The National Museum of Ireland and the proposed takeover of some of its facilities by Seanad Éireann. How did this come about, and what are the implications?

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Two little boys looking at Viking swords in the National Museum of Ireland’s “Viking Age Ireland” exhibition, Kildare Street (photo: Aidan O’Sullivan)

Aidan O’Sullivan

UCD School of Archaeology

Saturday, 29 October, 2016

The proposed move of Seanad Éireann into the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in Kildare Street, Dublin, has been a subject of increasing public concern this last week.

However, the story actually goes back to earlier this year, if not beyond.

We can begin the story, for the moment anyway, on June 17, 2016, when the Dept of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs website announced that Minister Heather Humphreys had appointed a new board to the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), to be chaired by Catherine Heaney.

The new NMI Board included a range of people with different professional backgrounds, from the PR industry, museums’ sector, business and academia. Almost two years previously, Minister Humphreys had been embroiled in a political controversy about Board appointments, and the policy decision to appoint Board members to state bodies after due applications, and on their professional merits, without any questions of political connections, was generally widely welcomed.

It now seems likely that amongst the very first tasks that the newly appointed NMI Board was faced with, was to consider a request to relinquish some of the facilities of the National Museum of Ireland to the Oireachtas. We can see this because less than a month after the Board’s appointment,  Minister Humphreys stated in a response in the Dail on July 12, 2016,to questions raised by Sinn Fein’s Denise Mitchell and Sinn Fein’s Peadar Tóibínthat:

“My Department is liaising with the OPW and the National Museum of Ireland regarding a request by the Oireachtas to use some space in the National Museum premises on Kildare Street on a temporary basis while essential works are being carried out to the Seanad Chamber in Leinster House. This request is being considered by the Board of the National Museum. With regard to any potential inconvenience for the Museum in terms of its lecture programme/education and outreach services, my Department has assured the Museum that it will take all necessary steps, in conjunction with the OPW, to ensure that these services can be continued with the minimum of disruption.”

It is a story that had been rumoured for months in Irish archaeology, and it was occasionally reported upon by some journalists, including Justine McCarthy and Aaron Rogan for The Times (behind paywalls). On July 16, Sarah Bardon wrote a news piece for the Irish Times reporting that the Minister of State Sean Canney, with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW) had questioned a plan to temporarily move the Seanad to the National Museum in Dublin at a cost of €1.7 million, saying “we cannot spend that kind of money.” He said that alternative sites should be examined to accommodate the Upper House. Minister Canney said “To spend €1.7 million to relocate 60 people for two years is an extraordinary large sum of money….we have to consider whether this is value for money and if there are other options“.

Dr Michael Ryan, formerly President of the Royal Irish Academy and former Director of the National Museum of Ireland wrote a letter to the Irish Times for July 28, 2016 that summarised the potential harm that would be done.

“…History does not encourage those who care about the national collections to hope that this time the museum, strapped for staff, money, space and administrative esteem as it is, will be spared…. In the 1960s the much-loved fossil hall was taken and demolished to provide a Dáil restaurant, and the geology collections disappeared from public view and haven’t been seen since. A little later a substantial room was taken to provide a temporary Dáil bar while security considerations in the 1970s caused the last (staff) link between Kildare Street and the Natural History Museum to be closed.

The ceramics room which is being eyed as a home for the Senate is the last space available to the museum for its public lectures, outreach programmes etc. These will cease if the Senate moves in. In order to bring the Senate into the building, new entrances between Leinster House and the appropriated gallery will have to be created and there is no guarantee that other space will not be taken. There are no public lifts and so mobility-impaired visitors cannot reach the first floor. Is this embarrassing lack compatible with open, public debate in our Senate? Important as the Senate is, there are other possible venues and choosing the most suitable of these, would spare the National Museum another humiliating and damaging intervention

Nonetheless, it seems that a decision was reached by September 2016 at least. Justine McCarthy writing for The Times reported on October 2, 2016, that “Catherine Heaney, the NMI’s chairwoman, wrote last week to Heather Humphreys, the minister for arts, saying the Seanad may use the ceramics room in its Kildare Street premises.”

