Glasnevin Cemetary Museum

John Green and Peter Harbison


Glasnevin Museum

Glasnevin Trust Finglas Road, Dublin 11

www.glasnevintrust.ie

Dublin, Ireland
European Museum Forum / Kenneth Hudson Award 2012


Winner: Kenneth Hudson Award 2012






Glasnevin Museum is located in Glasnevin Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Ireland with over one million burials. The cemetery is run by Glasnevin Trust, a charitable body founded in the early nineteenth century by Daniel O'Connell during the struggle for Catholic emancipation. In the midst of heated and often vitriolic "debate", O'Connell decreed that our cemeteries should be for people of "all  religions and none", as he wished to be buried with his protestant and dissenter brethren just as he wished to live with them. O'Connell truly was a man ahead of his times and he still influences our island to this day through the peaceful parliamentary political process he espoused for our freedom. The decision he made for the cemetery to be so inclusive has defined the importance of Glasnevin as an historical site. Nowhere else can one "touch" Irish history, since the 1798 rebellion, to the same extent as at Glasnevin Cemetery. The old adage "the more inclusive the more diverse" certainly applies to us. Not only in religious terms, where we have a panoply of religions and sects etc represented in our dead, but in every walk of Irish life. Most famously in our War of Indepedence and subsequent Civil War we have the two great leaders, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, two names still  capable of dividing our country, communities and even families!! Everywhere one looks in Glasnevin there is point and counter point; in literature the rebel rousing "Dub" Brendan Behan and the aesthete English Jesuit, Gerard Manly Hopkins. The great Irish Parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell was buried on top of a mass "cholera" grave. There is poor ground beside trophy graves, memorials to "Martyrs" who died in British prisons beside memorials to those who died during the World Wars in the British Army. There are places of great sorrow, the Angels (stillborn and neonatal deaths) Plot, places of great shame, the Magdalene laundries memorial, and places of great pride, the O'Connell crypt. 

As well as being a place of history, Glasnevin is a working cemetery with a crematorium dealing with over two thousand funerals a year and another fifteen hundred in the other four cemeteries Glasnevin Trust operates. Glasnevin Cemetery occupies over 120 acres (49 hectares); there are over 200,000 individual headstones and hundreds of thousands of graves. It is laid out as a Victorian Garden Cemetery. Shortly after Glasnevin Cemetery started, seven similar cemeteries were opened in London, known as the Magnificent Seven; unlike Glasnevin they were operated as commercial ventures. Today only one of them operates under its original company, and it is really a crematorium with the Graveyard in a very poor state. Some have quite literally disappeared, others are in state hands and two are run as historic sites by "Friends of" etc. Glasnevin survives but, like the "Magnificent Seven", the financial strains of an outdated economic model nearly put us out of business. In the early days of cemeteries like Glasnevin there is a very positive cash flow from the sale of graves and burials. As the Cemetery nears capacity, the cash flow decreases as grave sales slow down and repeat burials are really the only source of income. In accounting terms, we created  reserves to cover purchases in advance of both graves and burials, this prudent accounting is reliable for one or two, at most, generations. However the model was intrinsically flawed because it did not envisage perpetual upkeep. Yes, some individuals did purchase "perpetual care" for their family grave, but no one envisaged this care persisting for 100 years, let alone 183 years as is our case. Usually after 70 years an area becomes virtually "out of use". Five percent or less of the graves may be visited once or twice a year, and the rest are forgotten. The economic model which cemeteries like ours operated under quite simply didn't take into account the increasing cost of maintaining an ageing cemetery, paths, drains, buildings etc. -  not just graves.

