun’ is named? (this mystery will be the subject of a blog post in the near future). Surrounded by bold, colourful panels, replicas of the heraldry from the clans connected to the castle, and photos from the past all allow further enquiry. Or the much-loved photograph of the Victorian picnic from the local Dundonald Historical and Archive Society collection – giving us a glimpse back in time when it seemed that the whole village was out on the hill enjoying the sunshine! We look ahead to when we can reinstate the moments of joyful expression on the faces of children to whom we have given a foam sword and shield to charge up the hill with – secure in the knowledge that they are armed and ready to fight any dragons who might be lurking within the castle walls!

Castle Guards at 4th High Steward of Scotland Alexander’s Castle (model) at Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre Museum

The sounds of modern life might echo into the Museum from our adjacent café – where people know that they can come and sit and have the peace they might need, even for a wee while, on their own journey through life.  On sunny days, it’s hard to beat a seat at a table outside gazing up at the stone castle walls calmly nestled on the skyline – hugging a mug of frothy coffee, with a sweet treat on the side – with the almost certainty of surround-sound birdsong.

On other days,  quiet contemplation trades places with excited chatter as the Visitor Centre becomes shared with a group of school pupils learning all about their past getting into costume in the Museum-  forming neat queues either side of the room – to be enlisted as a Knight for Robert II (1371-1390) with an emblemed tabard and (knitted – sshh!) chainmail head-wear (courtesy of our Knit + Natter Community Group who in normal times meet here once a week) or to become a lady in waiting to Queen Euphemia (1372-1386) with a medieval style dress and a wimple.  Others may opt for a brown hooded habit to bring an ecclesiastical overview to the proceedings, or to be a jester whose sole job is to make mockery of anything too serious.  As they bustle to shake gauntlets with our two knights, whose patient empty-helmet-slit eyes stand as witnesses to it all, and who we imagine are looking forward to being enlisted once more for their silent services when we can open again with full participation, in the unique experience medieval Dundonald Castle and our Visitor Centre Museum provides. 

One of our silent workers!

As our contribution to International Museum Day, we would also like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to the following funders, who have helped enable us to bring our museum, and history to our community and beyond via digital means during this most difficult time: 

  • Enabling Rural Communities Fund – Ayrshire LEADER;
  • Digital Resilience Grant – Museums and Galleries Scotland; 
  • Historic Environment Recovery Fund (HERF); 
  • Visitor Attractions Support Fund – Visit Scotland. 

We are also delighted to be taking part in the Arts Marketing Association’s Digital Heritage Lab which is providing digital mentoring support for 60 UK-based small to medium sized heritage organisations. The Digital Heritage Lab is funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiatives.  

Wall Displays at Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre Museum

We are a community charity for which we rely on keeping the doors to Dundonald Castle’s heritage open by the support of visitors and members, and for which, we have been creating digital content over the past year when we’ve been unable to open –  such as our short films, where castle tours have still been made possible, as a trailer to the real deal.  We have been investigating the mysteries of the castle and the people who may once have lived there, with lots more of this to come on our website!

We look forward to opening fully over the course of the year as things progress, and we can welcome back our visitors and friends – who if our Visitor Book, both online, and inside the museum, is anything to go by, usually become something of the same after their Dundonald Castle experience!

#DundonaldCastle650. #IMD2021 #TheFutureOfMuseums



Cover Image: designed by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC: Photo by Jason Robertson with overlay image from International Museum Day 2021 Poster by International Council of Museums (ICOM) is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 

Museum exhibits photos by Jason Robertson