Bust-up in New York over museum exhibition

Published in Issue 1 (Spring 1996), News, News, Volume 4

An exhibition on the history of the Irish in New York, due to open in March 1996 at the Museum of the City of New York, has been dogged by controversy before it has even opened. The row was sparked last year when a respected Irish-American scholar Marion Casey was replaced as guest curator. But underlying this row is a deeper division, precipitated by a fear within the Irish-American community that the exhibition is going ahead without their active participation or imput.

Ms. Casey  and her supporters contend that the bulk of the final proposal was her work, reflecting research for her dissertation at New York University. The Director of the Museum, Robert Macdonald says that the proposal was a team effort and that when the museum tried to negotiate a new contract with Ms Casey, it could not agree to her demands that she owned the show and should have final say. But Ms Casey says she merely asked to share the show’s copyright, a condition from a previous contract. Instead she was offered a lesser role than that of guest curator and then was told last May she was no longer on the team.

The fact that Ms Casey would no longer play a role in the exhibition has led several renowned historians to withdraw as consultants, including Kerby Miller, an author and professor of history at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Ronald Bayor, co-editor of the forthcoming book The New York Irish. But according to Ms Casey the row is not simply about the dismissal of one individual. ‘It hasn’t been about Marion Casey for months and months’, she said. The problem had been compounded by the museum’s refusal to acknowledge that the community had a voice and a right to say what went on within its walls, she claimed.

Many Irish-Americans say they have reason to be concerned at the exhibition, particularly given the lingering stereotypes and proliferation of misrepresentations in their past, from Thomas Nast cartoons to images of drunken leprechauns. But Dr Jan Seidier Ramirez, the director of the exhibition, believes such concerns, although understandable, are unfounded.

‘Out of some 300 artefacts I think there’s one turn-of-the-century greeting card that may have a leprechaun and a shamrock’, she said.

‘We remain sensitive to the issue of stereotypes.’ Nevertheless as a result of these concerns several organisations including the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Veteran’s of the 69th Regiment and the Irish-American Cultural Institute have all withdrawn loan artefacts and documents from the museum. Dr Ramiriz admitted that the controversy has hindered the exhibition, particularly musical performances and academic symposia. ‘It seems a day doesn’t go by without a cancellation or someone sending us a contract back’, she said.

In a last ditch effort to resolve the dispute before the official opening, the New York Irish History Round Table has written to the museum asking for a meeting of scholars and museum representatives this month, but already the measure seems too little, too late. Whatever the outcome of possible negotiations, Irish-Americans are unlikely to use the age old method of protest used by their forefathers: the boycott. The  protesters say they will see the exhibition anyway because they are New Yorkers, and Irish and the exhibition will show, at the very least, one version of their story.


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