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
Director Eithne Verling in Galway City Museum, beside the statue of Pádraic Ó Conaire that had its head removed by vandals before being repaired. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Galway City Museum photographed from beneath the Spanish Arch
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.