As the twentieth century merged into the twenty-first, Glasnevin was faced with a dilemma. The oldest part of Glasnevin cemetery was not only falling into rack and ruin, but was also a health and safety issue. Much as we might have liked to hide from this truth, colleagues visiting us from the City of London Cemetery near Epping were perplexed that we had not closed down large parts of Glasnevin. The nettle had to be grasped. The Trust ordered a complete survey of the Cemetery with restoration costs. The price euro;200 million!! Ireland was in the middle of the "Celtic Tiger" and we were approaching  the centenaries of many key events in the Country's history. So we went to the Government "cap in hand" not for euro;200 million  but only euro;80 million. Our pitch was simple. Glasnevin is one of the most significant sites in our history, and it will be one of the few places where our Independence may be appropriately commemorated. Just one small problem:  the Cemetery is not fit for purpose. In answer to the most obvious question .. Why aren't you doing this yourselves? .. we answered "Have you ever asked a bank to lend you money to restore a cemetery? We did however promise to maintain the cemetery at the standard the government funds restored it to, and we made the irreversible commitment to build a museum to provide a future cash flow to ensure a sustainable maintenance of the cemetery. Yes, the bank did lend us some of the funds to build the Museum.

The application to the Government was partially successful. It may have helped that the Taoiseach was a representative of our area and that his parents and one of his brothers were buried in Glasnevin, but we were granted euro;25 million over ten years. Contemporaneously, we submitted a planning application to build a Museum on site. This was a huge departure for an organisation such as ours. We did have some experience in the restoration programme, particularly through our specialist monuments company, but the work needed to be done on the project was enormous. We set up a subcommittee comprised of one of our board, a qualified engineer, as chair, another board member, a financier, was vice chair; our CEO was a permanent member, the government had one permanent member and one representative who attended finance meetings. We then hired a firm of consulting engineers who had a permanent representative and we appointed a project manager. The Chairman of the Trust was an "ex Officio" member. This was the Heritage Committee and they met weekly to oversee the task of restoring the cemetery to its Victorian garden splendour.

We held a selected tender for the architects to the Museum building and Andre Wejchert, the renowned Dublin-based Polish architect was selected. The area chosen for the museum was difficult, long and narrow; the whole area within the walls of the cemetery was "listed", which meant that the plans would be much scrutinised by the authorities. The local people looked upon the Cemetery as their own which meant that they must be included. We held public meetings to update our neighbours, Andre was a master at these meetings, allaying fears simply by the empathy he had for the cemetery. His award-winning building complemented the existing vista and is a magnificent home for our museum. In selecting the designer of the Museum content, we looked only at Irish companies; we felt the Museum must be intrinsically an Irish experience. Martello Media were appointed and a "Contents" subcommittee was set up, chaired by board member Peter Harbison, an archaeology professor; the Trust Board had two other permanent members, the Deputy CEO was a permanent member and our resident historian was also a permanent member. Martello Media had two permanent members and others as needed. Both the Chairman of the Trust and Mark Leslie, CEO of Martello Media, were ex Officio members. This subcommittee worked incredibly hard and it cannot be overemphasised just how important they were to the success of the project.

The museum tells the story of the Cemetery. Downstairs in the "City of the Dead", it explains through film, reconstruction, interactive units just how the cemetery works; all the religions and sects of the people buried in Glasnevin are briefly explained and ls"tall' stories are recounted by old grave diggers. On the top floor there is an interactive themed exhibition, currently on Daniel O'Connell. An interactive "Time line" cleverly allows the user to discover the lives of 250 of our most significant people, from the first burial to the present day. Finally, there is the Prospect Gallery, a light-filled glass area which indicates the important architecture and stonemasonry of the cemetery as the visitors look down on it. The ground floor houses our reception area, our shop and our restaurant. Every day there are general tours of the cemetery and often special guided tours or groups. Martello Media envisaged the Museum complementing the cemetery and encouraging the visitor to explore the cemetery. This has certainly been the case.

For the opening, we appointed a marketing manager and a museum manager. We used a retail expert to stock the shop and franchised the restaurant. From the off we received rave reviews and won several awards, but visitor numbers were very disappointing. In hindsight we were naiuml;ve. We expected visitors to come because we simply did not understand how much effort must be put into marketing and SELLING. We brought a marketing expert onto the Board, changed our personnel and introduced specialist tourism consultants. Now for the first time we are hitting our budgets, but admittedly with much lower targets and much larger marketing advertising spends. We even won an award for one of our radio adverts!!

Last piece of advice: don't open a museum in the middle of a recession!!