Smashing the imaginative limits of museums

The Ulysses Centre aspires to reveal Joyce in a more innovative way

"This the way to the museyroom. Mind your hats goan in!" So says the museum guide early in Finnegans Wake, as visitors to Dublin are taken on a tour of the city, with, of course, a museum as a prominent part of the offering. And at the end of the visit, they are advised: "Mind your boots goan out." So the visit to the "museyroom" has in fact been a tour through a giant body, from head to toe, among many other things.

It is safe to say that the Finnegans Wake "museyroom" experience is unlikely to be replicated anywhere else, either in life or literature. But its very uniqueness does – peculiarly, perhaps – raise an important issue for museums today.

Museums in the 21st century face particular and special challenges: in an age of digital communication, when an image – almost any image – can be summoned up effortlessly on an electronic device, why go to the trouble of visiting an actual institution just to see the supposed “original”? Does the word “original” have meaning any longer in this context? In other words, the mere displaying of objects, even uniquely valuable objects, no longer, of itself, justifies a museum’s existence; something more is required to render a visit to a museum worthwhile.

That “something more” can perhaps best be summed up in the term “experience”. Visitors need to feel that they have actually been engaged with something, that they have received an increment, not just of knowledge but of semi-visceral experience, that has made the trip – sometimes lengthy, costly and time-consuming – worthwhile.

A distinction probably needs to be made between museums in general and the special category of art museums, or art galleries (as they are less and less frequently called). Objects displayed in art galleries still retain enough of what Walter Benjamin called "aura", the items they display still possess enough uniqueness, however frayed around the edges they may be in some instances (eg The Mona Lisa), to render a visit to these institutions still an indispensable part of any cultural calendar.

New churches

In a sense, the very fact that they are displayed in such places automatically confers an aura on them – makes them, as Alain de Botton has claimed, the new churches. Indeed, the importance attached to their design these days would confirm this exalted status – in some cases, eg Bilbao, the building seems to matter far more than the content.

But non-art museums are in a different category: the items they display do not, in general, possess this kind of aura, they are not, in general, conventionally beautiful in themselves: their importance lies elsewhere; and defining that “elsewhere”, making it understandable and meaningful to people who have only so much time and attention span to devote to it, is a serious challenge.

Most of the major museums, in Ireland and elsewhere, are 19th-century institutions, and have considerable difficulty in adapting to the demands of the new audiences. A rare opportunity, in this country, to take on this challenge from scratch, as it were, is now being presented on St Stephen's Green, Dublin. The Ulysses Centre will be an institution focused on the life and work of James Joyce that, it is hoped, will radically expand perceptions and understandings of the writer and his world. It is no doubt significant that it is not being called a museum.

The goal of the project, according to its recently appointed director, Simon O’Connor, is wider than just the display of objects relating to Joyce and other Irish writers – though that will, in fact, form the core of the offering. The hope must be that the “aura” of the Joyce name will be sufficient to lure visitors, who will then be encouraged to stay by the items and information on display – and will then find themselves more involved than they might have expected.

The bulk of such objects will come from the National Library of Ireland, which is a partner along with University College Dublin in the Ulysses Centre project, now scheduled to open in early 2019. In the early 2000s – the era of the Celtic Tiger – the library acquired a great deal of Joyce material, mainly literary manuscripts, that would now be entirely beyond its reach, even with institutional help.

Personal material

It already possessed very significant Joyce holdings, such as the very first copy of the very first edition of Ulysses, the full manuscript of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as well as the very significant Léon papers which were opened in 1992. UCD has Joyce material of its own, such as the important Curran correspondence, which will augment the exhibitions. And there is also, as Simon O'Connor says, the possibility of loans etc from major US institutions. Most of the more personal Joyce material – letters etc – is now in these collections.

The Ulysses Centre will be mainly housed in the former Aula Maxima of UCD on Stephen’s Green. The college owns three contiguous buildings on Stephen’s Green South – the Aula Max, as it was always known to UCD students, and beside it 85 and 86 Stephen’s Green. Both these latter buildings are hugely important 18th century architectural and historic sites; they have already been carefully restored and for obvious reasons cannot be touched.

The Aula Max, however, is of relatively more recent vintage, and it is possible, to an extent, to alter its interior. It is here that the Ulysses Centre exhibition will be housed, according to a design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates. The adjoining buildings will also feature, however: considering that this is where Joyce went to college, they are obviously crucial in anchoring the authenticity of the entire experience – and authenticity is one of the things that those behind the project value most highly.

Simon O'Connor, with whom I spoke recently, already has experience in launching a start-up museum: he was the first curator of the Little Museum of Dublin, almost directly across the green. The Little Museum, founded by Trevor White, is a brilliantly innovative institution which has itself expanded the museum concept, not least by an astute policy of crowd sourcing, whereby Dublin citizens themselves donated items of civic and historical interest: the people's museum in more ways than one.

Engagement and dialogue

Clearly the Little Museum experience is very relevant to O’Connor’s current project, which can no longer by any means be described as little. His vision for the centre, which we discussed at some length, is a very wide one. One primary goal is, as he puts it, to “animate the space”: it is to be a site of activity, of engagement and of dialogue. It will, for instance, house a research centre which will pursue more advanced studies, but there will also be much wider interactions, involving school and other students, as well as a strong focus on digital media (if you can’t beat ‘em . . .)

O’Connor’s vision is resolutely anti-hierarchical: he is keenly aware of Joyce’s greatness as a writer – it goes without saying – but he is quite convinced that this “major” quality can be combined with a thoroughly accessible, thoroughly open approach to the man, his work and his time: the latter particularly matters bearing in mind that the buildings involved here are where Joyce completed his own conception of himself as an artist, defining himself largely in opposition to the intellectual and social currents around him – but these currents do matter here, if only as points of departure.

All this is to say that O’Connor has take on an exceptionally complex, but exceptionally rewarding task in trying to keep all these balls up in the air, as it were. What is perhaps most impressive about him is his quiet determination to do justice to the extremely diverse and ramified legacy that Joyce has left us.

The signifier “James Joyce” has now become so wide that it is almost impossible to bring all its diverse strands together under one roof. (Some of them, of course, eg the commercial exploitation of the writer, the occasional misuse of his work, are not ones that it is desirable to preserve.) But, given the commitment, the vision and, not least, the funding involved (supplied by the two main institutions participating, as well as by Martin and Carmel Naughton), the new Ulysses Centre may get as close to the centre of the Joycean web as any institution is ever likely to do.

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