There’s an issue at the moment where the parliament of the Republic of Ireland want to take over (they claim temporarily) the ceramics rooms of the National Museum of Ireland. This, as you can imagine, would mean altering a building which in itself is a work of art (and protected) – changes involving security most likely. The ceramics room is not just for ceramics. It’s used for education space for primary school nippers, for temporary exhibitions, which are often more community related, and also as space for free talks and workshops for the public, a chance to let the highly professional staff of the NMI tell the public what’s new in the history of their own country. And I don’t have to remind you that Ireland is steeped in history, possibly from even further back than we thought!
You can read an infinitely more intense account of this situation right here, by the ubiquitous Prof Aidan O’Sullivan of UCD: https://earlymedievalarchaeologyproject.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/the-national-museum-of-ireland-and-the-proposed-taking-by-seanad-eireann-of-its-facilities/ but basically it’s the equivalent of the House of Commons taking over the teaching rooms of the British Museum, or the US Senate doing the same in the Smithsonian. It’s a pretty rubbish idea, to be honest, and we all know that politicians have a habit of taking over permanently whatever they tell us is temporary…
Reading the comments on the petition to stop this happening has made me smile in a happy/sad way, and know we all have so much in common because of a wonderful building in Dublin and its staff over the ages. There’s 70+ year old who fell in love with the museum as a child, and the wonder has never left her; the fiery young undergrad , farmers, bankers, dreamers, pragmatists – it doesn’t matter, because each and all of us are united in the love of our past, displayed for free.
‘A cold coming we had of it – just the worst time of the year…”
The first time I ever made it to the NMI it was winter 2010, the worst winter in memory, when the jet stream’s misbehaviour resulted in about two months of ice and snow. Planes could not leave Dublin airport, the North here recorded temperatures under -18 C and roads were frozen and unpassable. We were supposed to have been on our field trip from Belfast to Dublin in early December of that year, but weather had been so bad, we were postponed to the week afterwards. Travelling the Boyne valley, with ice mist hovering over the frozen earth, and Fleet Foxes on the ipod, the day seemed promising, if a bit cold, but by the time we reached Kildare Street the sky had changed from sharp blue to slate and snow was tumbling down upon us again like a scene from Dr Zhivago.
The museum that dark afternoon had a dreamlike quality, all dark golds and echoes, slightly detached from the real world, the way you remember things as a child, but don’t happen when you are an adult. The upstairs, where the medieval artefacts are displayed, felt like viewing some fascinating person’s house, with the twists and turns of the building loaning an odd feeling of upper crust domesticity and hushed intimacy. The Kingship and Sacrifice display, however, with its grotesque ‘Red Man’ figures and bog bodies and the metalwork of heroes literally changed my life. These objects felt right, felt familiar – everything enchanted, fascinated; I don’t know… reverberated inside me that I never wanted to leave the displays. I’m sure someone would suggest a bit of the oul’ reincarnations going on there, but the answer is maybe simpler. It was the day I fell hopelessly in love with the Iron Age, accepting its shadows and its sparkle all at the same time. Any inclination to the Neolithic vanished there and then.
I found my dissertation in that museum, with the Irish Y-piece, and as a result of that, my PhD thesis too. The summer of 2012 gave me a freedom and confidence I thought was lost. That summer, each week’s research trip saw me leave the NMI’s crypt late afternoon, smelling of 2000 year old tack, heading into Brown Thomas’ for a spritz of Tom Ford’s Lys Fume ( oh, why did I not purchase that perfume that summer? I’m sure it’s long discontinued, but it was magically sultry) and start the walk down Grafton Street, to O’Connell St and to Busaras with my artwork in folders and my head full of new, and slightly heretical archaeology ideas. I’m sure academia isn’t allowed to acknowledge its sensual aspects, but the smell of the crypt, the metal artefacts, sun warmed skin and good perfume will be forever that heady summer of 2012, when I started to realise chunks of history which had been unknown before were about to be rewritten.
The staff of the NMI humoured me, tolerated me and encouraged me with helpful ideas, directions, bashed theories around a bit over tea. No need to be wary over ideas being bandied about; the research rooms are the last homely house. Museum staff as a breed, the world over, tend to be rather wonderful (and believe me, now at PhD I could write a connoisseur’s guide of museums of Europe!) but the NMI’s staff are among the finest worldwide. They treated a scrappy, prickly undergrad as decently and respectfully as a seasoned academic proper. And at this stage of my Dead Pony tour, they continue to do so.
Their staff and dedicated associates brought home the news that Ireland may have an earlier Mesolithic than we first thought, with Dr Ruth Carden’s discovery of a butchered bear patella, found a century ago near Castlebar, the assemblage slumbering until looked at with fresh eyes. Everyone who looks, I‘m convinced, finds their own NMI, their own story. And each of those stories, gentle reader, is YOUR story. How your ancestors got here. How they survived. Why you are here. ‘Cos, hey – that’s what heritage is, kids. Not a stagnant musty thing, but people, the land, their animals, their music, speech, stories.
And those are some of the reasons I love this country’s museum. Those are tiny glimpses at ‘my’ NMI. You need to find yours. It’s your university students, carefully looking and analysing in small rooms; it’s the passionate layperson, showing up to learn more, just in case the earth churns up a dollop of the past on their dog walk and they’ll know the right things to do because they went to public lectures in the museum. It’s your kids, crowded into an education room or two, with heads full of amazement at the stuff they’ve just seen, with questions rushing at curators like a fresh tide on a new beach. A room is not just a room. It’s a place where times and peoples meet. It’s the world between worlds where everything is possible.
If that isn’t more important than tea room space for a pack of politicians, I’m sorry , I don’t know what is.
Please, sign the petition here https://www.change.org/p/minister-for-arts-and-heritage-heather-humphries-a-plea-to-the-dail-rethink-the-relocation-of-the-seanad-in-the-nmi-education-rooms?recruiter=42645642&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=share_for_starters_page&utm_term=des-lg-google-no_msg if you can, and share. Thank you.