Critical Evaluation of Museums from the Tourist’s Point of View
The NMI: Arts and History – Collins Barracks
This discursive essay is based on a field trip under took by myself as part of the Heritage Studies Year 3 class at GMIT. This field trip consisted of travelling to Dublin to visit two of Ireland’s museum attractions – the Chester Beatty Library and the National Museum of Ireland: Decorative Arts and History Museum at Collins Barracks. The Decorative Arts and History Museum is the museum that I chose to write the essay on. The essay is intended to be a critical evaluation of the ‘heritage product’ provided at this museum and also assess its performance at doing this task. The essay shall also examine a number of issues for this museum like ‘best international practice’ for museums of this type, its ‘Management Philosophy’ and analyse the visitor experience offered at this site. The essay will begin by looking briefly at some of the heritage of the building and the site that is Collins Barracks, the former barracks that now houses the Decorative Arts and History museum.
Collins Barracks itself presents its own unique history and heritage. Collins Barracks is one of the oldest inhabited barracks in Europe and was once one of the largest. It was built originally as an Army barracks for the British armed forces and it was called The Royal Barracks. The building was erected in 1702 and designed by architect Col. Thomas Burgh (1670 – 1730) in an early Neo-classical style. The building itself appears to be well maintained by the OPW and it is in a good state of repair. A visitor here cannot ignore the magnificence of this structure and the surrounding site and they will hopefully experience the years of history that this place offers. The central square at Collins Barracks, which at one time would have held six entire regiments, is surrounded by arcaded colonnades and blocks linked by walking bridges. In 1922 the barracks was taken over by the Irish Free State and later renamed Collins Barracks after the former leader of the first Irish Provincial Government Michael Collins. In 1988 it was decided to close the barracks and in 1997 it was opened as part of the National Museum of Ireland, specialising in Decorative Arts & History exhibits. The original structure was redeveloped to house this museum and in keeping with its previous military history it houses, in addition to its Decorative Arts & History exhibits, galleries dedicated to Ireland’s military history.
Nature of the heritage product available at Collins Barracks
Our visit to the Decorative Arts and History museum was much too short. Due to the extensive nature of the building and the time constraints we were under, it was difficult to spend enough time examining all the exhibits that were on display. There are nearly 30 different exhibition galleries spread between four floors and a building beside Collins Barracks houses the Asgard and its exhibition. The many different displays within the galleries ranged from fine examples of silver, ceramics, glassware, furniture, clothing, jewellery, folklife, coins, metals and weaponry. This museum endeavours to offer an overview of Ireland’s social, economic and military history over the last millennium.
I began my visit to the museum by viewing the Asgard and its exhibition. It is a great achievement to have had this iconic yacht restored to its former glory. As one walks around the Asgard one is forced to reflect on those who would have sailed her and the part she and her navigators played in Ireland’s history. As well as informative information boards on the Asgard and Ireland’s struggle for Home Rule, there are also a number of interesting artefacts from this period including a number of the Mauser rifles that were part of the 1914 Howth gunrunning. It is quite fitting to have these rifles here as they complement the story of the Asgard. Unfortunately there are no audiovisual displays here and the information blurbs are only written in Irish and English.
From the Asgrad exhibition it is a short walk across a paved path to the well signposted reception area of the museum. Here a visitor can pick up a museum floor plan, which is in a number of languages, and this gives a brief description of the different exhibition galleries on the four floors while also showing the services available within the museum. The receptionist here was pleasant and helpful.
he military section it is well documented and some of the displays are artistically presented. The history linking the Irish to the wars in Europe, and the rest of the World like the Boar War and US Civil War is very intriguing. The displays and information boards here are easy to follow for even the casual visitor. A downside is the placingto this excellent condition was that information boards and present in the narrow corridors.
as was that dealing specifically with Irelands struggle for Home Rule and Independence. The various clothes, weapons of war and even the poor soldier eating his dry bread while ‘on patrol’ in the hills add to this bringing alive of the past and of course the somewhat startling skeleton of Dickie Bird, a horse that fought in the Crimean War in 1854 with the 5th Dragoon Guards. One doesn’t expect to be faced with a standing ‘live’ skeleton from 1854 whose bones were found by archaeologists in 2008 at Clancy Barracks in Dublin. The ‘Understanding 1916’ exhibition, which chronicles Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, is helpful in trying to understand the background to the 1916Â Rising. It is clearly presented but perhaps some audio/visual presentation would reduce the tedium of standing and reading all the details.
