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The National Museum of Ireland: an ideological history

Pat Cooke, School of Art History and Cultural History, National University of Ireland, 1 July 2011

RICHARD REID: Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, it’s traditional at these conferences to have visitors from Ireland. In the past we have had some very distinguished ones but I would have to say no more distinguished visitor than Pat Cooke. I want to read you a little clip from a very famous Irish playwright and writer which sums up the situation in which I originally met Pat and this is what it says:

There it was, a great sombre silent tone building sitting like a toad watching the place doing its ragged middle-aged minuet, a place of cells, a place where silence is a piercing whale, where discipline is an urgent order from heaven, where a word of good will is as far away as the right hand of God, where the wildest wind never blows a withering leaf over the wall, where a black skies is as kind as a blue sky, where a hand clasp would be low treason, where a warder’s vanished, eye creates a carnivore, where a place there is everything and everything in its improper place.

Sounds pretty grim, wasn’t it? That was where I first met Pat which is actually a description of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin by Sean O’Casey when he was taken there as a young boy. I first met Pat when he was the curator of Kilmainham. Pat is the man. If you go to Kilmainham today who rescued it from republican oblivion. But Pat was the curator of it and we Perry McIntyre and I when we went to Ireland used to bring groups there. It is an extraordinarily important historic site in Dublin. Not only was the Pat the curator of there, he was also the curator of [Patrike] Pearse’s house as well. So it was a nice kind of dual function to have those two most significant sites of modern Irish history in his care. Pat made those places really interesting, vibrant and alive for the visitors who went to them.

At that stage he was employed by an organisation whose title I love - the Office of Public Works, OPW. You think that people who work for OPW look after gentleman’s lavatories in the middle of Dublin and things of that nature. But no, OPW actually looks after Irish historic sites all over the country. Pat has moved on to University College Dublin where he now teaches in the whole theory of museology and various other cultural policy and a range of things. He is always entertaining as a speaker just at dinner when we are talking and I know you are going to be entertained and enlivened this morning by what he has to say.

PAT COOKE: I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to have sat having a sunny, summery lunch in Dublin on Tuesday and to find myself before you here in wintery Canberra on a Saturday morning – something has happened in between but I can’t quite gather what it is. I hope I don’t suffer any hallucinations in the middle of this delivery as a result of it.

I have taken on a rather ponderously titled subject here today: ‘The National Museum of Ireland: an ideological history’. I was a bit anxious about this until I heard Richard say something in his seamless presentation yesterday morning on the exhibition. Richard say, ‘There is very little of this that is about Ireland. It’s all about Australia.’ Well, I can offer you perfect symmetry. There is actually nothing about this that is directly about Australia; it’s about Ireland. But I hope somewhere in what I have to say you will find some resonances and echoes with the exhibition. Not only with the exhibition but also the significant fact that this exhibition is being held where we are sitting in the National Museum of Australia, and I am going to talk to you about the National Museum of Ireland, its history and evolution.

If we follow one of the most distinguished modern cultural study theorists, who happens to be an Australian – a man by the name of Professor Tony Bennett – he follows Foucault by saying that essentially that museums ‘are governmental technologies for mediating culture and society’ and in a sense what they are in a more crude way are ‘identity machines’. Maybe in some sense we can afterwards see the ways in which the history of the National Museum of Ireland might compare and contrast with what the National Museum of Australia is about.

It is hardly possible to talk about how museums embodied and represented the material culture of Ireland in modern times without registering a cleavage in Irish material culture life that ran largely along colonialist lines in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Daniel Corkery in the 1920s wrote of a ‘hidden Ireland’ that had been rendered invisible through the pervasive dispossession and the material poverty of the Catholic Irish, but a people nevertheless who possessed a culture that was rich in what we would now call intangible heritage: in music, song, poetry and all of the ancient lore of an oral tradition. However, Kevin Whelan offers a more nuanced picture. In his book The Tree of Liberty, he describes an ‘underground gentry’ class which, despite its relative prosperity, seems to have rejoiced in forms of inconspicuous consumption. He tells of how in 1732 Mary Delany visited a thatched cabin in County Galway belonging to a prosperous Catholic middleman and found that ‘the people of this country don’t seem solicitous of having good dwellings or more furniture than is absolutely necessary – hardly so much, but they make it up in eating and drinking’. There were at least two dozen people present for dinner on that night.

A visitor to a house in Ballycroy, County Mayo had the following experience:

In 1813 I slept in a man’s house who had 100 head of black cattle and 200 sheep, and there was not a single chair or stool in his home, but one three legged one, no bed but rushes, no vessel for boiling their meals but one…yet this man was said to be very rich, besides the stock named above.’

It was hardly surprising that travel writers of the time were overwhelmed by the image of roadside cabins where the destitute dwelt and, as Whelan puts it, ‘failed to notice the discreet world of the big farmer, embedded in the centre of their farms’. Yet it was this very class who most powerfully articulated a dispossession mentality and portrayed themselves as scions of a lost Gaelic aristocracy whose lands had been usurped by the planters. In Ireland, wrote Arthur Young in the 1770s, ‘descendents of the old land-owners regularly transmit by testamentary deed the memorial of their right to those estates which once belonged to their families’.

