Museum Eye: Armagh County Museum

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

The museum is situated in a pleasant neo-classical building overlooking the city’s historic mall.

The museum is situated in a pleasant neo-classical building overlooking the city’s historic mall.

Armagh County Museum
The Mall East, Armagh City
acm.um@nics.gov.uk
www.magni.org.uk
Mon.–Fri. 10am–5pm, Sat. 10am–1pm, 2–5pm
by Tony Canavan
The Armagh County Museum is the oldest in the country. It can trace its roots back to the Armagh Philosophical Society, which opened its doors in 1856. It became an official county museum in the 1930s and there are plans for a special 150th anniversary exhibition this year. The museum is situated in a pleasant neo-classical building overlooking the city’s historic mall. The ground floor is given over to storage and administration, leaving the first floor to house the galleries on art, geology and local history as well as a space for temporary exhibitions. The current one, ‘Mask—myth, magic and ceremony’, is a spectacular one of masks and costumes, pride of place going to a sparkling Mardi Gras costume.
The reception area of the museum sets the tone as it has a number of display cabinets giving a flavour of the collection, where the visitor can see archaeological artefacts, chinaware and a life-size model of an Armagh Rhymer.

Detail of a Victorian dress (c. 1870), one of the many costumes and uniforms on display.

Detail of a Victorian dress (c. 1870), one of the many costumes and uniforms on display.

A lift takes you to the first floor, where you come out into the main gallery. This is quite an old-fashioned gallery and was laid out in the 1960s but it has its own charm. When so many modern or refurbished museums seem to have only a few objects out on view surrounded by many information panels and interactive displays, it is refreshing to see a museum where artefacts predominate. The different display cabinets, thematically arranged, are chock-full of objects and take the visitor on a tour of the county from ancient times to modern. Those devoted to prehistory contain a collection of objects, from pottery and flints to bronze swords and brooches, that the Ulster Museum itself would be proud of. The cabinet on carved stonework is particularly interesting as it has photographs of standing stones, crosses and similar artefacts from around the county—in fact good use is made of photographs throughout the museum to help give context and location to the artefacts. Pride of place in this particular cabinet goes to two carved heads that evoke ancient deities.
A number of cabinets come under the heading of ‘Armaghiana’ and are mainly concerned with the city itself. One, for example, contains a facsimile of the Book of Armagh, open at the page where Brian Boru, the high king, confirms Armagh as the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. Another has penal crosses on display alongside a papal bull of 1632. The cabinet that concentrates on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contains some unusual items, such as a cast-iron skull that decorated the city’s gallows, which stood outside the gaol until 1866, and a barbaric-looking contraption resembling an iron basket that is described as a ‘scold’s bridle’, said to have been used to punish women whose tongues were too sharp. How women’s rights have progressed since those dark days!
Arts and crafts in Armagh are represented in a number of different cabinets. One of wooden items contains tools such as beetles (for mashing potatoes), methers (wooden cups) and even pepper grinders.

A harvest knot—the cabinet of straw work evokes a lost world where all kinds of things were made of straw.

A harvest knot—the cabinet of straw work evokes a lost world where all kinds of things were made of straw.

The cabinet of straw-work really does evoke a lost world where all kinds of things, such as harvest knots, horse halters and even hen-houses, were made of straw. One item, an old mummer’s straw mask, had particular significance during my visit as the present-day Armagh Rhymers performed in the museum to mark the opening of the masks exhibition. The more domestic skills of lace-making, embroidery and crocheting are well represented in this gallery too. Industrial history is not neglected, with cabinets on the linen industry and railways, for example.
While the Armagh museum has a plethora of historic objects of both local and national significance, it is the collection of costumes and uniforms that stands out. There is cabinet after cabinet of these from the eighteenth century on. In the main they represent the middle and upper classes and, of course, reflect the city’s long status as a garrison. The dresses include everyday wear, formal dresses for special events and wedding dresses. The uniforms include examples from the North Irish Horse, the RIC and the Tyrone and Louth militias. The most outstanding items in menswear are undoubtedly the silk outfit worn by the young James Du Pre Alexander when he was page-boy at the installation of his father, the second earl of Caledon,

Armagh Militia belt buckle.

Armagh Militia belt buckle.

as a knight of St Patrick in 1821, and an equally impressive uniform worn by the fifth earl when he served as page at the coronation of Edward VII in 1903. I was particularly taken by one lady’s accessory, an ebony and ivory back-scratcher in the shape of a hand.
Uniforms figure too in that section of the gallery that focuses on the political events of the eighteenth century, where we can see the uniforms of the Irish Volunteers, who campaigned for parliamentary independence, and the Yeomanry, who helped suppress the 1798 Rebellion. United Irishmen’s pikes occupy a cabinet alongside Yeomanry muskets, while across the way sashes and certificates of the Orange Order are on display, along with other memorabilia such as Staffordshire pottery figures of William of Orange and even a wine bottle decorated in similar fashion.

Eighteenth-century iron skull mounted on the gallows in Armagh in the days when executions were held in public.

Eighteenth-century iron skull mounted on the gallows in Armagh in the days when executions were held in public.

There isn’t room to review in detail the other galleries that feature geology and natural history as well as art. Armagh museum may be lacking in hi-tech displays but it makes up for it in the staff’s willingness to interact with visitors. It is also popular with schools and community associations, who regularly visit. On the day I was there one school party was watching a video of the Armagh Rhymers prior to visiting the ‘Mask’ exhibition. This was then followed by an hour in a workshop trying on different kinds of masks and headgear and getting the chance to make their own. There are plans in the long term to upgrade the galleries and to install new cabinets and displays, but it would be a pity if the museum were to lose its unique character and human touch as a result.

Tony Canavan is a former Museum Officer of Newry and Mourne District Council.

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