The National Museum of Ireland opens Collins Barracks (sort of)

Published in Issue 4 (Winter 1997), News, News, Volume 5

The National Museum at Collins Barracks, Ireland’s new museum of the decorative arts and of economic, social, political and military history, was officially opened by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Síle de Valera on 18 September 1997.
Collins Barracks was acquired by the National Museum in 1994 and is the oldest military barracks in Europe and the oldest continuously occupied in the world. Designed in 1701 by Colonel Thomas Burgh, acknowledged as Ireland’s first notable architect and designer of the Customs House and Trinity College Library, the esplanade in front is the site of the Croppies Acre, a mass grave containing the bodies of 1798 and 1803 insurgents, and the backdrop to a soup kitchen during the Great Famine. Before that it had been the site of a Norse suburb and the location of one of Dublin’s great eighteenth-century fairs, Oxmanstown Green.
However the Museum’s claim that ‘the range and diversity of items on exhibit is breathtaking’ was belied by the picketing Museum workers outside. In a leaflet issued by their trade union, IMPACT, they apologised for the unfinished state of the exhibits, due to an ongoing industrial dispute. Recent major changes in the National Museum, including a £33 million capital investment in new premises including Collins Barracks, have been instituted without any agreed structural plan. Most of the money has come from European structural funds without any comparable investment in staff resources from government. So despite the huge increase in the Museum’s workload there has been a one-third drop in the numbers of professional/technical staff since 1975; there have been no substantial promotions in twenty years; and all recent professional/technical appointments have been short-term contracts. The workers pointed out that their suggested immediate term solution to the dispute would have cost less than the monies spent on the opening itself!
We feel sure that readers of History Ireland will be as perplexed as we are at this farcical situation. Nor is it an isolated case. Despite an explosion of historical research and a consequent increase in workload the National Archives has more or less the same staffing levels as twenty years ago. The National Library is still without a director. The post was recently advertised but not surprisingly the inadaquate salary and short-term contract did not attract offers of sufficient calibre. And all this is happening at a time when our politicians are congratulating themselves on their stewardship of the economy, when government revenues have never been so buoyant, and when there is talk of an Irish cultural renaissance. Surely it is time for the Department of Finance to loosen its purse strings and adaquately fund these vital national institutions.

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