Episode 11 – Caroline McDonald

The Great North Museum

Notes on Cultural Peeps Podcast Episode 11 – Caroline McDonald

Hello and welcome to Episode 11 of the Cultural Peeps Podcast. Today’s guest is Caroline McDonald.

Caroline is the Manager of the Great North Museum (Hancock) which is a purpose-built museum situated in the centre of Newcastle. It was designed as a natural history museum in 1884 to house the growing collections of the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

Between 2006 and 2009 the museum underwent a £26 million redevelopment which saw the merger of the original Hancock Museum building and collection with the Museum of Antiquities and the Shefton Museum.

The full size T-Rex skeleton at the Great North Museum

I wanted to include Caroline in the Podcast because of the way in which she decided to retrain, choosing to leave a potentially lucrative career in the Media and Television to pursue a career in Museums.

Early in our conversation, Caroline talks about her experience of being the first person in her family to go to University and not really knowing what she refers to as ‘the rules’ – so assumed that you chose subjects that you were good at rather than those you were really interested in.

After identifying that she wasn’t happy in first career (within Media and Television), she spoke to a Career Adviser about what her options might be, and started to rebuild around her interest in History.

Caroline then used that first career in the Media and Television to support her transition to her second career, returning to University to study Archaeology as a mature student.

Six weeks after graduation, Caroline secured a role at Colchester Museum (Where she had volunteered during her career transition and throughout her second degree) on the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Caroline then joined the Society for Museum Archaeology, eventually becoming the Society’s Secretary. She cites this as an important step in her career as it opened up a huge network of other professionals that were undertaking similar roles. This is a story which has echoes Rob Airey’s experience of becoming Treasurer of the UK Registrars group back in Episode 8.

After moving into a new role following the merger of Colchester and Ipswich Museums, Caroline started to bring together all her skills and increase her project management experience. She talks here about her enjoyment of working with ‘creatives’ from different industries – exhibition designers, marketing specialists as well as curatorial, learning and collections staff and navigating and bringing together those different visions into a coherent overarching plan.

Around this time, Caroline undertook Associateship of Museums Association (sometimes referred to as the AMA) and we talk a little bit here about MAs, postgraduate qualifications and their impact on the sector’s workforce.

Following her role at Colchester and Ipswich Museum, Caroline then took up a post at the Museum of London where she started to refer to herself as a ‘Knowledge Manager’ rather than as a ‘Curator’, citing that the Collections were too big to really get to know inside out as a ‘subject specialist’. We talk here about how she devised different strategies for working with the vast amount of material she was charged with.

Caroline then started to look further afield for her next role. Deciding that she would be happy to relocate, the search led her to apply for the job as Manager of the Great North Museum. Since her arrival in 2016, she’s worked on a number of large-scale projects including the Great Exhibition of the North (2018) and ‘Dippy on Tour’ which brought the Natural History Museum’s beloved Diplodocus cast to the museum over the summer of 2019.

Dippy on Tour at the Great North Museum, Summer 2019

Towards the end of our conversation I ask Caroline about the future of the museum workforce. She talks about the potential of professionalising and diversifying the sector – so the potential benefits of introducing people with different professional backgrounds (from outside the sector) who can bring fresh approaches and ideas, and how that approach can be balanced with promoting and developing talent from within the sector.

For further information about Caroline, please visit:

Great North Museum Welcomes New Manager (Article)

Links to the Podcast content:

Great North Museum: Hancock

Tyne and Wear Archive sand Museums:

Newcastle University:

The Natural History Society of Northumbria (NHSN):

The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (SANT):

QVC The Shopping Channel (Official):

QVC The Shopping Channel (Wiki):

Portable Antiquities Scheme:

Colchester & Ipswich Museums:

Museum of London:

Getty Next Generation Programme:

Great Exhibition of the North:

Dippy on Tour:

Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA) Qualification:

Natural History Museum:

Artherian Legend:
By South Cadbury, that is Camelot:

Van Gogh Museum:

Don’t forget you can follow the Podcast at: