TOP JOB: Catherine Morris has the enviable job of cultural co-ordinator at Trinity College. What’s that exactly? To share the university’s resources with other institutions, starting with the National Library, where she organised the current exhibition on feminist Alice Milligan, writes ROSITA BOLAND
CATHERINE MORRIS MAY have not only the loveliest office in Trinity College, but also the best job title on campus. In October, she was given the job of the university’s first cultural co-ordinator, a joint appointment between Trinity and the National Library of Ireland.
Morris’s office is located in Trinity’s landmark new building, the strikingly modernist Hub adjacent to the Long Room. Inside, an atrium and irregular windows that cleverly frame fragments of campus create blades of light throughout the interior. It’s a space both aesthetic and stimulating, and seems to perfectly match the work being carried on there, which is arts and humanities research. So what does a cultural co-ordinator do?
“It’s about connecting the university with cultural institutions across the city,” Morris says. As part of this, she has helped create the syllabus for two new master’s programmes that will have their first intake this autumn; one in digital humanities and culture and the second in public history.
“They will each provide students with specialised skills, supported by a series of internships in cultural institutions across the city.” Among those already signed up as partners are the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives, the Hugh Lane Gallery and the Chester Beatty Library.
What Morris wants to achieve is to provide other tangential learning experiences for students outside the lecture theatre, experiences that might lead them in other directions as they explore what they want to do.
“So if you had an internship working at a gallery or a museum on a project, even if you are not going to be a curator or an archivist, you’ll have learned a range of other skills in the meantime,” she explains. “You’ll have learned what it is like to interact with the public, with objects and with an arts and culture environment. That’s a very different experience to attending a lecture with fellow students who are all your peers.”
Morris herself had almost completed her schooling before she became aware of the arts. Born in Liverpool to “a big working-class family”, she describes the day that became a catalyst to her. When she was 17, a presenter from the BBC 4 arts radio show Kaleidoscope,came to her school and took her class to the Tate, guiding them around its key exhibits.
“I had never been in an art gallery in my life. People like me didn’t go to art galleries. That day changed my life. It opened up the world for me.” She went on to win a place to study literature at Cambridge, where she says “I was the only working-class person there that I was aware of.”
Morris hopes that the practical experience gained via the internships in the new courses will help students to start thinking in other ways. For instance, in the past, students generally worked in isolation while off campus, as they were usually looking at archival material for their own research. However, an internship in the same library or archive would provide the student with a visceral and challenging interaction with similar material.
“If it was something to do with cultural heritage, you could have an archivist pick out some papers, and ask the student how they would go about exhibiting them, and writing about them in a way accessible to the public.”
Two new courses to be launched next autumn are part of Trinity’s commitment to share resources and work with cultural institutions across Dublin. Modules will include cultural heritage and the shaping of the past; curating art in theory and practice; and theory and practice of digital humanities. As part of the background research to putting together the syllabus, Morris visited a number of universities and cultural institutions in Liverpool, London, Paris and New York to analyse how they had successfully created ways of working together.
“At one point, Columbia discovered that, despite the fact their students were right in the centre of Manhattan, that they were staying on campus.” Students are now encouraged to regard all of Manhattan as their “campus”, and availing of what it has to offer.” “What I want is for all our students to have a full-on engagement with arts and culture right across Dublin,” Morris says. She talks about the possibility of creating “integrated experiences”, where students across all disciplines would have an element of cultural engagement with the city.
After Cambridge, Morris did her doctorate at Aberdeen. Doing post-doctoral research at University College Dublin, she became interested in the life of Alice Milligan, a Tyrone-born cultural and political activist, who was involved in the Irish cultural revival. Her research developed into a book and also to an exhibition at the National Library, which has been running since November. “Arts and culture was at the centre of civic society in the early 20th century. Everything was embedded in a broader archive,” she states. “I believe archives are not just about the past, they are also a way of looking into the future.”
You can see Morris in action in the National Library in Dublin next Tueday, International Women’s Day, where she’ll be talking about Alice Milligan.
See tcd.ie/longroomhub for details.