Culture Shock: Death by a thousand cuts – the terrible way we treat our national library and national museum

These precious institutions came from a 19th-century optimism about the spread of literacy and enlightenment. Now nobody with any power gives a damn about them

Donation: the late Seamus Heaney and his wife, Marie, at the National Library of Ireland in 2011, when he gave his archive to the institution. Bryan O’Brien

Donation: the late Seamus Heaney and his wife, Marie, at the National Library of Ireland in 2011, when he gave his archive to the institution. Bryan O’Brien

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Both the National Museum of Ireland and the National Library of Ireland, which stand either side of Leinster House on Kildare Street in Dublin, were constructed by the firm of J & W Beckett Builders. The W in this partnership of brothers was William, grandfather of Samuel Beckett. This seems sadly apt. Beckett is the great laureate of decrepitude and neglect, qualities that cling to these great national institutions. Like Beckett characters, both seem to exist on the edge of extinction, with moments of hope succeeded by the realisation that they exist in a universe indifferent to their fate. It was a black joke worthy of Sam himself to place them so close to the centre of political power while ensuring that in reality they inhabit the back of beyond.

There’s another irony in those buildings too. If you look at their physical fabric you see a burgeoning national pride. Both institutions had their origins in the civic efforts of the great and the good, through the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Irish Academy. But both also came from a 19th-century optimism about the spread of literacy and enlightenment. This engagement culminated in the creation of a national museum and a national library. The irony is that these important statements about Irish nationality, embodied in collections that emphasised distinctively Irish materials, were made under British rule. When you look around the Kildare Street buildings, opened in 1890, you can’t help but be struck by how superbly appointed they are, with their wonderful rotundas, their stained glass and mosaics, their Italian woodwork and elaborate carvings. The bad Brits threw a lot of money at these expressions of Irish collective memory.

And now? Nobody with any power gives a damn about them. The National Library is a disaster waiting to happen: most of its collections are not even covered by a sprinkler system, so a fire could destroy them at any time. Most Irish universities now have vastly better storage facilities for precious materials than the National Library does.

International practice is for collections to be stored off site in secure, waterproof and fireproof buildings, but in Dublin the 1890 building and its adjuncts still house the bulk of the ever-growing collection in primitive conditions.

The photographic archive in Temple Bar, one of the positive developments in the library’s recent history, is in danger of closure because cutbacks have made staffing levels unsustainable. Acquisitions have all but dried up. Last year the acquisitions budget was €300,000. To put this in perspective, Emory library in Atlanta, one of the main collectors of contemporary Irish manuscripts, has an acquisitions budget of $10.6 million (€8.2 million). The exhibition on WB Yeats in the library’s fine visitor area is superb – but it has been up since 2006, as there’s no money to change it.

The National Museum, meanwhile, confirmed to my colleague Lorna Siggins this week that it is closing some galleries because it does not have attendants to supervise them. It has ended guided tours at its natural-history branch (the Dead Zoo, where a significant part of the collection is now inaccessible) and its branch for decorative arts and history, at Collins Barracks.

The museum was a little luckier than the library, in that it got an off-site storage facility (in Swords) before the crash, but it is struggling even to keep its exhibition facilities – especially the country-life branch, in Castlebar – open.

There’s a simple explanation for all of this: money. In 2008 the library and the museum got €30.8 million in public funding between them. Last year they got €17.9 million. All publicly funded organisations have suffered, but these cuts are especially savage. Their effect is all the greater because both institutions were only beginning to recover during the boom from decades of neglect. The library, in particular, had not made it to a minimally acceptable state before the axe fell. As the historian Donnchadh Ó Corrain has pointed out, it was, even at the height of the boom, smaller than the national library of Albania. What has been cut is not fat but flesh and bone.

The madness of starving these institutions to the point of unsustainability is that public interest in what they do is booming. The digital revolution has opened up the possibility of a golden age in access to the national collections. But even the old-fashioned and indispensable business of preserving and opening up physical books, manuscripts and objects is doing very well. The physical National Library has recorded an 85 per cent increase in visits since 2009, alongside 7.3 million interactions on the web last year. Each of the National Museum’s three Dublin sites is among the top-10 visitor attractions in the city, and the Castlebar site’s numbers are up 25 per cent this year. Public demand is huge and growing while the structures to satisfy that demand are tiny and dwindling.

We’ve reached the point where the Government has to decide: do we want a national museum and a national library at all? If money is the only consideration, the Tara Brooch and James Joyce’s manuscripts might be worth a few bob on the open market. Or, if we have as much pride in Ireland as the British had in 1890, we might value its collective memory more highly. fotoole@irishtimes.com

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