Museum Eye

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/June 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

Discover Your National Library

To preserve the delicate documents on display the cabinets are covered with a cloth that you lift up to see the contents.

To preserve the delicate documents on display the cabinets are covered with a cloth that you lift up to see the contents.

National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street
www.nli.ie, discover@nli.ie, +353 (0)1 6030277
by Tony Canavan

 

Located in the old Kildare Street Club, which until recently housed the ‘Strangers to Citizens’ exhibition (and it is a pity that it could not be permanent), ‘Discover Your National Library’ is at once an attempt to get people more acquainted with the National Library of Ireland and a bold step into the 21st century. So much is going on in this exhibition that it is difficult to describe. There are videos, interactive screens, computer terminals and cases full of actual documents and books.
It is easy to get lost in the sensory overload that it offers and not realise that this is a well-thought-out exhibition that is worth following as designed. So, with leaflet in hand, go clockwise through the sections: Fadó, fadó; Changing times; Emerging Ireland; Cultural poetics; and the temporary exhibition (in this case the Irish Bog Commissioners, 1809–11). Each section is similarly laid out, with a ‘curator video’ running on a loop, large-scale information panels, an interactive touch-screen and display cabinets. The main purpose behind this exhibition is to bring rare or delicate documents to the public’s attention, and so the cabinets are covered with a cloth that you lift up to see the contents. The video in each section is like a mini television programme in which the curator tells us not only about a document and its history but also about the problems of conservation and a personal view on its significance.

 

Worth looking out for is a lottery ticket from 1795.

Worth looking out for is a lottery ticket from 1795.

The touch-screen alongside the cabinet has digital reproductions of the documents inside as well as useful background information. In ‘Fadó, fadó’, for example, using the touch-screen you can view in detail and turn the pages of the fourteenth-century Book of Maguaran and Geraldus Cambrensis’s twelfth-century description of Ireland. The latter features his account with drawings of the inauguration of an Irish king. Each section covers a different era in Irish history, so ‘Changing times’, for example, brings you from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. One of the most amazing documents here is a deed from 1588 that is signed by Sir Walter Raleigh. It gave me a tingle to see his own handwriting and feel close to such a historical figure. At the same time I was able to call up the deed on the touch-screen and have a closer look at it. ‘Emerging Ireland’ covers the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while the final permanent section on ‘Cultural poetics’ is more of a theme than a period in time as it covers poetry and art from 700 to 2000. Highlights here are a series of charming cigarette cards from the early twentieth century, designed by Jack Butler Yeats, inspired by towns and counties of Ireland, and an early edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, of which you can turn the pages one by one on the touch-screen.

 

 

One of the two ‘discovery’ touch-tables—like an iPhone the size of a coffee table.

One of the two ‘discovery’ touch-tables—like an iPhone the size of a coffee table.

There are so many documents in the exhibition or on the touch-screens that it would be impossible to name them all, but worth looking out for are a lottery ticket from 1795, Cooper’s eighteenth-century book on Irish antiquities, a letter in Eamon Ceannt’s handwriting from 1909, and Louis Le Brocquay’s illustrations for Thomas Kinsella’s version of the Táin Bo Cuailnge. The great thing is that you not only see these documents by lifting up the cloth and looking underneath but also examine them in detail on the touch-screen. I know it might be sacrilege to say it, but the document on screen is even better than in reality! It is usually clearer and brighter and so much easier to see; and because you can turn and magnify any page you want, it is a multi-dimensional experience that the static object in the case cannot match.

 

At the moment the temporary exhibition marks the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Bogs Commission, charged with exploiting Ireland’s bogs as a national resource, including building canals. There are maps aplenty and plans for excavations and canal routes, as well as some very funny political cartoons of the period reflecting fears that Napoleon would invade. Like all the exhibits on show here, the documents are of value in themselves but they are put in their historical context, which adds to our understanding of the course of Irish history.
As if all this were not enough, there are two ‘discovery’ touch-tables in the centre of the gallery where even more objects have been digitally reproduced. If you can imagine an iPhone the size of a coffee table then you will have an idea of what these are like. I was there for some time, tapping my finger on the screen to select a document to examine and then magnifying and exploring it just by running my fingers across the screen. There must be hundreds of documents from the NLI’s collection here, from ancient handwritten manuscripts to books and from eighteenth-century illustrations to modern postcards and photographs. The discovery table is a vast exhibition in its own right, literally at your fingertips.

 

 

Cigarette cards from the early twentieth century, designed by Jack Butler Yeats, inspired by towns and counties of Ireland.(All images: National Library of Ireland)

Cigarette cards from the early twentieth century, designed by Jack Butler Yeats, inspired by towns and counties of Ireland.
(All images: National Library of Ireland)

All museums and libraries face problems as new media and technology make them look staid, boring and even redundant. A new generation is growing up with a reduced attention span, used to getting instant access to bite-sized pieces of data. Museums can try and improve the presentation of their collections to make them more accessible and in keeping with the modern public’s expectations. This, however, raises other dilemmas to do with the level of access and the exposure of often delicate and fragile material. The National Library of Ireland would seem to have addressed all these problems. It has managed to introduce its collection to a wider public and to make fragile and delicate documents accessible as never before. The real objects are there but their digitised avatars can be looked at, magnified and manipulated in a way that is bang up to date and multi-dimensional. This exhibition preserves the integrity of the original documents, books and maps while also making them understandable, informative and entertaining for the public of all ages. This is a pioneering endeavour by the NLI that challenges other institutions to follow its example. HI

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