Museum eye: The Little Museum of Dublin

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2012), Reviews, Volume 20

The front room of the museum.

The front room of the museum.

The Little Museum of Dublin is a brave and imaginative response to the lack of a museum dedicated to the capital’s history. It has a good start thanks to a location on one of Dublin’s busiest squares and attracts many tourists visiting the city. Number 15 St Stephen’s Green is a historic building in its own right and you never lose the sense of that as you walk through the museum. From the moment you enter the house you will be impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of the staff. Guided tours are also available and these are recommended for a witty, entertaining and informative walk through the exhibits.The museum area is indeed ‘little’, occupying just two rooms on the first floor. Other floors house visiting exhibitions and office space. The exhibits concentrate on Dublin in the twentieth century and are arranged by decade. This may not seem a lot but the time-line brings us from Queen Victoria to the Celtic Tiger, while the rooms are packed with items of all kinds. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that everything on display was donated by Dubliners and that it all came together in a comparatively short time. The emphasis is on this being a ‘people’s museum’ but not all of the donors in question are ‘ordinary’ Dubliners, as they include the likes of Maureen O’Hara, John Banville and Gabriel Byrne.

A Harry Clarke stained glass window depicting St Brendan—rescued from a skip by Peter Pearson, the architectural historian.

A Harry Clarke stained glass window depicting St Brendan—rescued from a skip by Peter Pearson, the architectural historian.

The museum concentrates on the social aspects of Dublin’s history and so there is no heavy-handed chronology or didactic information panels. There is a light-hearted and occasionally humorous approach but it is also serious. Intentionally or not, one thing that comes across is the complexity and contradictions within the city’s history. Here is a photograph of a cheering crowd welcoming Queen Victoria in 1900; over there is a portrait of Patrick Pearse. On one wall is a letter from the bishops warning Catholics to keep away from Trinity College; in a nearby case is the first English edition of Joyce’s Ulysses. A souvenir postcard of the 1907 Dublin exhibition is here; photographs of slum-dwellers there. The artefacts themselves are an eclectic mix. There is the death mask of James Joyce, a cheque endorsed in English and Irish by Pearse, a ticket-holder of the British and Irish Steam Packet Co., a decorated Lourdes holy water can, and even the bullets given to Ben Dunne by his kidnappers as souvenirs in 1981. Perhaps the most significant historical document in this room is the letter appointing Collins, Griffiths et al. as plenipotentiaries for the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. But look out too for the Harry Clarke stained glass window that was rescued from a skip by Peter Pearson, the architectural historian.That takes the visitor up to the 1930s and the history carries on in similar style in the next room. Here too there are posters, photographs and other artefacts. These range from a collection of milk bottles through the decades to a World War II air raid siren. Some of the things here can be used by the visitor, such as an old telephone to hear voices from the past or a stereoscopic viewer. Major political, cultural and public figures are all represented here. Éamonn de Valera is a constant between the two rooms and he is contrasted with the youthful John F. Kennedy, when the American president visited in 1963. The actual lectern that he used in addressing the joint houses of the Oireachtas stands in this room. The contrasts continue with Che Guevara on one wall, Charles Haughey on another; Maureen O’Hara and Lucien Freud; Brendan Behan and Gay Byrne. Social life is represented in the form of tramcars and buses, theatres and cinemas, biscuit tins and tobacco boxes, lemonade and whiskey bottles, and so on.

A painting by Mick O’Dea after a photograph of de Valera under arrest in 1916—part of a mini-collection of contemporary art in the museum curated by James Hanley RHA.

A painting by Mick O’Dea after a photograph of de Valera under arrest in 1916—part of a mini-collection of contemporary art in the museum curated by James Hanley RHA.

It is not all celebrities who are represented, as there are photographs of ordinary people in the street from different decades. Worth looking out for are rare colour photographs of Dublin taken by an American photographer, Charles Cushman, in 1961 (his archive is now in the University of Indiana). The international success of Irish bands in recent decades is represented by U2. Sporting heroes in rugby and Gaelic football have their place, as do writers and broadcasters. The rapid changes of the 1990s are neatly encapsulated in one photograph depicting an aging evangelist looking on disapprovingly as a young couple kiss in the street.There is so much in a small space that the museum is worth a second visit. It has proved popular with visitors and locals alike. On my visit there were Irish people alongside tourists from New York, Belgium and Switzerland. Unfortunately the future of the museum is not secure. Dublin City Council has provided the building but no long-term commitment. Although non-profit, the museum needs funding to survive and it would be a shame if this people’s museum of Dublin were to disappear.  HI

 

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