Saturday 1 March 2008

History in need of a new home

The National Museum, the National Gallery, the National Library . . . Dublin is filled with museums, yet none records the remarkable history of the city itself, writes Arminta Wallace

You might imagine that Ireland is up to its elbows in museums. And we do have a plethora of highly regarded specialist collections, from the Famine Museum at Strokestown, Co Roscommon, to the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin; from the Irish National Stud and Horse Museum in Kildare to the Ulster Folklore and Transport Museum in Hollywood, Co Down. There are the wonderful Waterford Museum of Treasures and the Museum of Country Life in Co Mayo. But what we don't have - what, in truth, many of us don't even miss - is a museum for the city of Dublin.

Most Dubliners are probably blissfully unaware that the Dublin Civic Museum, which was housed in the former City Assembly House on South William Street, has been closed for about five years now. The museum died a quiet death after a long slide into apathy and neglect; but even in its heyday, it hardly qualified as one of the city's premier attractions.

If Dublin is serious about its aspiration to become one of Europe's top tourist destinations, however, shouldn't we have a museum to tell the history of our capital? Definitely, says Paul Doyle of the Irish Museums Association (IMA) - and not just for the tourists. "We've been pushing for a museum of Dublin for probably seven or eight years at this stage," he says. "We think that, like any capital city, it has stories to tell. Serious cities around the world all have their own museums, and the people of Dublin deserve one as well."

The IMA, which has a seat on Dublin City Council's Strategic Policy Committee on Youth, Art and Sport, is about to deliver to the council yet another submission which will make these and other points in favour of its proposal. "The council invited us to do this, which is a reasonable start," says Doyle. It will, nevertheless, be an uphill climb. Ask the average Dubliner about museums and they'll point to the National Museum, the National Gallery, the National Library, the Hugh Lane, Kilmainham Gaol, the Dublin Jewish Museum - even, perhaps, to the Guinness Hopstore, to Dublinia and to Viking Splash. Fine institutions all, but none of them is doing the job of a city museum, simply because none of them is a city museum.

So what should a city museum be doing? "City museums," says Hugh Maguire of the Heritage Council, "have a particular role to play because cities are always places where people are moving in and moving out - places for discourse and the exchange of ideas. We're inclined to think of that as a modern phenomenon - but down through the centuries, Dublin has been the interface for all that cultural interchange. And there's nowhere where that story is actually presented, either for the people who live here or for the thousands and thousands of newcomers to the city in recent years.

"You only see what you get in Dublin - and there's very little to even tell you what you're seeing. You see Georgian architecture and bits of the river and so on; but there's very little that actually explains it to you. There's no one to interpret the town planning or the growth of the city. There are sporadic exhibitions here and there in the various institutions, but they don't consider the history of the city as a single narrative," says Maguire.

ONE OF THE first questions which would have to be decided is how wide-ranging this narrative should be. Traditionally, Dublin has been regarded as "the city between the canals", but in recent years, it has spread its wings much further, and shows every sign of continuing to do so. There's also the question of how a collection would be arranged - should it start with the oldest signs of settlement and move forwards, or start with the city everyone can recognise and move backwards in time, turning a museum visit into an exercise in celebratory excavation? Should it concentrate on preservation and heritage, or try to document change by targeting the various immigrant cultures whose members are just beginning to make their cultural marks on the city?

Such questions would need to be thoroughly aired and debated if a civic museum were to be truly "civic". But first, as Paul Doyle points out, we need to make a definite commitment to a city museum; there's not much point in people working out, for example, a comprehensive collections policy if the whole project comes to nought once again. How difficult can it be to get such a commitment in place?

Other cities have done it: at one end of the spectrum, Beijing has just spent $150 million (€101 million) on a brand-new, seven-storey keynote building to house its history, with 13 themed exhibitions including a full-sized reconstruction of an old business street. Closer to home, most of the larger European cities have urban museums, including Liverpool, Glasgow and Luxembourg, whose Musee d'Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg, situated in four beautifully restored buildings in the old city, prides itself on its modernist touches and cutting-edge interactive displays.

There are clearly as many blueprints for city museums as there are plans for city transport systems - but the message for anyone setting up a city museum in the 21st century seems to be: do it properly or don't do it at all. "Museums must fulfil a full range of purposes," says Hugh Maguire. "Every museum worth its salt needs vast amounts of storage space, properly climate-controlled rooms, rooms for documentation, rooms for education. Two or three front-of-house rooms just won't solve the problem."

Geraldine Walsh of Dublin Civic Trust points to the private museums in London - including Sir John Soane's mind-boggling life-sized cabinet of curiosities in Holborn, or the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, which presents a series of domestic interiors from the Elizabethan era to the present-day - as offering constructive examples of what could be done in Dublin. "When you come out of the Geffrye, everything you see in London is more meaningful to you. The city is a different place," she says. "Children go in and learn about, say, Windsor chairs. They draw them and maybe model them with cardboard and little bits of timber."

