It’s been a month now since I have moved my studio to the National Museum of Ireland. I’m based at the Decorative Arts Museum, at Collins Barracks in Dublin, which is situated alongside the north side of the river Liffey, facing the Guinness Brewery. It is sandwiched between the small village of Stoneybatter and the huge expanse of Europe’s biggest urban park, The Phoenix Park, which is also home and working residence of Ireland’s President Micheal D Higgins.
Working in this part of the city is a big change for me. Cycling to the studio along the Liffey and closed in by urban buildings has taken a bit of getting used to. My permanent studio is a stones’ throw from the sea and wide expanses of sky. The air smells fresher there. My heated studio at the museum is filled with glorious light, however, with a view onto the central quadrangle of Clarke Square, through which most of the visiting public filter. We have swarms of school kids racing from one side to the other, re-enactments of warfare and mini marshals putting their ‘troops’ though their paces, and lots of people doing cartwheels and dance moves. It’s a constantly changing picture.
The Collins Barracks complex was built as an army barracks and now houses large Military and Political History exhibitions as well as the Decorative Arts Collection. The decorative arts cover so many aspects of our history, including textiles and fashion, ceramics, silver, furniture, jewellery, wood and glass. I’m in the north block where the ghosts of the past can be felt as well as be seen on occasion apparently.
I pass through the Eileen Gray (Architect and designer) exhibition to arrive at my studio space. There is a whole section of the museum dedicated to Eileen Gray who was an extraordinary architect who created so many design classics, breaking new ground in modernism. Perhaps you know of her tubular steel and glass side table, designed in the 1920’s. It is still in production. I will write more about her later. The world expert here is Jennifer Goff, @CreativeJenGoff The museum has a huge collection of Gray’s work so please get in touch if you need to know more.
I have spent much of this month looking at the collection, and have had a chance to see some of the storage that holds some of the 4.5 million artefacts in the museum collection. It’s a lot to take in, but I’m trying to go slowly and soak up the rich collections without getting overwhelmed at the potential of what I could do with all this information. My first experience of the store was at a large holding facility off site, in another part of the city. There were acres of objects in vast security cages from all areas in the four museums to see. First I came across some caged animals from the natural history collection, a yawning hippo, an angry looking cheetah, a few balding lions and a shelf full of vultures. Around the corner was a roomful of carriages and horse drawn vehicles, delivery carts and hearses. It was like walking onto a film set or into a time machine. I found myself particularly drawn to the graphics of the delivery vehicles, which backed up by the identity labels conjured up some of its social history. Taffe’s Victuallers, in Blackrock Co Dublin, Ennis Bakery in Skerries and Pierce’s water company were very striking for both their typography and colour palette. Their simplicity struck me too, of home deliveries and locally brought produce. The only remnant of this here now is the Guinness delivery horse and cart, I see occasionally and the jaunting carts now making tours of the city for visitors to Dublin and revellers on a night out. I’ve lots of photos on my Instagram roisindebuitlear if you want to see more.
Ennis Mills delivery cart. The mill is still in existence in North Dublin.
During that visit I also saw hundreds of millstones a round domed ring made of stone. They have been discovered in various digs and must under Irish law be preserved by the museum. Known also as Cloch Bhrón or quern stones they were used to grind corn. I had to question what keeping so many samples of similar objects was doing to enrich the collection. All of them were identified by a label tied to the object with a criss-cross of butcher’s string, which made them look like some kind of collection of postal parcels. I stored away that image for later. It was ironic to see these objects as the following day, I found myself on site at a project I am working on for Dublin City Council. The construction workers had found some archaeology and had to stop the digging. The site is at St Audoen’s church, the oldest medieval church in Dublin. It’s a Viking site, and part of the original boundary of Dublin where the city walls still exist. I’ve been appointed as the artist on a new children’s garden that will form part of the existing park. I am designing some sound installations and hideouts I am calling Tigín, which means little house or hut. The archaeologists on site had found evidence of 17th, 18th century buildings as well as French ceramics, coins, some Viking material and remnants of the Old Keyslar’s walk a street marked on a map of the city in 1837. It was amazing to see the layers of history exposed in layers of earth in a section they had cut away. All of this will probably end up in the museum to be logged and analysed. The builder carrying out the construction said it was very commonplace to find this kind of material whenever working in Dublin city centre.