It is no wonder, then, that the Anglo-Irish lived in considerable anxiety about the legitimacy of their claim to the land and the lands to which they had so relatively recently come into possession. They dealt with this anxiety partly by taking possession of the material remains of Irish history and pre-history as a way of constructing an indigenous identity. From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, the highly visible Anglo-Irish gentry began conspicuously to consume that heritage through antiquarian scholarship and collecting. Thus it is that the origins of Irish museums are rooted almost wholly in Anglo-Irish culture.

This museological tradition is encapsulated in the way various collections came together to form the nucleus of the Dublin Museum of Science and Industry in the late nineteenth-century, the museum which, with only minor modifications, became the National Museum of Ireland in the wake of Independence.

Just to give you a quick synoptic history of the origins, this is a condensed graphic of the origins of our museum. The oldest Anglo-Irish institution around is Trinity College, Dublin – Richard’s alma mater, as you are all well aware – founded in 1592. And over the centuries it built up very find collections of archaeology, ethnography and geology, primarily for educational purposes. The ethnographical collection is particularly significant in the case of the National Museum because in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century lots of stuff came from for instance the Cook voyages that went into that collection and ultimately ended up in our national museum.

Then there was the Royal Dublin Society founded in 1731, classic Enlightenment organisation dedicated to scientific improvement in Ireland with particular reference to agricultural improvement. It built up very sizable and valuable collections in the scientific field, in industrial history and natural history.

Finally, there is the Royal Irish Academy founded in 1785 whose antiquities collection formed the core of what was to be the archaeological collection of the National Museum of Ireland, all of the classic gold iconic items that you know of in the National Museum come through this route.

Eventually through the enabling piece of legislation, the Dublin Science and Art Museum Act 1877, because a lot of these organisations were receiving funding from government, the government put on pressure for the rationalization of these collections in one institution. From 1877 onwards, these were gradually brought together in what is now our National Museum of Science and Art in 1890 in Kildare Street.

The Dublin Museum owed much to the power and influence of Henry Cole, driving force behind the Great Exhibition of 1851 and guiding light of the South Kensington Museum that grew from it. Cole, in his role as Director of the Department of Science and Art in London, sought to implement an imperial system of art and design education that combined art school training with the inspiration of the best design specimens drawn together from the cultures of the world in a museum. Giving evidence before a special commission to inquire into art education in Ireland in 1869, Cole was emphatic that the Dublin Museum should be directly answerable to his London department.

And he got his way. When the Dublin Museum of Science and Art was established following the passing of the Science and Art Museum Act of 1877, it was run as an annex of the South Kensington Museum. At a practical level, this allowed South Kensington to lend to the Dublin museum a good number of casts and copies of classical and Renaissance sculpture—something, as we shall see, that would become an issue for the National Museum post-1922.

Over the following 13 years, new buildings clustered around the RDS headquarters at Leinster House, which is now our Parliament building, by the way, were erected to house the complex of cultural institutions that would include the Dublin Museum of Science and Art, the Museum of Natural History and the National Library. This is a google image of that cluster as it was initiated in the 1890s. [image shown]

The opening of the National Museum on 29 August 1890 symbolises, as well as any event can, the high noon of British Rule in Ireland. It was almost exclusively an ascendancy affair. The official opening was timed to coincide with Horse-show week at the RDS grounds in Ballsbridge, the summer-season high-point of Anglo-Irish social life in Ireland. It was performed by the Earl of Zetland, who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in July 1889. Also in attendance was the Commander of the Forces in Ireland, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar. A Highland regiment formed a guard of honour outside Leinster House, and the band of the Gloucester regiment provided the music for the occasion.

Of the 200 or so invited guests listed in the following day’s Irish Times, not a single Irish Parliamentary Party member was among them, not even [Charles] Parnell who even at this stage was still the undisputed leader of the Party.

Two speakers preceded the Lord Lieutenant. The Museum’s Director, Valentine Ball, stressed the Museum’s role in fostering the links between art, design and industry: ‘The new Museum,’ he said, ‘with its collections of standard examples, illustrative of the industrial applications of art, should do much for the promotion of art and industry in this country.’

He was followed by Lord Powerscourt, President of the Board of Visitors of the Museum, who was particularly pleased that the new buildings surrounded Leinster House, home of the Royal Dublin Society. He left no doubt in his listeners’ minds about the precise lineage of the collections at the heart of the new museum: ‘I claim for the Royal Dublin Society and its sister, the Royal Irish Academy [RIA],’ he proudly declared, ‘the initiation and the carrying on of these great works for the civilisation of the Irish people which we now maintain we crown with these new buildings’. He went on to observe:

If Ireland is not favoured like England with abundant mineral resources, and may not therefore hope to rival the Sister Isle in the extent of its manufactures, she has at least held her own in several branches of industry. The collections of this Museum contain many splendid specimens of what Celtic genius has accomplished. I would specially point … to the marvellous designs and workmanship of the ancient silversmiths of Ireland, to the beauty of its antique furniture, and the excellence of its textile manufactures.