Visceral memorabilia, such as first-hand accounts of the violence of the Black & Tans and post-Rising hunger strikes, the handwritten death certificates of the republican prisoners and their postcards from Holloway prison, bring to life this poignant period of Irish history.
On the ground floor is a chain of thematically interconnected galleries, Soldiers and Chiefs, devoted to almost five hundred years of Irish military history. Apart from an array of helmets and weaponry, there’s the impressive Stokes tapestry which was created by a British soldier who devoted his spare time to the depiction of contemporary garrison life. Disappointingly the interactive panel that went into detail about the tapestry was blurred and not working. Other exhibits trace the Irish involvement in the US Civil War and one of personal fascination was the information board that listed all the names of the Irish that fought and died with General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. World War I with later examples of tanks and a de Havilland Vampire fighter plane while, contrastingly, there’s the 200-year-old Bantry Boat, captured from the French frigate La Résolue during the abortive invasion of 1796.
Decorative arts is a tough thing to get right, especially if you want to offer a broad appeal, but the well-designed displays, interactive multimedia and a dizzying array of disparate artefacts make for an interesting and valiant effort. On the 1st floor is the museum’s Irish silver collection, one of the largest collections of silver in the world; on the 2nd floor you’ll find Irish period furniture and scientific instruments, while the 3rd floor has simple and sturdy Irish country furniture. Modern-furniture-and-design lovers will enjoy the exhibition on iconic Irish designer Eileen Gray (1878-1976), one of the museum’s highlights. One of the most influential designers of the 20th century, Gray’s life and work are documented in the exhibit, which shows examples of her most famous pieces. The fascinating Way We Wore exhibit displays Irish clothing and jewellery from the past 250 years. An intriguing socio-cultural study, it highlights the symbolism jewellery and clothing had in bestowing messages of mourning, love and identity.
Some of the best pieces are gathered in the Curator’s Choice exhibition, which is a collection of 25 objects hand-picked by different curators, and displayed alongside an account of why they were chosen.
The various exhibition galleries are absolutely amazing. There is a very rich collection in each of the categories. One could easily spend a whole morning on any one of them. Coming from one of these, Harry Clarkes ”The Unhappy Judas’ ‘provided a startling contrast.
The majority of exhibits have clearly written explanations, written in both English and Irish, but some are difficult to read due to the surrounding low light. Unfortunately there did not appear to be any translated into other languages which must make it difficult for some foreign non-English-speaking visitors to understand. It would have been more helpful had they had audio explanations, particularly for those who are visually impaired.
I found this most interesting but for the person who wants to linger, browse and read the numerous pieces, it would have been helpful to have sitting down benches, as in the foyer. Speaking to a member of staff afterwards, he explained that the exhibition areas are narrow so that when there are large groups, benches could be an unsafe obstruction.
Best international practice for institutions of this type:
Edinburgh Museum NMS.
Edinburgh is an amalgamation of Royal Scottish Museum and the National Museum of antiquities. It has exhibitions of various types which are similar to Collins Barracks.: see www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum -of-scotland.
Collins Barracks website gives very informative overview of it’s exhibits, so that a visit can be planned in advance. This is also true of Edinburgh Museum.
Refer to Mission Statement on the website
Quoting from website..Our philosophy is to uphold the values of :
Working in partnership with staff.
Excellence in all our activities.
Investing in people.
In achieving this philosophy, it is dependent on ongoing commitment of all stakeholders, including, in particular, staff of the museum, Dept. of Arts, Sports & Tourism, and the O.P.W. if Phase 2 of the development of Collins Barracks is to be completed. The development of the Central storage area requires a lot of money and commitment.
