Introducing Museum Eye

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

History Ireland, since it was first published over a decade ago, has sought to address as many aspects of Ireland’s past and its interpretation as possible. The review of at least a sample of the flood of books on Irish history has been a consistent feature of the magazine, but books have to compete ever more fiercely for public attention. Our multi-media world bombards us with words and images that shape our perception of the past. One obvious growth area in relation to the presentation of ‘popular history’ in Ireland, north and south, over the past fifteen years has been the proliferation of sites and spaces that offer us an interpretation of the past, be that of a particular place, person or theme. The surge of development in the heritage sector, courtesy of the European Regional Development Fund, since the late 1980s has created an island-wide network of heritage sites to attract visitors. Unfortunately, as recent events in Northern Ireland have demonstrated, notably at the Navan Centre and the Ulster History Park, not all have proved to be sustainable, and few could argue that expansion was well coordinated.

In the Summer 1993 issue of History Ireland Luke Dodd, in reviewing B. O’Connor and M. Cronin (eds), Tourism in Ireland: a critical analysis (Cork, 1993), set out the imperative for all historical expositions to embody a critical analysis of subject-matter and methods of presentation. More than a decade later one finds that published reviews of museums, heritage centres or their exhibitions are still infrequent, and much goes up (and sometimes comes down) without any real intellectual analysis.

Pat Cooke, manager of Kilmainham Gaol and the Pearse Museum, writing in the monumental collective work The heritage of Ireland (Cork, 2000), noted the distance which existed between ‘the traditional academic professions’ and ‘this new upstart’ (the heritage industry). Historians, in particular, wrote Cooke, ‘have shown remarkable indifference or reluctance to engage with a phenomenon that impinges directly on their own field of interest’. There was limited enough evidence of any real synergy between the universities and even the well-established national museums. In providing a forum for historians and others, including museum and heritage professionals, to produce such reviews, Museum Eye will be contributing to the stimulation of a stronger sense of appreciation and appraisal in this field. Many are aware of the tendency towards the neat but at best superficial packaging and marketing of commodified ‘history’ parcels for the perceived needs of tourists, hurrying to the gift store or restaurant. Roy Foster in The Irish story: telling tales and making it up in Ireland has gazed upon the phenomenon and been troubled. The best way to reduce the tendency to ‘make it up’ is to encourage a culture of critique and peer review that interacts with academic history.

Exhibition spaces offer exciting potential for engaging the public with the use of and interplay between objects, text, voices, art, music and the new presentational possibilities offered through information and communication technology. This is not to imply that the satisfaction to be derived from exhibition depends upon huge resources or ‘cutting-edge’ technology. The village hall, farm outbuilding or front room given over to the display of material relating to a locale can often comfortably outstrip the nearby multi-million pound or euro facility. So we offer Museum Eye as a regular feature for the review of museums, heritage centres and history-related exhibitions.


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