The stress placed on the link between ethnic ornamentation, traditional handcrafts and the development of indigenous industry was a leitmotif of British colonial thinking in the nineteenth century. Arindam Dutta in his book The Bureaucracy of Beauty: Design in the age of its global reproducibility, which deals with the impact of the South Kensington System on colonial India in the same period, asserts that:

… colonial governance is marked precisely by a calculus of extreme sensitivity to situational circumstance. Rather than betray their own alienness, the codes of imperial power sought to be inextricably entwined with the native’s own codes of cognition.

By the mid-1850s, schools of art had been set up in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. The emphasis on craft and on the artisanal in India led to mass-scale deindustrialisation at the height of the empire. The Indians would not be allowed to compete through mass production in free trade. Instead, Indian artisans had to compete without converting to machine production.

While it is true that Ireland wasn’t exactly analogous with India - heavily industrialised Ulster was more of a piece with England, Scotland and Wales, for example - the economy of the island was still based overwhelmingly on agriculture. Powerscourt’s emphasis in the new Museum on craft production, inspired by the craftsmanship of the gold objects in the RIA collection and the stonework of the mediaeval period, accorded more directly with the Indian experience.

It seems fair enough, then, that in a recent paper Fintan Cullen has described the Museum during the first decade or so of its existence as representing ‘gung-ho imperialism mixed with a pedagogic zeal inspired by the South Kensington ideal’.

I want to break for a moment to explain what the Museum was like over these periods to get a sense of it. This would have been the primary or prestige space in the National Museum when it opened, the great court [image shown]. On the day of the opening, this was filled with the great and the good – the VIPs of the ascendancy that I just alluded to. Some of the sculpture works were around the perimeter but the centre was only turned over to museum display after that event.

This is an image from the Lawrence Collection (National Library of Ireland) in about 1895 [image shown]. I have done some investigation into the contents of this room as you see it. Some of it is quite interesting. Around the edge you see some works by distinguished Irish sculptors of the nineteenth century. John Henry Foley was perhaps the most famous of Irish sculptors in the nineteenth century. He was the man who was responsible for the Victoria and Albert memorial in London, for example, and was a man who was widely known throughout the kingdoms.

A lesser known but equally distinguished sculptor of the nineteenth century was John Hogan. His drunken fawn and a number of other pieces by him were present in the space. Then you go into the kind of imperial eclecticism that constitutes this space. There is this figure of Christ from Amiens Cathedral, for example. Why it was chosen? Who knows. More than likely a cast brought over from South Kensington.

There was this reclining Buddha from Burma. This is actually mentioned in Ulysses. It was given to the Museum in 1891 by Colonel Sir Charles Fitzgerald as ‘a trophy of Britain’s newest colony exhibited to the people of our oldest’. Here it gets really fascinating because this is – obviously when one looks at this first, one thinks Celtic cross, here is the Irish bit. No, this is the Gosforth cross from Cumbria. In the course of researching this talk, I went after this one. Fintan Cullen remarks that this is the market cross from Tuam in County Galway. But I looked up a photograph of the market cross of Tume and realised that it cannot be – at least its most distinguishing feature, the head of it, is not the market cross of Tume.

So I got in touch with my two colleagues, the recently retired Dr Michael Ryan, former keeper of antiquities in the National Museum, and the current keeper Dr Raghnall O Floinn and we have emails going backwards and forwards. This thing seems to be a pastiche cross with various elements in it and nobody knows quite what it adds up to. Michael is still looking into what the head of it might be but he suspects, rather astonishingly, that he may also be Anglo-Saxon.

Let’s stop here for a moment and think about the implications of this. In the most central space in the museum, the two most apparently Irish things may well be Anglo Saxon. One is definitely Anglo Saxon. One of the great points of controversy when the museum opened was that the Royal Irish Academy collection of indigenous gold priceless material – the Ardagh chalice and the like – was put in a room upstairs off the right, kind of stowed away up there. This was instantly taken up by nationalists who said, ‘this is not the way to treat our great national treasures.’

What is going on here with the presentation of these two apparently Anglo Saxon elements in the middle of this incredible imperial ‘melange’, shall we call it, in the main exhibition space of the museum. To go in on a detail of this using again a contemporary image of Lawrence’s, we have this magnificent specimen [image shown]. This is Walter Richard Pollack Hamilton VC. By the way, he’s a countyman of mine from Inistioge, County Kilkenny, I was rather glad to discover. It’s by Charles Bell Birch, who was once an assistant to John Henry Foley. It was acquired by the museum in 1893. Hamilton was killed in action during the Second Afghan War defending the British residency in Kabul. It was removed to the RDS in the 1920s, and in 1985 it was presented to the National Army Museum in London, so it’s pursued a very interesting migration pattern. It’s described in its caption at that time as ‘Richard Pollack Hamilton VC above a prostrate Afghan’.

