Bog bodies and frogs in alcohol: meet the man with the keys to our past
The director of the National Museum, Raghnall Ó Floinn, talks about his plans to innovate in a frugal age and how to deal with kids wielding Bronze Age swords
Gallagh Man, a bog body discovered in Co Galway, at an exhibition in the National Museum. Photographs: Matt Kavanagh
Raghnall Ó Floinn: ‘There should be free entrance to museums. That’s something I would defend to the death.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley
The Natural History Museum. Photograph: Frank Miller
The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. Courtesy National Gallery of Ireland
The new director of the National Museum of Ireland sits in his pleasant modern office and contemplates his empire. There is the core archaeological collection, on Kildare Street in Dublin; the Natural History on Merrion Street; Decorative Arts and History at Collins Barracks; and at Turlough Park, Co Mayo, Country Life.
Whatever way you look at it, that is an awful lot of heritage. “We have everything from insects through to aircraft,” says Raghnall Ó Floinn. Gold jewellery and costume jewellery. Chinese porcelain and Viking swords. Frogs in alcohol and 19th-century wallpaper. How many objects does the museum have in its care?
“Pick a number,” he says. Four million, I’ve read somewhere. He smiles. “Yes. If you count every single shard of pottery and every single postage stamp. Which you don’t – although it’s still material that we have to look after and answer for. We reckon that our core collections are of the order of 700,000.”
Ó Floinn got hooked on archaeology when, at the age of 15, he worked for a week on the excavation of Dublin High Street with Breandán Ó Ríordáin, one of his predecessors as director.
Ó Floinn studied geography and archaeology at University College Dublin, followed by an MA in medieval pottery that he funded by working part time at the Wood Quay excavations, on the south bank of the Liffey in Dublin. He joined the museum as a field archaeologist. He still recalls his digging days with immediacy and enthusiasm.
Ó Floinn and a colleague were sent to Co Westmeath once to investigate a Bronze Age cist burial. “When a farmer is ploughing, the capstone is often dislodged and the soil falls in – so effectively you’re trying to make sure you don’t disturb the skeleton and the vessel underneath,” he says. That’s what they were doing when Ó Floinn noticed another large slab across the field.
“We lifted the slab and there, completely undisturbed, were two Bronze Age food vessels with a pile of cremated bone in a perfect kind of cone, which had been placed there 4,000 years ago. The idea that you were the first to look in there in 4,000 years was incredible.”
Fascination with bog bodies
This spine-tingling sensation is turned up to 11 with bog bodies, which hold a particular fascination, not just for archaeologists but for the general public. Which, Ó Floinn says, is understandable. “The whole idea of being able to stare into the face of someone who lived so many years ago – you don’t even need a facial reconstruction to be able to see the fingernails and toenails and the contours of the body – is astonishing.”
He says he maintains a scientific detachment about whether it is appropriate to disturb human remains and then store or display them in a museum, but he acknowledges that many people – including his wife – take a very different view. Much depends on the age of the body, he says. Bog bodies such as that of “Cashel man”, which dates back 4,000 years, offer untold opportunities for study. More recent bodies – Famine victims or unbaptised children – are a different matter. “In cases like that there has been no question but that they would be reburied.”
Coming face to face with the past is Ó Floinn’s forte. In his new incarnation as director of the National Museum of Ireland, however, he has also come face to face with the future. It is a time of cuts in the public service and reductions in Government funding. At the same time, public expectations are soaring. People travel or go online to look at museum websites from all over the world and expect Ireland’s museums to be of a similar standard.
The prospect of having to reduce staff numbers clearly bothers Ó Floinn, who says the museum has always been understaffed compared with institutions in Northern Ireland and Scotland. And almost everything he would like to do more of – digitisation, inventories, outreach – requires more, not less, cash.
He has, however, a number of budget-conscious plans to put on the table. One is to use Collins Barracks for small conferences and events, perhaps even concerts, to generate revenue. Another is to broaden the range of exhibitions to attract people who would not normally visit the museum, such as, in recent years, shows connected with Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition and Philip Treacy’s hats.
For Ó Floinn, co-operation and lateral thinking will also be the name of the 21st-century game. “We loaned some material for the JFK exhibition at the National Library recently and we would like to do more of that,” he says.
Plans are afoot to celebrate the decade of commemorations through joint shows with Trinity College Library and National Museums Northern Ireland.
He also has his eye on Daniel Maclise’s painting The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, which is being restored at the National Gallery. “There are references in that painting to architecture, to objects of all kinds,” he says. “There could be an exhibition here to supplement the re-hanging of the picture, with material which would highlight the artist’s influences.”
Within the museum itself, cross-disciplinary approaches are likely to prove fruitful. “We could do, for example, not just childhood in rural Ireland but childhood right through from prehistory to modern times,” he says. “It would be interesting to see what perspective a social historian of the early 19th or 20th century might have looking back at the limited amount of material that we have from, say, Viking Dublin – or even earlier.”
Children, the museum audiences of the future, he adds, would love it. “One of the great joys I had a number of years ago,” Ó Floinn says, “was going into my old primary school, Scoil Lorcáin, with a couple of archaeological objects. The joy, the thrill, that children get from seeing and handling something that’s 7,000 years old. They can be very imaginative. Sometimes too imaginative.” He chuckles. “At one stage one of them tried to lash out with a Bronze Age sword.”
One thing he won’t be doing, he says, is charging entrance fees.
“There should be free entrance to museums. That’s something I would defend to the death. It’s a fundamental right of people to access their own patrimony. It’s a line in the sand. If we pass that line, as a national museum, we will have lost the plot.”