The Damascus Room
At the museum store I also got to see some of a Damascus room. It’s a remarkable section of a Syrian room dating from 1670/71. It’s dated 1041 in the Muslim calendar. It was rediscovered in the museum store recently where it had been stored for many years without knowing of its global importance. Given the war in Syria in recent years it has become an important object that will mark a Syrian era of design now sadly destroyed. It is the oldest known room of its kind on record and gifted to the museum by some dealers, I think in the mid 1800’s. Moya Carey is working on its history. It is heavily varnished and needs considerable specialist restoration but the tin foil onto which layers of painting was applied is evident. Once cleaned it will gleam with brilliance and luminosity. It is a jewel of interior design history and very significant in the museum collection. The search for a benefactor to fund this work has started. It will take a serious investment and the museum are open to discussions from anyone who could support them in this work.
Arás an Úachtaráin – Presidential residence
Not far from the museum is the President’s residence. I was there last week to reinstall a sculpture that was commissioned by the previous President Mary Mc Aleese. Commissioned for the sensory garden the piece is a combination of glass and steel. The sculpture is of a giant fork that juts out of the kitchen garden wall and proposes a juicy strawberry to the passer by. The kitchen garden is where all the strawberries are grown for the jam that is served at the many garden parties given in the summer by the president to invited groups of citizens. The sculpture needed some maintenance. The residence is on beautiful landscaped land with mature trees, many planted by visiting dignitaries since Ireland’s independence. I met the president’s two dogs and quietly reinstalled the piece without any fuss. The president was leaving just as I was. No sirens or flashing lights, just two cars and a two flags on the bonnet. No outriders either, they just drove along quietly in the traffic like everyone else. The attendants tell me that the President drops in here to the museum on a Sunday morning at times and wanders through the collection. Apparently he spearheaded the work that led to this location being saved for the decorative arts when he was arts minister. I am thankful for his work and his graceful presidency.
The exhibition CAUTION! Fragile will open in under a month here in one of the temporary galleries on the second floor. The gallery is being prepared for this show, which will run for a year here. The show was originally exhibited in the museum of glass Tacoma in 2013 and the glass has just arrived from there to this museum now. The show will have over 50 pieces of glass, some drawings from the museum collection of illustrations, some oral history recordings I have collected, photography and original music on glass objects performed by Liam Ó Maonlaí. The museum is taking the opportunity to revamp the lighting, and some of the showcases as well as the habitual repaint after each exhibition. This month we’ve been working on all the graphics, copy and written content for the exhibition and next week we specify all the armatures for the pieces for display. The lighting is partly finished and all the sound segments are being processed. The countdown to the opening has started.
This week I got to visit the musical instrument collection in storage and invited musician and composer Liam ó Maonlaí to come with me. The museum has a large collection of ancient Irish harps from the 1700’s including the harp of blind composer O Carolan. Having grown up listening to his music, it felt almost overwhelming to see this harp in reality. It was much larger than the small lap harp he is often pictured with, larger than a cruit (a traditional Irish harp), but smaller than a concert harp. The reconstructed examples, which are gaudily coloured were also quite a shocking contrast to the dark coloured wood I had always associated with these harps. The colours reflect the bright colours that were also used in the stone high crosses that are dotted around the country. We also saw the large collection of Uileann pipes (the Traditional Irish bag pipe) Violins, Lambeg drums, ethnic instruments. In amongst these was the double bassoon commissioned for Handel’s first performance of the Messiah, which took place in Dublin only a few meters from the archaeological dig I mentioned earlier.
It seems everything is connected around here and I am moving in small relatable circles. A hollow feeling descended on us while seeing these objects. Objects that must have enchanted so many people in public and private performances in their time. So many craftsmen in Dublin were occupied in the making of fine concert pianos such as from Southwell’s or Aldridges of Duke street, or Egan’s Harp makers, who made decorated harps that graced the drawing rooms of 18 century Dublin. The absence of hearing their sound felt like a dead weight in the air. I know that Liam felt that too. We were looking at a terrible tragedy, while trying to understand the rules and reasons for strict conservation too. The objects were no longer playable, will never be heard again, and now in storage for possibly many years not to be seen by the general public. It pointed to a real need to create a repository in which our musical history and creative output could be championed and experienced interactively for a wider public to enjoy on a permanent basis.
Bliain na Gaeilge 2018
Lastly this is Bliain na Gaeilge A year to celebrate the Irish language as much as we can. As an Irish speaker it is something I use everyday in conversation as much as in reading or in learning. Together with some of the attendants at the Museum we have launched a coffee spot once a month where we can gather and speak to each other or share our love for the language with others who are also enthusiastic or want a chance to learn more. We met at the museum of Archaeology last month, the last Tuesday of every month. This month it’s on in the Decorative Arts museum.
I have also started to greet as many of the attendants in the morning with a cheery Dia Dhuit, and coaxing them to reply and use the Irish they have. I’m making progress and as ever find there is a wistfulness to know more but a reluctance to be brave enough to try. With lots of encouragement I hope they will all be greeting me with Dia ‘s Muire Dhuit by next month!
Slán go fóill.