To go back to the opening day again, the presence among the guests on that opening day of Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn, two people who nine years later were founders of the Irish Literary Theatre along with W B Yeats and George Moore, points to the complex role cultural institutions played in Irish cultural and political life at this time.

The Abbey Theatre founded in 1904 is conventionally seen as the cultural institution at the heart of the literary revival and as representing a robustly nationalist ethos. However, in a recent book on theatre and the State in Ireland, Lionel Pilkington has argued that the Abbey’s claim to be a national theatre held out an enticing prospect of social consensus; a place where, as citizen-spectators, nationalists and unionists alike could share an ‘overarching national ideal’.

This was not so distant from what the new museum was about. The National Museum can be seen as part of the effort known as ‘killing Home Rule by Kindness’ that sought to embrace both moderate nationalists and unionists in a project that represented Irish national identity as compatible with both membership of the United Kingdom and the wider imperial project. In this context, it was perfectly reasonable for The Irish Times, then a bastion of the ascendancy, to argue in the mid-1890s that the Royal Irish Academy archaeological collection should be moved to a central position in the Museum. Even when the Museum was brought under the direction of a Dublin-based department in 1900, the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, it remained compatible with a unionist perspective as it was placed under the safe direction of the moderate, progressive unionist, Sir Horace Plunkett.

The Broighter Hoard episode distils some of these complexities. A collection of gold objects was found at Limivaddy in 1896 and was bought by the British Museum. A campaign soon started in Ireland to have the collection declared treasure trove and returned to Ireland. The leader of the Irish Party, John Redmond, made much of the running in the House of Commons in demanding their restitution to Dublin, but when the legal case challenging the British Museum’s right to the objects came to court in 1903, the case against the British Museum was led by none other than Edward Carson, then Solicitor General for England, and future leader of Ulster’s resistance to Home Rule.

George Noble Count Plunkett, who became the Director of the Museum in 1907, was a Home Rule nationalist and a Parnellite, who had unsuccessfully contested elections in 1892, 1895 and 1898. He has been credited by Elizabeth Crooke and others with giving a significant nationalist turn to the Museum in 1907 by titling the annual report ‘The National Museum of Ireland’. But again in doing research on this, I find that the National Museum of Ireland is a term that has been used from 1876 onwards. So in my view there is nothing specifically significant in terms of nationalist perception going on here at this time. It is interesting when it was set up first it was called the Dublin Museum of Science and Art because that emphasised its position as one of a matrix of museums through the United Kingdom, not just an Irish national one.

Plunkett only lost his position as Director of the Museum when he was associated with the participation of his son, Joseph Plunkett, in the 1916 Rising. Joseph Mary Plunkett is one of the seven signatories to the 1916 Rising and was subsequently executed in Kilmennen jail for that involvement. I suppose you could say the father was swept along in the whirlwind of events caused by this and lost his job at that point as Director of the Museum.

The 1916 Rising, of course, was the event that triggered five tumultuous years of political turmoil in Ireland, climaxing in the Treaty of 1921 which brought into being the twenty-six county Free State and established the split with a six-county Northern Ireland. But no sooner was the Free State achieved than a disastrous civil war lasting almost two years enveloped it, resulting in the economic ruin of the country. The executive government faced a huge job of reconstruction. Among the tasks facing it was the realignment of cultural policies and cultural institutions to reflect and assert an independent identity for the new State that had largely been constructed on cultural claims.

The coming of independence brought with it a decline in sympathy for the visual arts because they were ‘associated with people from the Anglo-Irish minority, a politically marginalised social group in the new state’. This is paraphrasing John Turpin, the historian of our National College of Art. On top of this the new State lacked a manufacturing base of sufficient mass to stimulate design education. Neither of these factors boded well for the fate of a museum of science and art, whose collections were an amalgam of Irish antiquities, artwork copies from its parent museum in London, and the plunder and by-products of empire.

The first decisive move the government made in the cultural field was to bring all of the national institutions—museum, library, botanic gardens and school of art—together under the control of the Department of Education in 1924. It was against this background that in 1927 the Minister for Education, Professor JM O’Sullivan – he was professor of modern history at my own college, University College, Dublin - set up a five-man committee to review the National Museum.

There were two members of the committee that are particularly worthy of note, Professor Nils Lithberg and Thomas Bodkin. Lithberg was a Swede who was professor of Scandinavian and comparative ethnology at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm. He was an authority on the cultural history of his native island of Gotland. Bodkin, on the other hand, had just been made director of the National Gallery of Ireland. He was the main inspiration behind the report that led to the setting up of our Arts Council in 1951. He was a hugely influential character in Irish cultural policy in the twentieth century.

I should point out that the report came in two parts. There were the recommendations of the Irish members of the committee and a separate and rather fascinating report by Professor Lithberg himself. The report declares that ‘The policy of the Museum should be to illustrate the growth of civilisation in Ireland and from Ireland outwards’:

The main purpose of the National Museum of Ireland should be to accumulate, preserve, study and display such objects as may serve to increase and diffuse the knowledge of Irish civilisation, or the Natural History of Ireland and of the relations of Ireland in these respects with other countries.