Cf. Strategic Plan.Â Cf statement of chairman J. O’Mahony July 2008.
Heritage Product, Visitor Facilities and Marketing
Restaurant, good and reasonable in price.
Toilets, clean and bright.
There is a need for more seating in all areas, to make it a more relaxing as well as an educationalÂ experience.
There is a need to be more aware of people with specific needs, eg. Website said thatthere were objects that could be touched, for visually impaired people. On enquiring, the staff member did not know anything about this.
As previously mentioned, the need for audio aids for visually impaired people.
Collins Barracks is a wonderful place with so much to see, but I have passed it so many times in the Luas as well as walking past but never knew that there were so many treasures there. Is this due to poor marketing?
Cf. Trip Advisor, Facebook & Twitter??
Great museum, so many interesting exhibitions.
I would be very happy to go there again. Entrance from Luas stop, with all the ascending steps could be a problem for older people. There is a need for clearer marking of alternative entrance via car park.
My favourite was the Eileen Gray furniture exhibition but I would have been happy spending more time on any of the other exhibitions, had time permitted. I intend going there soon again.
Speaking to a staff member, he told me that during the summer they have many foreign visitors and visitors with Irish ancestry. They see people of all age groups. Approx.. 60,000 a month during the summer holiday months. In October 2013, they had 20,164 visitors.
They get many families when they have special events on.
It is also popular for school groups.
There are often book launches etc held at the museum.
Listen to interview with Pat Wallace on Marian Finucane on RTE radio 1 on Sunday November 2nd. Well worth listening to, on the lack of funding to the museums.
Overall impression? The site is being well run and cared for with helpful friendly staff on every level. The café could be improved on. Fewer and better meals on offer and better ventilation in the kitchen to prevent the pervasive smell of cooking oil wafting through to the dining area.
The shop offered a wide range of souvenirs and goods produced in Ireland. Service was again friendly and helpful.
As an observer the visitor profile varied from school groups, to guests from the U.S. Africa and China to ‘one day’ city trippers.
A place well worth a return visit and one to watch for exhibitions, events as shown on their website.
West of Smithfield on Benburb Street is the National Museum’s Decorative Arts Collection,. Unquestionably, the best of these is Curator’s Choice, on the first floor of the west block, which is selected by museum curators from all over Ireland. Among its draws are a medieval oak carving of St Molaise; the extravagant cabinet presented by Oliver Cromwell to his daughter Bridget in 1652; and the remarkable fourteenth-century Chinese porcelain Fonthill Vase. The Out of Storage section is another highlight, bringing together everything from decorative glassware to a seventeenth-century suit of Samurai armour, while others focus on Celtic art, coinage, silverware, period furniture, costumes and scientific instruments, and there are usually plenty of temporary exhibits.
All of these displayed with imagination in innovative and contemporary galleries, which entice you to go further, look harder and examine more closely.
In the Curator’s Choice exhibition there is amongst other treasures, an ancient Japanese ceremonial bell, which dates back over 2000 years. Explore the histories of soldiers and their families in Soldiers & Chiefs: The Irish at War at Home and Abroad since 1550. Examine the decade of disturbance between 1913 and 1923, from the Dublin Lockout, through the Easter Rising to the end of the Civil War in The Easter Rising: Understanding 1916.
Included are artefacts such as Etruscan vases, gauntlets worn by King William at Battle of the Boyne, a life belt and oar salvaged from the wreck of the RMS Lusitania and a pocket book carried by Wolfe Tone whilst imprisoned in the Barracks.
Museums and galleries are vital to the educational and cultural health of society. This, however, is not always either seen or understood, and as long as this is the case, the continued existence of museums will be tenuous.
Lang, Caroline, Reeve, John, and Woollard, Vicky, eds. Responsive Museum : Working with Audiences in the Twenty-First Century. Abingdon, Oxon, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 24 November 2014.