UCD School of Archaeology
Thursday 20th October 2016
The National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street, Dublin, is one of our premier cultural heritage institutions. It is the treasurehouse of our national archaeological collections amongst other things. It is the place where we keep the things that can be used to tell the story of our 10,000 years on this island.
The National Museum of Ireland’s and its staff’s responsibilities are enormous; including the curation, management and protection of our archaeological and material culture heritage, and the communication of knowledge about this heritage to the widest possible audience, both in Ireland and to people all over the world. It is also a place for the education of our children about our ancient past, as can be seen the throngs of school children and students that move though it every day.
It was recently reported on Tuesday 18th October 2016, in a radio interview on RTE radio’s Morning Ireland with the former Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Dr Pat Wallace, that it is proposed that the National Museum of Ireland will have some of its exhibition, conference, and education spaces taken over to be used by Seanad Éireann, as the latter’s debating chamber is refurbished over the coming years.
These plans to move the Seanad had been rumoured periodically, and reported on in the media before.
Earlier this year, in July 2016, the growing concerns were noted, such as in Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin‘s statement in the Seanad on 12 July 2016. Furthermore, similarly serious concerns were expressed about the huge cost (then estimated at €1.7 million) involved in moving the Seanad, 60 people, for 2 years by Seán Canney, Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works – see his statement here.
In response to the growing concerns, Dr Michael Ryan (former Director of the Chester Beatty Library, and former President of the Royal Irish Academy) sent a letter in the Irish Times for 28 July 2016, that you can read here, that highlighted the key problems. John Mulcahy’s editorial in the Irish Arts Review here stated similar concerns. But there was not a lot of more information publicly available.
In the last few days, in response to the interview with Dr Pat Wallace, there have been numerous articles and letters in various newspapers and websites (such as here, in the Irish Times, Journal.ie, the Irish Examiner, Evening Echo), and on social media. Several people have written letters to the Irish Times, which you can read here and also here protesting the move, and there is even now an online petition started seeking changes in the plans. The story has also started to generate news in international media, for example see here.
There are a few questions that need to be asked.
1) What is the financial cost of this proposed move of the Seanad into the National Musueum of Ireland?
Will it be €1.7 million, or €2 million – or more, after extra architectural and technical works are added on? Is this a justifiable expenditure of public money for a temporary move of the Seanad into the museum, when other cheaper options could be available (see below)?
2) How much space will be taken from the National Museum of Ireland?
Will it be more than one room; will it be two, will it actually be three rooms? While it has be widely reported that the move is to the ‘Ceramics Room’, in fact it seems that there is an intention to take the ‘Japanese Room’ (the room above the current Museum Cafe) to provide an entrance or atrium for Senators so that they do not have to move through the public; the ‘Ceramics Room’ (the large space currently used by NMI for its conferences, seminars, temporary exhibitions, public outreach and educational activities for adult and children), and the ‘Chinese Room’ (where NMI Dept of Antiquities staff currently have their offices for their day to day work). So that’s three rooms, not one. This will obviously also entail a disruption of NMI staff as they move to offices elsewhere, and presumably this will entail further loss of public exhibition spaces elsewhere in the NMI.
3) Indeed, why is the National Museum of Ireland and its facilities being used to sort out problems of space in the Oireachtas?
It is important to state that Seanad Éireann as part of our Oireachtas is an important part of our democracy, its retention was voted for by the Irish people in a referendum, and it is clearly the case that Senators serve their country patriotically and well. There is no need to imply that their work is not valuable and important.
But are there seriously no alternative spaces in Leinster House that could be used? Would a more pragmatic and cost-effective solution not be both less expensive and less destructive of the National Museum of Ireland’s capacities? There is the Dáil chamber itself; with proper scheduling could the Seanad not meet when the Dail Chamber is empty? Are there not other large rooms in Leinster House, such as the Committee Room 1 that could be used (apparently it is roughly the same size as the Seanad chamber, already has TV cameras, sound and recording equipment)? Finally, are there no alternative spaces in Dublin city centre-one could easily list off Dublin city centre conference facilities, Dublin Castle, Dublin City Council’s chambers, etc? In any case, this is a problem for the Oireachtas, why should our National Museum of Ireland be the solution to a lack of space in government buildings?
4) Is this move going to involve the physical intervention into, and alteration of, despite planning regulations, of a protected 19th century structure?
There have been some comments that this work is an “investment” in the National Museum of Ireland’s facilities, and also some reports of payments to the Museum.
After several years of serious budgetary cuts and ruinous financial under-investment, any such payment to the NMI can only be a fraction of what it needs, and cannot begin to replace what they’ve lost in recent years, and the staff that they have lost. Setting that aside, are the physical and technical alterations of the museum building and its rooms actually useful for the National Museum of Ireland in the future, or not? Does the NMI really need a political debating chamber, with its bangs and whistles, or does the NMI need actual investment suitable for a 21st century museum at the heart of the city? Will the Seanad’s debating facilities be removed when it leaves, if it ever does (and there are dark suspicions that this move may yet prove to be permanent)?
If they are to be removed in a few years, are these alterations not a massive waste of public money? €1.7 million? €2 million? More? If it is actually intended to not return the spaces to the National Museum of Ireland, as is suspected by many, then talk of this move being temporary is disingenuous, and represents a confiscation of our premier cultural heritage institution’s scarce facilities. If this development cannot be stopped, then can we see the written guarantees, the publicly made promises, that the Seanad will indeed depart the National Museum of Ireland in two years time? Without them, any talk of ‘temporary move’ has to be regarded as untrustworthy.
Amongst the alterations, it is apparently proposed that there be a lift installed, something which the NMI has rightly sought for decades, for people visiting with mobility issues, for parents with small children in buggies, for the staff moving materials, etc, but now suddenly when Seanad requires it, a lift can indeed be installed.
Where will this lift be exactly and what is it intended to access – will it go to the basement of the museum where much of its collections are held? Will it merely provide access to the upper floor and the NMI’s Ceramics Room for Senators and staff from Leinster House? Will this lift be usable by the general public visiting the NMI for the next few years, or only for users of the Seanad? Those of us familiar with the museum know that movement from the Ceramics Room into the rest of the upper floor requires the use of a short flight of steps, and further access from there to the Medieval Ireland exhibition and the Egyptian exhibition also requires more steps. It seems that this lift has no benefit for the museum or the public…
5) Finally, what will be the impact of this extremely expensive and damaging intervention on the National Museum of Ireland’s duties, responsibilities and obligations, its staff and their resources, and the public’s use of its own institution’s exhibitions, conference, and educational spaces – often used for children’s events?
This is our National Museum of Ireland.
It holds our national archaeological collections.
It is a place for us to communicate our cultural heritage to the rest of the world, and to our children.
It needs our support, now more than ever.
(This blog post will be updated as information becomes available)