This sets up two goals for the propagation of Irish culture: one diffusionist, the other comparative. Irish ‘civilisation’ - that is, the native Gaelic culture - is placed at the centre of a field of cultural influence radiating outwards from Ireland. In addition, the impact of Irish culture is to be measured not simply in terms of its intrinsic worth but in terms of its comparative value when measured beside what are termed ‘cognate’ cultures.

The report places the archaeological collection at the heart of this vision. It is presented as a resource whose very national distinctiveness makes it, in the report’s hyperbolic phrase, ‘pre-eminent among the collections of the world’, such that it deserves ‘the most prominent position in the Museum’. Accordingly, it is proposed that the archaeological collection be moved to the Rotunda and the Central Court – which I have just shown you in the 1890s - so that ‘the visitor at first entrance should at once recognise its national character’.

The overriding primacy accorded archaeology in this project soon had an impact both on the spatial deployment of exhibitions and on the collecting activities of the Museum. By 1929 the rate of archaeological acquisition began to outstrip the rate for art and industrial collections, while the rate of acquisition for other collections declined to a trickle.

So the 1927 report can be read partly as an attempt to reconfigure the National Museum’s collections to optimise their contribution to Ireland’s cultural visibility on the international stage. At the time the report was written, the Free State was barely five years old, a small nation emerging from the shadow of empire, intent upon exercising an uncertain and far from untrammeled measure of independence. That it would look to the beautiful and utterly distinctive gold ornaments in the National Museum to confer inter-national visibility on Ireland was surely understandable. However, the priority given to this internationalist perspective had important implications both for the re-evaluation of the Museum’s other collections and its relations with the Irish public at home.

The report considered, for example, what to do about the Museum’s plaster copies of Renaissance sculpture, which had been sent over from South Kensington in the late nineteenth century. Could there be any better symbol of the Dublin Museum’s subordinate imperial position than the imposition upon it of mere copies by its parent institution? The committee recommends that almost all of these items ‘be dispensed with’ on the grounds that ‘no student … of the Italian Renaissance would come to Dublin to study from replicas’. It seems reasonable to assume that foremost in the committee’s mind here is not the native Irish student but the cosmopolitan foreign one. The fate of these objects is decided not so much on their lack of originality, let alone their pedagogical utility within Ireland, but on their apparent incapacity to attract international attention, in only the way that original artworks can.

In his report exactly 20 years later, in 1947, Michael Quane, who was then the museum administrator in the absence of a director, echoed these views in relation to the ethnographic collections. He writes of the ‘meagre’ Mediterranean collections that ‘no foreigner will ever come to Ireland in the hope of learning anything of Greek or Babylonian civilization from the unimportant collections in the Irish Antiquities Division’. And reverting again to the Rennaissance casts, Quane quotes RA Macalister, who was then Professor of Celtic Archaeology at UCD, who felt that medieval ‘casual’ works of Italian art are ‘quite irrelevant’ to the Museum’s role:

… no student of these foreign arts would in any case expect to find material sufficient for his instruction in Dublin, so that the Museum should not dissipate its energies and its funds in a vain endeavour to compete with South Kensington and other standard collections of general art.

But what of the potential value of this material for the education of a domestic Irish audience? The 1927 report barely considers this question. Given that the Museum came under the aegis of the Department of Education from 1924, the report’s relative complacency about the Museum’s duties towards the Irish public seems remarkable. Thus, for example, even though the report gives lengthy consideration to the divisional structures of the Museum and a number of new posts are recommended, no consideration at all is given to the need for an education service, let alone an education officer.

Both the Committee and Lithberg reports are quite explicit about the urgent need to create a collection ‘of objects connected with phases of the daily life of the Irish people in the earlier times of our period’. The Committee sets an unequivocally pre-industrial boundary to the collecting policy for folklife: the collection of furniture and implements of everyday life should be confined to the period ‘before these objects became denationalised by the machine-made mass production of foreign countries’. Separately, Lithberg makes explicit the connection between archaeological and folk artifacts within a nationalist framework. Archaeology, he asserts, provides ‘satisfactory evidence’ in the case of utensils and furniture that ‘once an appropriate form has been evolved no very considerable alterations are necessary for their continuance’. The principle which connects archaeology with folklife is continuity. Lithberg writes:

It has been established that the same traditions, habits and customs may be observed in many different races, and the same customs can be followed in written history back to distant times, sometimes far beyond our era. In these customs there are survivals from earlier forms of civilisation which the European peoples have abandoned perhaps thousands of years ago.

The folk collection, in other words, would fill in those dimensions of national identity already prefigured by the archaeological evidence. A double continuum is being constructed here: one between archaeology and later folk material, and one between all of this Irish material and European civilization - non-European ethnographic material is distinctly not evidence that can be adduced for the understanding of Irish culture. This Eurocentric vision committed the Museum’s sizeable collection of non-European ethnography to a twilit fate for the remainder of the twentieth century.

