The story of Irish museums 1790–2000: culture, identity and education

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, General, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2011), Reviews, Volume 19

The story of Irish museums 1790–2000: culture, identity and educationMarie Bourke (Cork University Press, €49) ISBN 9781859184752

The story of Irish museums 1790–2000: culture, identity and education
Marie Bourke
(Cork University Press, €49)
ISBN 9781859184752

Marie Bourke is to be congratulated for writing a comprehensible and detailed account of museums in Ireland, as it is a complicated story. For most of the period under discussion Ireland was not an independent country, so it could not rely on a royal patron to found institutions, as was the case in many European kingdoms, nor on the civic commitment of governments, local or national, as was the case in the United States of America. We know this because in between the chapters on Ireland Bourke also tells us what was happening in the international scene at the same time, enabling the reader to draw comparisons and contrasts between here and elsewhere.Although private collections in Ireland can be traced back to the seventeenth century, it was really as part of the European Enlightenment that formal museums began to be established. Bourke is up front in crediting the Ascendancy—not the most respected class in popular memory—with starting the whole thing off. Patriots in their own way, many of the Irish aristocrats who had done the Grand Tour did not want Ireland to be left out of the developments on the Continent, where a revival of interest in classical civilisation was revolutionising art and architecture, not to mention creating a mania for collecting antiquities.Individuals like the earl of Charlemont or Revd Dr Samuel Madden acted on their own behalf in building collections and promoting the arts but more importantly did so collectively through institutions like the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Irish Academy. These were just two of the many bodies out of which our national museums emerged. Bourke painstakingly guides the reader through the stories of the Trinity College museum, the Dublin Society of Drawing Schools and other bodies that had their own collections of antiquities, art, geological specimens and curiosities. While education was a motivating factor, there was also the desire that Ireland, a subordinate kingdom to Britain, should not be left behind as new academic and scientific institutions were promoted there. The Irish institutions, however, not only cultivated a sense of Irish identity but also assumed a character of their own and became an example for other nations to follow.Although the Act of Union undermined the Ascendancy’s concept of an Irish nation, it did not undermine the museum movement. Education remained an important motivation but, as Bourke says, the national narrative changed. The rise of Daniel O’Connell, the impact of the Great Hunger and the drive for Home Rule all influenced the development of museums, as they were seen as important in asserting Irish identity. The growing interest in antiquities, many of them recovered by accident from bogs, reinforced the idea that Ireland was home to an ancient and proud civilisation. Respect for the classics was balanced by pride in Irish achievements, as shown in the Tara brooch, the Ardagh hoard and the Book of Kells, for example.The first of the national museums to be established was the National Gallery of Ireland in 1854. The idea of such a gallery originated in the French Revolution. The opening up of the former royal palace of the Louvre was in keeping with revolutionary principles of public education and equality of access for all. Soon other countries were following the example. In Ireland, too, many of the museums after 1789 were inspired by the Louvre and it underpinned the impetus to establish a national art gallery. A key figure in all of this was the renowned engineer William Dargan, who saw the cultural assertion of a separate Irish nation as being essential. The art that eventually ended up in the National Gallery was gathered from existing museums and many private collections. By the end of the century the country had the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of Ireland also. The irony is that these symbols of Irish nationhood were built and paid for by the British state.The opening decades of the twentieth century were ones of uncertainty. After 1922 they were fully fledged national institutions of an independent state but, as with so much else, the early years of the new state were not a happy time. Bourke points out the paradox that the Free State was eager to copy the archaeological artefacts in the National Museum to provide ‘Celtic’ symbols but at the same time did not consider museums themselves to be of much importance and starved them of resources. Nevertheless, there was progress as museums made the best use of resources and developed professional standards in keeping with international trends.Happily, Bourke ends on an optimistic note. She celebrates the opening of new museums in the later twentieth century—like the Chester Beatty Library and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA)—and the resources devoted to expansion and developments such as the extension to the National Gallery and the Museum of Country Life in Mayo. And the optimism continues into the twenty-first century, where she sees improvement and growth continuing as museums utilise new technology to enhance the visitor experience and respond to the changing demographics of Irish society, with its young and multicultural population.This book marks an important milestone in our understanding of our national museums and their history. Too often they are seen merely as tourist attractions or simply taken for granted. Yet, as Bourke demonstrates, they played a key role not just in the cultural and educational development of Ireland but in the political sphere too. Interest in antiquities and archaeology and the celebration of distinct Irish achievements in art were essential in establishing the separateness of an Irish identity and restoring pride in the Irish nation. To this day they continue to play a role in education, in tourism and in how Ireland presents itself to the world.  HI

Tony Canavan is the author of History Ireland’s regular ‘Museum Eye’ column.

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