This is the kind of "hands-on" approach which, Walsh suggests, helps bring history to life. "What has happened in Dublin is that there's a total deficit between the eye and the place. Wealth has overtaken us over the past 20 years, so that we're in the process of discarding everything." She suggests that current trends in interior design, such as the idea of the "minimalist household", are exacerbating the problem. "Where before, objects were packed away in boxes somewhere, now people are getting rid of almost everything. The mark of a sophisticated society is that the collective memory is recorded in all its facets, from folklore right through to art and music."

SO IF A CITY museum is such a good thing, why haven't we got one in Dublin? Some say it's because we haven't evolved to the stage where we can take a cool, balanced look at our history. Others point to an overall archaeological bias in Irish museums culture. "If it's not dug out of the ground, the system isn't interested," says Hugh Maguire. "We have this problem with arts and crafts in Ireland as well - and in literature. Priority is given to certain areas, and from the 18th century up to now, priority has been given to the antiquarian in Irish studies. Whereas quite commonplace artefacts from earlier periods are seen as rarefied and worthy of scholarly regard, there's an attitude which verges on contempt for the tangible culture of more recent times."

As the Irish Museums Association gears up for its annual conference, which begins in Wexford today, one of its keynote speakers might well agree with those sentiments. The head of English heritage and former director of the British science museum, Neil Cossons, has spent many years trying to persuade the powers that be to save the architecture of the industrial revolution, from maintenance depots through workers' cottages to dark, satanic mills - with mixed results.

One of the points he will be making in his address is that museums have moved "from the twilight to the spotlight". Cossons will examine the tenacity of the whole idea of museums, which, he says, is one of the longest-lasting cultural phenomena in human history. "Part of it has to do with the fact that museums are capable of reflecting back to people something about their own lives. There seems to be a need on the part of communities to have their past about them. It's a very powerful human emotion and we now have the wealth, prosperity and intelligence to be able to do it."

Cossons identifies the desire for city museums as a significant trend in this ongoing boom. Liverpool and Bristol are building new ones, he says, and the Museum of London is undergoing a major expansion and overhaul. The case for a city museum can't, as a glance at Dublin City Council's excellent website will show, but made in isolation. Supporters will have to argue their point against supporters of other initiatives, which range from the biodiversity survey 2008-2012 through fair-trade fortnight to the provision of new football pitches and the ban on heavy good vehicles. Dublin, seen from this wide perspective, is a multi-layered, chaotic, ever-changing slice of life. But then, isn't that exactly why we need a museum of the city?

The Irish Museums Association's annual conference begins today in Wexford and continues until March 2nd. The theme is "New Approaches to the Museum's Engagement with the Local Community". For further information, call 01-6633579 or check out the website at"You must have your strategic plan, you must have your collections policy, you need your project manager and your exhibitions designer," says Peter Walsh, former curator of the Guinness Museum and a passionate advocate of a museum for Dublin. "But above all, you need to tell the stories of the city. When you work out what your themes are, you know what your stories are going to be - and then you need to find the voices to tell those stories in a meaningful way, thereby giving people back their history."

Walsh is himself a magical storyteller and a repository of myriad fascinating scraps of information about Dublin's past lives. He talks about stone heads carved in the shape of fertility goddess Ceres (many of which have disappeared), a rattle which was thrown at the Duke of Wellington when he arrived at the Theatre Royal in 1821 (now in the National Museum Collins Barracks), the head of Nelson from the Pillar (right), currently in the Gilbert Library on Pearse Street.

Such objects spark vital human connections, recognition of our shared common experience, says Walsh. Then there are the stories which, for all our fluency with narrative, we have never fully told. Walsh recalls a little-known biographical account from 1821. It was written by an old man who, in his youth in the 1770s, had played football in the streets of the Liberties with a black boy.

"The story goes," he says, "that the son of the emperor of Morocco had been kidnapped by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in the Mediterranean. He apparently had a distinguishing birthmark on his behind - so an ad was put in the newspapers looking for this child. Now, a sugar baker in Crane Street bought a black child from a Liverpool slave trader to work in the bakery in Dublin. This little kid was taken in by the family of the man who wrote the story."

In due course, the baker spotted the ad in the newspaper, rushed home and asked the African child to strip and - lo and behold - there was the birthmark.

"We don't know the end of the story," says Walsh, "but there are lots of people living in Dublin now who would be very interested in those kinds of connections. The whole point of having this treasury of stories is to tell them - and to be aware that things are constantly changing. In 50 years' time, what's happening now will be history, and if we don't preserve that history . . . well, thankfully there's great recording now about the Jewish history of Clanbrassil Street and so forth, how all that heritage is being preserved. All these stories are important."

And as Walsh points out, it's not all sweetness and light. There's a story to be told about the Dublin which somewhat callously carried on its business as usual during the Great Famine, while the rest of the country starved. If we're going to tell the story of Dublin we need to tell it warts and all.

"It's a very complex city, as all cities are," he says. "There are a million Dublins carried around in the heads of the people who live here." And if we don't preserve and represent them, they may disappear forever.

The Irish Times

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