A national dialogue inspired by museum objects acting as agents of memory

A new book explores how the National Museum of Ireland marked the Decade of Centenaries

Pathways to Participation: Engagement and Learning at the National Museum of Ireland during the Decade of Centenaries examines ways in which the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) commemorated events associated with the complex period in Irish history between 1912 and 1923, and the ways in which it invited the public to take part in a public engagement programme that was challenging, reflective and inclusive.

The motivation behind producing this book was to document and learn from the museum’s commemorative public programme delivered between 2012 and 2018. It examines the significance of the NMI’s commemorative exhibitions, including the hugely popular Proclaiming a Republic: the 1916 Rising, and the enormous potential of objects displayed in this and other exhibitions in fostering historical empathy, interrogating our understandings of the past and influencing viewpoints about the present. The book also reflects on the different elements of the public engagement programme, led by the Education & Learning Department at the National Museum between 2012 and 2018. This programme created opportunities for intergenerational dialogue, for sharing stories and perspectives about the past and present and for revealing new insights into this revolutionary period in Irish history.

The authors of the 13 chapters in Pathways to Participation come from a range of fields and practices as academics, archaeologists, artists, curators, community and cultural leaders, educators, politicians and policy makers. Along with their insightful and inspiring reflections, the book captures the spoken words of a range of people who participated in the museum’s public programme between 2012 and 2018.

Significant themes emerge from the book’s chapters which resonate with the National Museum of Ireland’s role as a public and social institution. These chapters are grouped into four sections.


In section one, cultural critic Luke Gibbons writes about the means by which we remember and commemorate the past, and how museums can play a key role in facilitating a dialogue between the past and the present. Dr Audrey Whitty, Deputy Director and Head of Collections and Learning at the National Museum, describes the museum’s different commemorative exhibitions and highlights how personal objects, such as those displayed in the Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising exhibition, are powerful in evoking an emotional response from audiences. Joanna Brück, Professor of Archaeology at University College Dublin, argues that objects possess unique qualities and offer insights into complex histories that challenge us to think afresh about relationships between the past and the present. She advocates for museums to engage with communities by using objects as inspiration for dialogue.

The chapters in the second section of Pathways to Participation explore the role of the National Museum of Ireland as a social and civic space, where the public can engage in dialogue about sensitive and contested histories using multiple avenues for engagement and learning. This section explores how the museum’s education department collaborated with diverse communities in dialogue about the themes and events around the Decade of Centenaries in a manner that was inclusive, collaborative and democratic.

In chapter four three panellists, Ivana Bacik TD, Mary McAuliffe, Director of Gender Studies at UCD, and Judith McCarthy, Curator at Donegal County Museum, discuss how museums could benefit from greater engagement with communities and how commemorative events related to the Decade of Centenaries have deepened public interest in women’s history in particular.

In chapter five, Helen Beaumont and Siobhan Pierce, education officers at the National Museum of Ireland, reflect on how the museum’s conference programme facilitated the sharing of knowledge, ideas, multiple perspectives and experiences and revealed fresh insights into this complex revolutionary period in Irish history. Tom Doyle, assistant education officer at the National Museum of Ireland, documents the range of events delivered as part of the Beyond Sackville Street and the Somme programme and highlights rural communities’ participation in these events.

In the last two chapters in this section, Lorna Elms, Project Development Officer of iCAN, presents a model of community engagement founded on the principles of inclusion, trust and ownership, applied in developing the Our Irish Women exhibition. She explores the museum’s active role in building trusting and sustainable relationships with communities and underlines the value of investing in long-term partnerships involving museum staff and individuals, local communities and organisations.

Gary Granville, Emeritus Professor of Education of the National College of Art and Design, discusses a model of learning, applied by the National Museum and other museums and galleries, which is student centred and supported by a learning environment that is democratic, inclusive and allows for risk taking, where learning outcomes are unpredicted. He points to the value and significance of this model of learning which enriches the learning experience for students, deepening their empathy and inspiring their capacity for greater civic responsibility.

The third section of Pathways to Participation explores how artists can create opportunities for people to tackle old certainties and to express what it is to be human in the face of sensitive and complex histories. Artist Alison Conneely, as curator of the exhibition The Shuttle Hive, a Century of Threads, reflects on how contemporary Irish textile design can respond to and challenge historical and political issues, and how participation in creative collectives can become an active platform for revisiting lost memories and sharing experiences.

Deborah Kelleher, Director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, highlights how music can facilitate an emotional engagement with history and with those who struggled to make a difference for others. Maureen Kennelly, former director of Poetry Ireland and current director of the Arts Council, recalls the rich legacy of women’s writing and the impact of creative expression and the arts on Irish life. In the final chapter of this section poet, novelist and playwright Dermot Bolger reflects on his experience as the inaugural writer in residence at the National Museum of Ireland in 2016. He recounts on how his residency supported his own writing and facilitated his engagement with the public in an imaginative exploration of what it was like to live through the first World War and the Easter Rising.

In the final chapter of Pathways to Participation, an inspiring and thought-provoking conversation between poet Paula Meehan and policy analyst Michael O’ Reilly explores the relationship between memory and the museum. They reflect on the significance of museums as sites of healing, trust and dignity and as spaces where truth is pursued and where dreams can be awakened. They call on museums to provide for the integration of familial histories and stories that are inclusive of those who now identify as being Irish in Ireland today.

In the words of Mary Shine Thompson, co-editor with me of Pathways to Participation: Engagement and Learning at the National Museum of Ireland during the Decade of Centenaries:

‘Commemoration is about making history, about communities sifting through and re-evaluating past events. Imaginative commemoration can re-member forgotten people, alternative perspectives and mislaid stories. It can dis-member self-deceiving mythologies. Although national commemorations necessarily reflect official narratives, they are also forums on which complex, contradictory group and national identities can be explored. Pathways to Participation reflects on how the National Museum of Ireland approached the challenge that commemorating the Decade of Centenaries presented to it. Its open, democratic mode of response is reflected in the book’s diverse voices and conversations. Its subject matter elevates not only the shreds and patches of material objects that survived a century or more, but also the mundane concerns that underlie great history and great art.’

In Pathways to Participation, it is evident that museums are arguably more important than ever in society as social, cultural and political spaces where communities can come together, virtually and in person, and engage in dialogue about what matters to them and to society. This dialogue can be inspired by the power of museum objects to act as agents of memory, recalling the humanity of forgotten lives and opening up new ways of engaging with sensitive histories. The Decade of Centenaries commemorative public programme at the National Museum of Ireland was a springboard for dialogue and honest conversations, in which communities shared experiences of and perspectives on a formative period in Ireland’s recent past. The museum listened to those discussions, and learned from them. It resolved to continue to build other pathways for participation as an inclusive, democratic and relevant museum.

Lorraine Comer is Head of Education at the National Museum of Ireland