Until 2011, Dublin was one of the only capitals in Europe without a museum of the city. That spring I decided to open the Little Museum of Dublin. This non-profit museum charts the social and cultural history of the city in the 20th Century. It was created at the height of a recession with practically no funding. As I had no experience in the museum world and nothing to exhibit, you might well wonder: what was I thinking?
I decided to open a museum because there wasn’t one. It seemed absurd that in a city of Dublin’s size there was nowhere to learn more about the history of the place. So I asked a friend, Simon O’Connor, to give me a hand. Fortunately he is a quick learner; indeed he is as capable as I am idealistic. Calling ourselves the director (me) and the curator (Simon), we launched a public appeal for assistance.
A few weeks later, our city government, Dublin City Council, kindly gave us two rooms in one of the city’s finest Georgian townhouses. The Little Museum was officially opened by our Lord Mayor in October 2011. Since then the museum has expanded into the rest of the building, and there are now over 5,000 artefacts in our collection, all donated by the people of Dublin.
To create a museum in less than six months, you need help from the public, corporate patrons, philanthropists and dozens of volunteers. In other words, you need to ask for assistance from a great many strangers. You have to believe in the value of what you’re doing, and you may even need to be a ‘foolish virgin.’ If we had known how hard it would be, there’s no way we would have tried to set up a museum. Being outsiders has enabled us, perhaps unwittingly, to create a distinctive experience for visitors.
Like most people, I love museums, but I am skeptical about some of the claims made on their behalf. A knowledge of the past will not help us to avoid the mistakes of our forebears. Being human, we keep repeating the same mistakes. Happily, however, museums record achievement as well as folly. There is consolation as well as regret in the act of remembering. In privileging the connections that we share with others, it seems to us that a people’s museum has an additional purpose, which is to encourage civic pride.
We want visitors to feel emotionally connected to the artefacts on display, so our guided tours are led by charming people who tell great stories, with the help of things like an old bingo card, the postcard that Samuel Beckett wrote to a young boy who lived in his childhood home, the bullets presented to a businessman by an IRA gunman who was (almost) going to kill him, and the music stand that President John F. Kennedy used to address the Irish parliament. This emphasis on storytelling reflects the fact that Ireland has a rich oral tradition. It resonates with visitors too; last year we were the second most popular museum in Ireland on TripAdvisor.
As outsiders, we also acknowledge that many museums are forbidding places. Nobody wants a lecture anymore. That’s why we try to get our visitors talking. (Our motto is that boring museums are ancient history.) For us, a good day is when an elderly Dubliner starts singing a song about the city to a group of visitors. Some of them scratch their heads; one or two walk out; but most join in, and to watch them participate in the telling of our story is profoundly rewarding.
We also run a sister project called City of a Thousand Welcomes. This civic initiative enables proud Dubliners to welcome tourists over a free cup of tea or a drink. Our goal was to recruit 1,000 volunteer ambassadors within three months. Two weeks after the launch we had over 2,000 applications. Recently the Sydney Morning Herald described City of a Thousand Welcomes as the best free thing to do in Europe. Does it make any money? No. However, it feels like a privilege to operate the service.
Ireland has had a tough few years. History and warm hospitality are two of the things that make us who we are. In recording one and celebrating the other, we want to play a small part in the rebirth of this beleaguered state. I am proud of the work our team is doing. But this is just the beginning of a much longer story.
Having established a self-sustaining non-profit cultural institution on a tiny budget, our new goal is to make it the best small city museum in the world. Are we mad? Probably. But we feel responsible to the people who have helped us to put our collection together, and we want to ensure that the history of this city is remembered by future generations.
There is scope to expand the museum on the site that we currently occupy. Indeed we hope that the Little Museum will soon become bigger, and we also want to create universal access, enabling everyone to visit this people’s museum. Put simply, we are trying to create the full-scale museum that our capital deserves, at a fraction of what it would otherwise cost the state to create such an institution.
Three years ago we launched a museum of the Irish capital. A few months ago we discovered that a committee of the great and the good had already tried and failed to open such a place. Now our ambition is to create a world-class cultural institution where citizens of the future can learn about the history of this extraordinary city. If the Irish end up walking slightly taller, that will be a bonus. Perhaps it is folly to imagine that we can achieve all this. But sometimes the idealists are the only realists.
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