The 1927 report deals with this material with some diffidence. It recommended that the non-European ethnographic material be transferred from the Art and Industrial Division to the Antiquities Division – and this was accomplished by 1932 - where it was categorised under ‘comparative archaeology and ethnography’. This phraseology is rather significant. The use of the conjunction here carries what may be a significant ambiguity consistent with the report’s general diffidence in relation to this material: it implies a distinction between that archaeology which is comparable or ‘cognate’ - archaeology and folklife of the European nations - and that which is not, the non-European ethnology.

Lithberg shared this largely Eurocentric understanding of his own country’s collections, so it is no surprise that his recommendations for a new folklife section for the National Museum of Ireland is that it should comprise Irish material along with ‘comparative collections of European folk culture and ethnographic collections’. He was involved in setting up the first great open-air folk museum in the world, which is Skansen in Sweden. He is fascinating on, for instance, the Chinese porcelain that was displayed there. He talks about that as illustrating the aristocratic lifestyle of seventeenth-century Sweden. In other words, the function of the Chinese material is not to open a window on Chinese culture, its function is to explain and give further insight into the nature of an aristocratic European lifestyle.

In his report 20 years later Quane is characteristically more explicit on the value of what he describes as:

… a vast and a miscellaneous collection of ethnographical material from the Carribees, New Guinea, Mashonaland, New Caledonia, Tobago, Andaman, India, Nicobar, Morocco, Fiji Alaska, Peru, Chili [sic], Nigeria, New Zealand, Sarawak, Burma, Abyssinia etc..

All of this he concludes is ‘of considerable money value but from our point of view its value in the Irish Antiquities Division of the Museum is questionable’.

Contemporary understanding of racial concepts provide a crucial context here. In an article in Studies in 1920 entitled ‘Recent Studies in Nationality’, Stephen Brown SJ emphasised how the term ‘race’, as used by anthropologists at the time, made no racial distinction between Europeans, but of course was quite emphatic about the distinction between Europeans and non-Europeans. Once again, we can turn to Quane’s report of 1947 for a more trenchant expression of this attitude. The importance of Irish archaeology is declared to be incomprehensible in anything other than a comparative European context:

Irish Archaeology is essential for the study and solution of many of the problems of West-European Archaeology. Bremer (Mahr’s predecessor) regarded his post in Dublin as more important than the Chair of Prehistoric Archaeology in Berlin (which he was offered and which he declined).

Quane was here alluding to the remarkable fact that the first two Keepers of Antiquities at the National Museum were Germans: Walter Bremer (albeit for only a brief period before his sudden death in 1927) and Adolf Mahr, who was Keeper of Irish Antiquities between 1927 and 1934 and Director between 1935 and 1939. The years of Mahr’s directorship coincide with his leadership of the Nazi Party in Ireland. [image shown] Here you have an extraordinary image of him taking the salute among a Nazi youth group in 1938. It is very interesting to contemplate the Irish desire to bypass the Anglo-Saxon world and forge this relationship with a European civilisation which to some extent leads them down this path that has German scholars coming to work in the National Museum – with this unfortunate although one would have to say not pre-meditated consequence.

There was no question then of comparability between the non-European collections of the National Museum of Ireland and native materials on any cognate basis. But there was yet a further reason for diffidence in relation to this material: almost all of it had been acquired by Irishmen serving the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Its very presence was an uncomfortable reminder of Ireland’s implication in imperial conquest and adventure. The predicament of this collection highlights, perhaps, the uniquely schizophrenic position of a society attempting to be post-colonial while at the same time claiming to be indistinguishably part of a masterly European civilisation.

Though modest in scale, the 1927 report’s recommendations for change at the National Museum were intended to transform it along more recognisably nationalist lines. While these changes revolved largely around the reconfiguration of collections, there were also more practical proposals for significant increases in staff across all divisions and for additional space to address chronic storage problems. Yet, apart from the proposal to foreground Irish antiquities by shifting them to the most prominent location, hardly any of the other recommendations were implemented.

In a debate in the Senate in 1929, Senator Professor Ernest Alton acknowledged the changes that had been made to place Irish archaeology at the heart of the Museum but described the condition of the Art and Industry and Natural History divisions as ‘almost derelict’. He also drew attention to the fact that the Museum was still without a director - 13 years after Count Plunkett had been dismissed - a lacuna that was only filled in 1935 with the appointment of Mahr. No effort was being made to implement the key recommendation to set up a folk life division, and no new members of staff had been recruited. This condition did not substantially change for another 40 years. As late as 1973, a report referred to ‘the continued erosion over many years of the status of the National Museum of Ireland’ which in its current state ‘cannot do much more than struggle for survival’.

What then explains the inability of the new state to give greater priority to the National Museum as part of its cultural identity and part of its policy? It’s a rather intriguing question, don’t you think. In looking for an answer to this question we might begin with a remark famously attributed to Eamonn de Valera, the man who dominated Irish politics for a good part of the twentieth century. In January 1922 he said:

I have been brought up amongst the Irish people. I was reared in a labourer’s cottage. I have lived the first 15 years of my life, when my character was formed, amongst the Irish people down in Limerick…whenever I wanted to know what the Irish people wanted I had only to examine my own heart, and it told me straight off what the Irish people wanted.

