Sea change: a fresh identity for Galway City Museum

The museum has established itself since its bumpy start in 2006. Even recent flooding couldn’t hurt it. Director Eithne Verling lays out her plans, including a chronology of the city and a maritime emphasis

Mon, Jan 20, 2014, 01:00

If cities mirror their natural habitats, Galway should be bursting with energy right now – 18 million litres per second of energy, in fact, which is the estimated volume of rapids racing through bridge arches as the Corrib crashes its way into the bay.

Combine the river in spate with high spring tides and hurricane winds, and it has been a busy start to the new year for Eithne Verling, the director of Galway City Museum.

At the height of the recent storms, the building’s basement at Spanish Arch flooded. Fortunately, a pump was activated, ensuring there was no serious damage to the part of the collection kept there. “We were lucky, given what happened to businesses close by,” says Verling. “For us, it could have been so much worse.”

The museum is now making a real impact in the city after a very bumpy start more than seven years ago. The €9.6 million project was funded by the EU and Galway City Council to replace the civic museum at Comerford House, run valiantly for years with scarce resources by curator Bill Scanlan.

The new waterfront building, designed by the Office of Public Works team of Ciaran O’Connor and Ger Harvey, won a Bank of Ireland Opus architectural award, with the citation describing it as a “cultural metaphor for a dynamic Galway”.

However, it took some time to forge its identity, with issues arising over the extent of National Museum of Ireland consultation, over the absence of ultraviolet screening on its large windows – which led to the return of the 19th-century Claddagh cloak or “Galway shawl” on loan from Dublin – and over plans, subsequently abandoned, to charge for entry.

Breandán Ó hEaghra, seconded by the city council to work as deputy to director Sarah Gillespie, worked hard to change tack, reaching out to the city’s arts community. There was another fresh start when the museum was refurbished in 2011. It reopened in time for that year’s Galway Arts Festival, with several exhibitions, including a “people’s history of Galway” and the paintings of Irish impressionist Charles Lamb, forming part of the festival’s visual arts programme.


Verling’s path to the museum
By then, Verling had been commissioned on a consultancy basis to project-manage the new exhibitions schedule. Verling began her professional career as an archaeologist, and she is a former curator of Donegal County Museum.

In June 2013, she was appointed director of Galway City Museum to succeed Gillespie, who had left two years before. Her immediate ambition is to build on visitor numbers – now about 150,000 annually – which makes Galway’s museum, after Holy Cross Abbey in Co Tipperary, the most visited non-fee-paying attraction in the country outside of Dublin. It is a “signature location” on Fáilte Ireland’s west coast driving route, the Wild Atlantic Way.

Verling aims to host a series of exhibitions to strengthen the museum’s community focus and make it relevant, she says. With good news sense, after the theft of six finished gouache Stations of the Cross from Kiltullagh church near Athenry, she mounted an exhibition last October of most of the remaining works in that Evie Hone series, securing loans from University of Limerick, Loughrea Heritage and Development Association and local Kiltullagh priest Fr Martin McNamara.

A six-month programme of events has been published, and a dedicated case in the foyer is now open for curation by local groups. The incumbents are pupils from Gaelscoil Mhic Amhlaigh in Knocknacarra, and there are plans to curate personal histories of older residents of the suburb of Mervue.

Galway is the State’s most multicultural city, according to census figures, while also being gateway to the largest Gaeltacht – hence a forthcoming exhibition on spoken Irish and minority languages, and on the city’s many cultural links dating back to its medieval trading port origins.

Verling is also planning an exhibition on the experience of emigration, with current figures of those departing now similar to those of 1848. A link between these two – language and emigration – is the writer and author Pádraic Ó Conaire, whose sculpture has been housed in the building since the reinstatement of his head, which had been decapitated by vandals in Eyre Square. He emigrated from Ros Muc to London in 1899, where he worked with the Gaelic League.


Chronology of the city
Verling intends to “strengthen the narrative” of the permanent exhibits to ensure there is a seamless transition for the visitor from pre-history

to early and on to post- medieval.

“We will have a fully realised archaeological gallery on the ground floor, with a good chronology of the city,” she explains. “Our primary emphasis this year will be to build on our location as perhaps the most westerly museum in Europe, and so there is a strong maritime dimension to that.”

With this in mind, a comprehensive exhibition on the Galway hooker will involve a three-dimensional map of Galway Bay, identifying the various hooker fleets, the dialects used by their skippers and crews, and the different cargoes they transported – from stone to timber to peat and fish. “Pisreogs” or superstitions associated with the craft along with cures known to Claddagh residents have been collected, as have tools used to build and restore craft such as poet Richard Murphy’s Galway hooker, The True Light.

“We even have birdcages, because the Claddagh fishermen used to trap goldfinches and linnets when they weren’t fishing, and every house had a cage,” she says.

Complementing this will be two interactive exhibitions on marine science themes: as in a virtual submarine voyage through the bay, developed with NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute and the Galway Education Centre, and a focus on navigation and the night sky.

The latter, also involving NUI Galway academics, will take an interactive look at the history of longitude, the transition from sextant to GPS, and satellite. It will focus on case histories such as the adventures of late submarine and yachtsman Commander Bill King of Oranmore and the work of the Marine Institute’s Galway-based research vessels. The concept of navigation will be extended to the river and the great western lakes, and to the life cycles of inhabitants such as the eel and salmon, Verling says.


European City of Culture bid
She also has long-term plans. From her storm-spattered office window, one can spot the chrysalis of the Picture Palace, the arthouse cinema with a protracted construction history, which will be central to the city’s bid for a Unesco city of film designation.

Together with the museum and other buildings in the vicinity acquired by the city council, it forms a new cultural quarter. Define it as a heritage quarter and it extends to Mutton Island lighthouse, to Comerford museum by the Spanish Arch and to the Fisheries Tower on the Corrib.

Having been turned down some years ago in favour of Cork, which has its opera house, Galway is determined to secure a European City of Culture designation in 2020. Verling and neighbours will be central to that bid, but it will include public consultation as an essential primary stage, she says. Even if the Limerick City of Culture debacle had not occurred, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.


Galway City Museum opens Tuesday to Saturday. Admission is free. A programme of events from now to June, including children’s art workshops, archaeology, dance and storytelling, illustrated talks, lectures, workshops, music, dance and film screenings, at galwaycitymuseum.ie, 091-532460

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