National Library of Ireland

Aongus Ó hAonghusa

director

National Library of Ireland

National Library of Ireland Kildare Street, Dublin 2 Ireland

www.nli.ie/yeats

Yeats: the life and work of William Butler Yeats.
The National Library of Ireland

The National Library of Ireland was established by act of parliament in 1877 (Dublin Science and Art Museum Act, 1877). The Library today is one of a number of ''cultural institutions'' which operate under the aegis of Ireland''s Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. The Library has evolved as an Irish studies library, which acts as the national documentary repository for books, manuscripts, newspapers periodicals, heraldry, prints, drawings, maps and photographs of Irish origin or interest. The provision of an exhibition service to the visiting public has long been a priority in order to enable the Library to fulfil its role as a national cultural institution. However the Library''s outdated 19th century buildings made this hard to achieve. This situation changed when a new exhibition facility, designed to meet modern standards, was opened in June 2004. It is part of a complex that includes a lecture room, a cafeacute; and a shop. The inaugural exhibition was James Joyce and Ulysses at the National Library of Ireland, an exhibition timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday.

The Yeats exhibition

The Library has extensive holdings of literary manuscripts among which the Yeats collections, comprising the manuscripts and library of Ireland''s national poet William Butler Yeats, stand out as extraordinary. The quality and significance of the collections, and the desire to bring them to the public as part of the national heritage, led to the decision to mount a major Yeats exhibition to follow the Joyce exhibition. We also wanted to pay tribute to the generosity of the poet''s son, Michael Yeats, who had donated most of the material over a period of many years, and indeed who continued to be very generous and lent many personal objects belonging to his father for use in the exhibition.

The Library made a successful application to Government for funding, and also received sponsorship from Anglo-Irish Bank and various media sponsors. A request for tender was issued through the European Journal, and the design tender was eventually awarded to Martello Media, a design and media firm based in Dublin. The exhibition opened in May 2006, and is due to run for three years.

The Strategic aims of the exhibition were

  • to highlight the National Library's status as the world''s major holding library of Yeats manuscripts and other source material
  • to position the Library as a major repository of literary and cultural ''treasures'' and one of the main visitor, cultural and educational attractions in Dublin, worthy of public support
  • to provide a seedbed from which other developmental initiatives may grow, such as, for example, projects relating to digital versions of Yeats manuscripts on NLI''s website.
  • to demonstrate how the collections of the National Library serve the needs of the education and cultural and heritage sectors

In order to achieve these aims we wanted the Yeats exhibition

  • to be a major world-class exhibition which would demonstrate Yeats''s significance as a world literary figure, and illustrate the range of his activities, genius and inspiration.
  • to enable visitors to engage with Yeats the poet, in terms of what he wrote, and how he wrote it
  • to show the role he played in shaping ideas of Irish cultural and national identity, and to illustrate the contribution made by Ireland to his work
  • to contextualize his work by drawing on the Library''s historic collections relating to the late 19th and early 20th century, a seminal and exciting period in Irish and world history

We saw the exhibition as having a strong educational aspect in that W.B. Yeats features on school curricula of most, if not all, of the English-speaking world. Other audiences identified were cultural tourists, the general Irish audience, and last but not least Yeatsian scholars and enthusiasts.

The interpretative strategy for the exhibition was developed over a period of about a year initially by a team in the Library advised by a number of Yeats scholars and then in conjunction with our exhibition designers Martello Media. The main challenge was to find a way of presenting a writer who was very prolific and who led a very active life. We wanted to allow people to experience the magic of Yeats and the contrast between the dreamy romantic Celtic Twilight poet and the man of action, constantly embarking on new projects, and engaging in public affairs. And lastly, above all else, we wanted to encourage people to have their own encounters with Yeats, to listen to and read his poems, to engage with his creative process and perhaps discover their own.

We finally arrived at a layered solution which uses ambience, colours and graphics to convey a general mood, along with poetry readings, objects in display cases and ''evocation'' spaces containing short films to convey a lot of information in an easy and accessible way. One of the most innovative aspects of the exhibition is the touchscreens which accompany each display case. These allow visitors to explore the objects in the cases in close up, go through more pages if the object is a book or a manuscript, and see related objects. Users can also access a timeline of Yeats''s life from each interactive. Other installations interpret Yeats''s love of the "Art of the Book" and his creative process as demonstrated in "Poetry in Process". They, along with the ''Turning the page'' installations developed by the British Library, have proved to be an effective way of providing visitors with an unprecedented level of access to manuscript and other material. Indeed visitors comment very often on the accessibility of reading the manuscripts with the help of the multimedia touch-screens.

Earlier this year we made the contents of the touchscreens available online via the Library''s website, www.nli.ie/yeats along with a virtual walkthrough of the exhibition itself. The entire exhibition was photographed from every angle to allow the online visitor to navigate the space as if they were walking through it themselves. Over a hundred photos carefully knitted together allow the user to walk forward, turn left and turn right throughout the exhibition, all from the PC in their own living room. Of course we hope that they will still be inspired to come and visit the actual exhibition.

We are currently working on plans to develop a travelling version of the exhibition. An article in the New York Times on the 20 July 2008 has led to several expressions of interest from libraries in the United States and elsewhere.

The exhibition succeeds in providing a total Yeats environment by means of a creative use of traditional exhibition displays and scholarship combined with modern media. As Mark Leslie of our design firm Martello Media puts it, visitors can absorb a lot by drifting through the exhibition in a Yeatsian trance, but the overall layered approach enables them to discover more, indeed as much as they want about Yeats''s works and his life.