I had to chase that quote down. It was hard to find. I found it in the resignation speech on the precipice of civil war, a very significant moment. He was resigning his seat in the Dáil and four months later the conflict broke out. So other Irishmen were clearly looking into their hearts and finding entirely different things there.

Here is the intriguing point: This may sound vainglorious, but de Valera was here expressing his faith in that perfect reciprocity of national communion in which each Irishman’s heart was, in effect, the objective correlative of all others. For this reason, de Valera would not have thought to look into a vitrine in the National Museum of Ireland to find what was already showcased in his heart.

But to be kept at perfect pitch this communal feeling had to be protected from the long-wave interference of foreign culture. In terms of cultural policy, it called for a rigorous conservationism. In fact, the cultural policies of those first decades of the Free State were almost exclusively concerned with conservation - except, of course, that it had nothing to do with museums. The values government sought to preserve were those of a rural-dwelling, Irish-speaking, Catholic people, protected from moral contamination by rigorous censorship laws, and from cultural adulteration by rules that made the Irish language compulsory in education and for government jobs.

This cultural conservationism took some rather extraordinary forms. In the mid-1920s Patrick McGilligan, Minister for Industry and Commerce, expressed the following views on education:

…if a nation is to depend on its agriculture it must produce mainly a population of farmers: men of patience, endurance, thrift and modest intellectual aspirations. If it produces other types it must export them at an early age if it is not to risk the continual inner ferment of disappointed and distorted minds denied by circumstance their adequate exercise.

This was tantamount to saying that providing educational opportunity was in itself a contaminant of the rural idyll. By the late fifties, three out of every four Irish children did not proceed beyond primary education. In contrast, Northern Ireland, with half the south’s population, spent four times as much per head of population on education. It was only in the 1960s that Irish politicians at last began to speak of a new subject: the economics of education.

But while this static view of education persisted, the National Museum - a dependent institution of the Department of Education do not forget - was left to plough a narrow furrow indeed.

In thinking about the extraordinary will to rusticity that lay behind this mindset, I was reminded of a striking phrase that Tony Bennett has used to describe Australia’s relationship to its history: that with its emphasis on pioneers and settlers, the Australian past ‘is the victim of a rural gerrymander’.

In perpetrating this gerrymander in Ireland, as Terence Brown has pointed out, politicians were ‘popularising a notion of tradition that ignored the degree to which Irish rural life by the early twentieth century was as involved with the processes of history and social change as any other’. It is hardly any wonder that Declan Kiberd, in striving for a metaphor to describe Ireland’s cultural stagnancy during these years, comes up with the following:

In 1922 the images of national possibility froze, with the country’s teachers cast as curators of a post-imperial museum, anxious to ensure that nothing changed very much.

The cultural ideology of the Free State declared the nation to be an authentic, open-air museum in which the people were curated by church and state to ensure that they were sealed off from the pestilential incursion of foreign culture, and treated for linguistic pollutants that threatened the survival of the Irish language.

Thus it was that while Irish politicians curated the countryside, the National Museum languished. Indeed, while so much energy went into keeping both the tangible and intangible dimensions of a pre-industrial lifestyle alive on the land, consigning elements of it to museum display might have been seen as tantamount to an admission of defeat. How else to explain why the Museum took until 1974 to set up the folk life division that had been recommended in 1927?

The rural gerrymander had other important implications for the Museum’s capacity to engage with change and evolution in Irish society. It certainly limited its ability to engage substantively with the Irish experience of urbanisation, and the broader forces of social and cultural modernisation. Throughout the twentieth century, there was hardly any active collecting of contemporary or living-memory material that reflected the ordinary life of Ireland’s towns and cities. The pre-industrial cordon-sanitaire also prevented the Museum from registering those forces that from the 1940s onwards were transforming rural Ireland itself through the cinema, the ballroom of romance, the motor car and, above all, emigration.

The absence of this essentially reflexive, existential collecting process constrained the Museum’s anthropological vision and blinded it to the ways in which contemporary experience continued to alter the very national identity it sought to capture in material form. As Henrietta Lidchi puts it, engaging positively in an ‘anthropology of the self’ facilitates, through exhibitionery modes, an outsider perspective on indigeneity, allowing visitors to ‘transpose the critical distance they may feel in relation to collections onto something more familiar and potentially unquestioned’. The National Museum has never had a professional anthropologist on its staff to guide and inform such practice.

However, changes elsewhere in Ireland’s cultural landscape would eventually feed through into a recognition of the need to transform Ireland’s cultural institutions in response to the demands of a domestic audience. Following the introduction of television and free mass education in the 1960s, a more educated, visually sophisticated, urbanised and secularised audience for what Irish museums had to offer began to emerge. When the Museum appointed Patrick Wallace, who happens to be its current director, as its first education officer in 1976, it was a sign that the Museum was at last seeing a need to engage actively with its Irish audience.

Over time, the Irish public became increasingly aware of the contradiction between essentialist definitions of Irishness and the social reality of an increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyle. In the 1980s, the era from which U2 and the Boomtown Rats emerged, a steep decline in economic fortunes led us to brood further and more irreverently on inherited pieties about history and culture.

