Louth County Museum

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

Dundalk, louthcoco.ie

By Tony Canavan

Above: A Heinkel ‘bubble car’, a relic of the now-forgotten car factory that existed in Dundalk from 1956 to 1958, flanked by local boy Rob Kearney’s jersey from the 2018 Grand Slam decider against England.

Louth County Museum opened its doors again to the public in mid-July. I visited it the day after it opened, so it was difficult to judge visitor numbers or gauge the reaction of people to the new Covid-19 arrangements. The regulations arising from the pandemic have meant some changes to the way in which the museum operates. The receptionist now sits behind a Perspex screen and the reception area has hand-sanitisers, floor markings and yellow and black information notices (in Irish and English). This characterises the look of the museum, as on every floor there are sanitisers, floor markings and information notices. You are encouraged to sanitise before and after visiting each gallery and there is a one-way system in place, marked out on the floor. Louth Museum was always a lively place that made good use of technology to enhance the visitor experience. Unfortunately, it has had to switch off the interactive screens and put tape across them. In some areas, such as the gallery featuring archaeological artefacts, there were some objects that you were encouraged to touch or handle, but these too are now off limits, marked with ‘Do not touch’ signs. On the other hand, the video screens and audio effects are still operating as normal, so the atmosphere is far from lifeless.

Above: The receptionist now sits behind a Perspex screen and the reception area has hand-sanitisers, floor markings and yellow and black information notices.

How has this affected the visitor’s experience? I would have to say not a lot. Extra care has to be taken regarding keeping a physical distance and sanitising your hands but that is the ‘new normal’ everywhere. Younger visitors may miss the interactive screens or the hands-on exhibits, but there is still plenty on offer to hold one’s attention. The museum covers thousands of years of history, with many exhibits on display alongside lively information panels and video presentations. I began my visit on the third floor and worked my way down from the Neolithic period, through the Middle Ages and so on until I reached the modern era. All this told the history of Ireland through the perspective of County Louth and the specific, even unique, history of the county itself.

The third floor currently houses an exhibition on award-winning and acclaimed structural engineer Peter Rice. Dundalk was his home town but he made his name throughout the world by transforming architectural drawings into concrete and steel reality. Among his many achievements are the Centre Pompidou, the Sydney Opera House, Lloyd’s of London and the Louvre Pyramid. When I say that he was described as the James Joyce of structural engineering you will get an idea of how innovative and original he was. The exhibition has architectural models of most of Rice’s projects, together with photographs of the completed buildings. Alongside a documentary about Rice, a couple of screens feature images of the original notes and drawings that he made when deciding how to construct these famous projects. The museum had provided building blocks so that younger visitors could try their hand at structural engineering, but these had to be removed because of Covid-19.

It is worth calling into Louth County Museum just to see the Peter Rice exhibition, but the other floors are also worth seeing. The second floor deals with the prehistory and early human settlement of the county, featuring artefacts in stone, bronze and gold, and even taking in the cultural relevance of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the legendary ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’. The floor below carries on the history from the medieval period to the eighteenth century. The variety of artefacts and information panels tell the story of the early Irish church, the Vikings, the Normans and the development of society through invasion, war and settlement in the subsequent centuries. Worth looking out for is a leather coat that was worn by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, the site of which is in County Louth. The gallery ends with a display on the county’s role in the First World War.

Above: An architectural model of Kansai Airport, Japan—part of the Peter Rice exhibition.

The ground floor offers a detailed social and political history of Louth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of artefacts and videos reflecting all aspects of society, including agriculture, the tobacco industry, whiskey-distilling, railways and Dundalk’s role as a centre for importing and exporting goods. On one screen are a series of newsreels from the 1960s recording the social and cultural events of the time. Perhaps the most surprising exhibit is the Heinkel ‘bubble car,’ a relic of the now-forgotten car factory that existed in Dundalk from 1956 to 1958.

The restrictions imposed by Covid-19 did make for a different museum experience but not enough to make it seem weird or frustrating. Brian Walsh, the curator, and his team have done a good job in preparing Louth Museum for the new conditions. Perspex is used where it has to be, and sanitisers are placed throughout. The one-way system works well and, while interactive displays are no longer available, there is enough there to keep you interested and entertained.

Tony Canavan is consultant editor of Books Ireland.

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