In my continuing look at the free things to do in Dublin, I’m focussing on Collins Barracks this week. The first part will be an interview with one of the curators, Dr Audrey Whitty, and then I’ll visit the museum at the weekend and report back.
Dr Audrey Whitty studied at both UCD and Trinity and has been working in the National Museum in various different capacities since 1998. She worked as documenter during the important move from Kildare St to Collins Barracks (after a decade of renovations) and worked as a researcher on the Airgead exhibition – history of Ireland from 900AD to the Euro changeover through coins. She became a full-time curator in 2001. In this capacity, Audrey is in charge of 30,000 pieces of glass, ceramics and the entire Asian collection. That’s a lot of dusting! She’s one of 5 curators in the museum, though admits that comparable museums abroad have a lot more.
So what should I not miss when I visit Collins Barracks?
Eileen Gray (a self-taught architect and Modernist designer), Airgead (as mentioned above), and the Albert Bender Collection (a Dublin Jew who went to San Francisco, collected Asian art and donated it to the National Collection – this exhibition was curated by Audrey). All of the Rising material previously held in Kildare St has been in Collins Barracks for some time (fittingly) – this includes a copy of the Proclamation, and deals with the 1913 Lockout through to the civil war. There’s also a visible storage facility offering a unique look at how museums store the items not on display.
Collins Barracks is targeting audiences they’ve never reached before through education and community outreach. They had a big stand at the Young Scientist exhibition just after Christmas. Teachers, parents and students all in one spot – Audrey says there was a phenomenal reaction to the Museum’s stand. There’s also a handling collection –stuff you’re allowed touch, which includes Japanese netsuke, which leads you off to the Asian collection, or glove stretchers, which would bring you on to the clothing exhibition, "What We Wore".
Who decides what exhibitions will be put on? Do the curators all sit round saying “I have a cool idea”? And what’s coming up later in the year?
No, it doesn’t work like that! You can approach the powers that be but sometimes it comes from outside influences that dictate what happen, i.e. political or new discoveries. The 90th anniversary of the Rising had a lot of political influence obviously. The Asgard will be on display probably in July – the boat involved in the crucial gun-running in 1914. You'll be able to walk around it. An exhibition is coming from the National Museum of Australia later in the year on the history of the Irish in Australia.
What’s it like working in a museum? What’s a typical day?
Very varied. If you’re involved in an exhibition, you’re like a project manager. You’d have to correlate the workload from the conservation team, graphic designers, architects, marketing and then decide what kind of educational programme will be implemented after the exhibition opens.
Do the museum suffer from a bit of “not in the city centre”?
Barracks attendance was much improved by the advent of the LUAS in November 2004. There is a Dublin mindset about D1 and D2. Being near Heuston Station is fantastic. A lot of country people would be just as interested in going to the Barracks as Dublin people. They pop in before their train.
Has the budget been cut much?
There's no final figure yet. There’s a newly appointed Board. It has some continuity including the chair, Dr John O’Mahony SC from Cork. The board is very conscious of the national remit, as opposed to being Dublin-centric.
She hopes that the free admission will continue, rather than adopting a model similar to the National Gallery, who charge for their “star” exhibitions while the permanent collection remains free.
Finally, what was it like having the “Dead Zoo” up there while they were closed in Merrion Square?
The National Museum is based on 4 separate identities: but it was wonderful that the Natural History collections were accessible during the renovations in Merrion Street by being on display in the Barracks’. Academic studies on the history of display took place there while it was closed because it is an old-style Victorian cabinet museum. Most countries changed and modernised theirs but the money wasn’t there in our case and we’ve benefited from it in the end.
Collins Barracks, comprising one quarter of the National Museum of Ireland is open Tuesday – Saturday from 10 – 17:00 and on Sundays from 14:00 – 17:00. Admission is free and there’s free parking on site, and it’s easily accessed by LUAS from the city centre. Thanks a million to Audrey for taking the time to do this interview!