But it would be at least another 20 years before the Museum would undergo a recognisable transformation. In the meantime, exceptional expenditure on the Museum prioritised its contribution to the projection of Ireland’s cultural image abroad – what is nowadays recognised as the soft power, cultural power. In 1977 the Treasures of Early Irish Art exhibition began traveling to four museums in the US. Speaking at the opening of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, its director, Thomas Hoving, acknowledged how ‘the patrimony of the extraordinary Irish civilisation has been made available almost in its entirety for this exhibition’. I think that is really amazing. Can you imagine all these empty vitrines in Dublin with ‘back soon, national collection on tour’ written in them.

A continual trope in the Irish understanding of self is that unless we are visible abroad, we are invisible to ourselves – and we will pay a large price for that. We may come back to this in the discussion.

Of course, projecting an understanding of Ireland’s history and heritage abroad by means of its material culture was an entirely legitimate role for the National Museum. However, there was a growing realisation that this priority needed to be balanced by a much greater concern for the Museum’s duties to the Irish public. In 1981 the Museum’s Board of Visitors highlighted the absence of services to the Irish public and reversed a perception that had been promulgated in the 1927 report. It objected to the disposal of the non-Irish cast collections. The report asked:

What would the reaction be if our National Gallery should dispose of its famous collections of works by artists unconnected with Ireland?

Transformation of a dramatic kind eventually came to the National Museum in the 1990s, aided substantially by the availability of European Union funding designated for the development of tourism infrastructure in Ireland. If we didn’t have tourism, we wouldn’t have investment in heritage is a kind of a simplification of Ireland’s heritage and cultural infrastructure. A massive two billion euros went in over ten years between 1989 and 1999, and over 75 per cent of all existing Irish museums came into being during that time.

The new home for the Museum’s Art and Industry Division opened at Collins Barracks in 1997. Five years later, the National Museum of Country Life, showcasing its folk life collection, opened at Castlebar. These developments were accompanied by a dramatic expansion in staff, staff training and educational services.

While all of these were undoubtedly transformative changes, much work remains to be done, particularly in terms of the Museum’s intellectual architecture. Most strikingly, it continues to work with collection categories that have remained largely unchanged since the Dublin Museum of Science and Art was set up in the last century. These constraints are perhaps most evident in the case of the Art and Industry Division. The website currently describes the Division’s role as:

to maintain Ireland’s heritage in the decorative arts, as well as its political, military and social history. Its primary aim is to promote a wider understanding of Ireland’s decorative arts, culture and historical heritage. Other responsibilities include promoting Ireland’s contribution to European decorative arts and an understanding of international cultural heritage.

One can sense here an effort to make this division conformable to a wider, modernised collecting strategy. But surely it is time to revisit the ‘Art and Industry’ prescription, and come up with a new definition. One feels that the next logical step for the Museum is to break out of the corsetry of its Victorian epistemological categories that currently encumber it.

In the twentieth century the Museum generated only one truly new category of material drawn from the near-contemporary: the collection directly associated with the struggle for national independence. That material was almost wholly collected within a military frame of understanding of the event. When, at the height of the Troubles in the North during the 1980s and 1990s, a furious and impassioned debate about the meaning of the 1916-21 period erupted in public and academic debate, the Museum was ill-prepared to contribute to it, partly because it was saddled with a collection that had already framed its understanding of that event within a narrowly militaristic narrative.

However, despite the constraints I have just mentioned, a more complex understanding of history and culture is now beginning to emerge in the Museum’s exhibitionary practice. The Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition, a major exhibition on Irish military history that opened in 2009, represents a serious effort to establish a more richly textured narrative relationship between the military collections and their wider social and historical context. Likewise, the Museum of Country-life has begun to collect material that registers social change in rural Ireland from the 1950s onwards. The Museum’s current Acquisitions and Disposals Policy, for instance, states:

… the Folklife Division is conscious that life in Ireland is evolving very rapidly and that social and economic developments are having a transforming effect on how people live and do things, and on the objects they use. Accordingly, the Division will begin a process of review of its collecting ethos and practice with a view to more adequately reflecting a changing Ireland.

Now, more than ever perhaps, it needs such lenses. We have just been through a national trauma in which the Tiger, having shone so brightly in the night of history, has slouched off into the forest, leaving us in a very dark place. Now, more than ever, we need the cultural resources to investigate how this happened, and the National Museum can be, and should be, part of that discussion.

In recent times, and especially over the Celtic Tiger years, Ireland has been transformed from an almost homogeneous into a multicultural society, with over ten per cent of the population now foreign-born. With the sudden collapse of our economy, and with the centenary celebration - or would that be reckoning? - with the 1916 Rising only four years off, perhaps now is the time for the Museum to embrace an ‘anthropology of the self’, and use its wealth of cultural resources to engage the contemporary Irish in a re-imagining of what it is to be Irish, or even half-Irish, in a globalised twenty-first century world. Thank you.

Date published: 24 November 2011