However, Aaron Rogan reported in The Times on October 6, 2016, that there were strong concerns amongst the staff of the National Museum of Ireland about the proposed move. He reported:

“The Houses of the Oireachtas will pay €1.7 million to link the museum to Leinster House and make the ceramics room suitable for the Seanad. Sources in the museum claim that the investment will not benefit the exhibition space and will instead mean three rooms will be used primarily for Oireachtas business in future. In order to use the wing, which currently houses the Japanese room, Chinese room and ceramics room, a walkway from Leinster House will be built and a lift installed, as well as soundproofing and voting equipment. Staff were told that the move would be temporary at a meeting on Monday, but one source questioned why the Oireachtas would spend so much to link the buildings if it was not for some form of permanent access. “There may be an agreement that the Seanad will leave after two years but the fear is that once that much money has been spent on the room the government will then want to keep it for something else such as an extra committee room. It would be a waste to spend €1.7 million on something temporary,” the source said. The source said some staff feared the entire building could be taken for Oireachtas use in the future and the museum space moved to Collins Barracks.”

Aaron Rogan also reported in this article of October 6, 2016 that “Catherine Heaney, the newly appointed chairwoman of the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), wrote last week to Heather Humphreys, the arts minister, to say that the Seanad could use the ceramics room at its Kildare Street premises. Neither side would say what demands the NMI had made or what concessions were granted in return.”

The actions of the NMI Board Chair and the Board members in their acquiescence to this request has been a subject of discussion amongst many archaeologists this week. It is something that will no doubt deserve further, deeper investigation by others as to how, and why, the NMI Board made this decision. No doubt there were questions of funding and resources to be considered. It will be interesting anyway to hear what pressures the NMI Board-and indeed NMI staff-were put under throughout this process.

In any case, as is now well-known (but was far less well-known until the former Director of the NMI, Dr Pat Wallace did us all a service by speaking about it publicly on RTE’s Morning Ireland radio programme), it quickly became clear that planning had been underway for some time to have some of the National Museum of Ireland’s spaces taken over for use by Seanad Éireann, as the latter’s debating chamber is refurbished.

As readers of this occasional blog will know, or readers of my OpinionPiece in the Irish Times last Monday 24 October 2016 will know, I am strongly of the view that  Seanad Éireann is an integral part of our democracy.  The Irish people voted for its retention in a referendum—indeed, I voted for it myself. But I and many others think that the proposed move of Seanad Éireann into the National Museum of Ireland will be very damaging.

There have been various reports about what the intervention would entail, including the provision of a lift for the Senators, and the establishment of a walkway, atrium, meeting room and fire escape.

An Taisce came out in opposition to the temporary relocation of Seanad Éireann to the National Museum, pointing out that it represents a change of use for the museum, and so requires planning permission. The growing public concern could be seen in letters to the Irish Times throughout the week after the story became more publicly well-known, such as here and here. As many commentators stated, not least former Senator John A. Murphy here, there were sensible, less expensive and more politically appropriate solutions within Leinster House.

The Board of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland wrote a letter to the Irish Times opposing the plan here.

Matt Seaver representing the Archaeological branch of Unite Union wrote a letter here

The growing resistance to the move could also be seen in a number of petitions seeking a rethink, including a respectful plea to the Minister and organised by Queens University Belfast PhD scholar Rena Maguire here on change.org, and the most recent and active petition being that one organised by the Irish Arts Review which can found-and signed-here.

Most recently, in an editorial on Tuesday November 1, 2016, The Irish Times termed the move an atrocious decision and stated that “Alternative accommodation can be found for Seanad debates within Leinster House, even if some disruption may be caused to the work of TDs and joint committees. In the past, individual senators prompted social progress by challenging bureaucracy and political ignorance. In return, the Irish people decided the Seanad is still worth keeping. Members of that chamber can now display the public’s faith in them by reversing this deeply misguided decision.”

So, let us say it again.

As important as the Seanad is, the National Museum of Ireland is one of our premier cultural heritage institutions, the place where the deepest and oldest memories of the people of Ireland are kept. People have been on this island for at least 10,000 years, since the first hunter-gatherers landed on our shores at c.7,800 BC—and perhaps earlier. Through the subsequent thousands of years, the peoples of this island built and lived in houses, managed animals and crops, made and used things, and buried their loved ones in their graves in the landscapes around them. Down through the centuries, peoples, ideas, things and animals were brought from other lands, and similarly the peoples of this island went out into the world. The objects and materials held and displayed in the National Museum of Ireland help us remember where we came from, and how we have been part of the wider world.

The responsibilities of the staff of the National Museum of Ireland include the care, management and protection of our archaeological and material culture heritage, and as importantly the communication of knowledge about this heritage to the widest possible audience, both in Ireland and to people all over the world. Thousands of people come through the Museum every year, from all over the world.

Its exhibition, conference, and educational spaces are where we teach our children about our ancient past, as can be seen by the throngs of school children and students that move though them every day.

I am now a Professor of Archaeology, but many years ago my father used to take me around its exhibitions. He was studying Archaeology at UCD at the time and amongst my earliest memories are a little stack of Late Mesolithic chert Bann flakes, from what was thought then to be amongst our earliest archaeological evidence. It was my Dad’s opinion that everything in the National Museum of Ireland actually belonged to us, the Irish people. He was right: our archaeological legislation is amongst the best in Europe. The objects in the National Museum of Ireland are indeed ours, held in trust for us by the state.

The National Museum of Ireland is our Museum.

It is now becoming clear to everybody that the impact of the proposed move is drastic. It will require the complete take-over and alteration of at least three large rooms (Japanese Room, Ceramics Room, Chinese Room), essentially the entire upper wing of the Museum. It may or may not involve the construction of a lift, which would be of minimal benefit to the Museum itself. It is also now rumoured that there will be further intervention into at least two or three further rooms on the opposite wing (the current Viking AVC room, as well as the NMI Boardroom and NMI Director’s Office), and generally a complete disruption of the work of the Museum’s staff and their work.

It has been politically spun that this is all a “financial investment” into the Museum, and that payments to the Museum are a recompense for the disruption.

This is all nonsense of course. If the state actually wished to invest in the NMI, then it could do what was done at the National Museet, the National Museum of Denmark, at Copenhagen. It could do what was done at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, the National Archaeological Museum, in Madrid, Spain, where a genuine financial investment led to a wonderful redesign of an ancient building that must be a pride of Spain. Watch the video here and imagine what our National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street might be if it was genuinely supported. Instead, we can only suspect that the NMI staff find all this cynical spinning and all the uncertainty to be demoralizing, and if they are disillusioned about the state’s lack of support for their work, you can see why.

So, it would be good if we could hear a bit less about how all this is an “investment” in the Museum.

Everybody understands what is going on.

The works are intended to provide only for the Seanad and every other intervention is a direct consequence of this. The financial cost of this proposed move of the Seanad into the National Museum of Ireland remains unknown. Will it be €1.5million, €1.7 million, or €2 million – or will it creep upwards as the work progresses? 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?

Finally, nobody in Irish archaeology that I have spoken to believes this to be a “temporary move”. The Seanad might return to their chambers in two or three(?) years, but do we seriously think the Oireachtas will leave its walkway, lift, atrium, and brand-spanking new, technically well-equipped rooms in the NMI? Is it not more likely that in about a year we will start hearing talk of the exorbitant financial waste that would be entailed if the Oireachtas left this excellent new facility only a year after it had spent a large amount of public money on it?

The National Museum of Ireland, where our ancient material and cultural heritage is kept, has been beggared by ruinous financial under-investment and budget cuts. We know that the proposed move will have at least a damaging, if not a destructive, effect on the educational capacities of the Museum. It certainly involves a complete loss of flexible space for children and School groups. It will harm its ability to host conferences and seminars for the public. It will entirely remove any capacity it might have to offer temporary exhibitions, workshops and other activities. As importantly, it will continue to disrupt and demoralise its staff, hard-working, conscientious and passionate individuals who have dedicated their working lives to caring for and communicating our cultural heritage to Ireland and the world.

There is no need for this to happen.

As I have written before, many of us believe that this expensive and damaging intervention will be harmful in the short-term and long-term to 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.

It is our National Museum of Ireland after all. It is time to call stop on this proposed move and to think again.

And perhaps it is also beyond time to start a serious public debate about what a proper investment in the National Museum of Ireland’s Archaeological facility in Kildare Street would actually look like?

(This blog post will be updated as more information becomes available)

Aidan O’Sullivan’s contact details are here

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One thought on “The National Museum of Ireland and the proposed takeover of some of its facilities by Seanad Éireann. How did this come about, and what are the implications?

  1. Every point made illustrates what a disaster the move would be. But I am afraid it will go ahead. Politicians do not listen to the citizens, fail at applying common and evonomic sense and, worst of all in a country with such excellent legislation to protect its heritage, fail to understand its value or worse, denigrate it with decisions such as this.

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