Presenting the past

 

To win one major award could conceivably be put down to luck, but to win a whole succession of them leaves little doubt that the honour is deserved. For Dublin-born Cel Phelan, the prestigious Council of Europe Museum Prize is just the latest accolade her company has picked up for museum design. A native of Shankill, Co Dublin, Celestine Phelan has lived in England with her husband Bill since the early 1970s. With a background in RTE, she says that she fell into the area of museum design by accident. "I was asked, more or less out of the blue, whether I would do the research for a British pavilion at the Vancouver World Fair. I have a background in script and research work for both radio and television, so I took it on." It was on this project that she met her creative partner, Steve Simons, and the success of the whole Vancouver venture convinced them to set up their own museum and visitor-centre design company, Event, in 1986. While Cel's husband Bill is the managing director, it is Cel and Steve who are the creative forces behind the company.

"Steve and I decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, after Vancouver, that we would do our own thing. He's a designer through and through and he's extremely gifted. To oversee the content, that's my baby. My task is also to bring in the business and to liaise with our clients and make sure that they're happy. Steve is the creative director. He has an input into all the presentational side."

Over 15 years in existence, Event is now Europe's largest company specialising in museum design work. The group has been responsible for some high-profile exhibits over the years, including presentations at the Imperial War Museum and the Tower of London in the UK, and the new Book of Kells exhibition at Trinity College Dublin. With current projects including the presentation of the Chester Beatty Library artefacts in Dublin Castle and an interpretative centre on the life of St Patrick, it seems that Event is scooping just about every major commission when it comes to the public business of interpreting the past.

Phelan explains that part of the reason for the company's success may be the fact that Event came along at a time when the whole concept of the museum was changing. As the company moved with and helped to effect that change, it became central in defining the museum in a way that would leave the original Victorian concept a long way behind.

"Museums have changed hugely, and we've been very lucky to be part of that, because in the 15 years that we've been in business, everything has happened. One was that museums in Britain started to charge for entry, and that actually changed their attitude. Instead of not bothering how many people came in through the door, they now had a reduced grant from the state and so they became dependent on their visitors.

"A technology revolution has taken place. Now you can go as deeply as you wish into any particular piece of information. It may be that Mr and Mrs Murphy and their three children only want a certain amount of information that will involve, interest and engage them. But it may be that Mr Kelly down the road wants to really explore how the Vikings impacted on Waterford, or whatever. You can put all that on CD, it can be there as deep as you like. There are so many opportunities to use new technology."

But it is not only in the use of technology that the modern museum has changed; it is more fundamental than that. The entire emphasis has shifted to the idea of the museum "experience" - an experience designed to bring the public through from beginning to end. In a new minimalist approach to displaying museum holdings, artefacts are chosen carefully to construct a story-line through which the public navigates. In museums designed by Event, it is Cel Phelan's responsibility to oversee the construction of that narrative. By consulting with experts and her researchers, she works out a storyline. But whatever story she is working on, there are some common things that she aims to achieve.

"You want the highs and lows, sometimes the more contemplative side. You want the excitement, you want a big finale, you want a big "wow" so that people are actually going to go out satisfied at the end."

Critics of the interpretative centre idea would argue that there is an element of the Disney aesthetic involved. Not only is there a dumbing-down at play, but the interpretation is filtering the experience for the public and limiting the range of interpretations available to them. For Cel Phelan, such dangers are to be carefully avoided.

`Some visitor or heritage centres are more successful than others, but at their best, rather than filtering the experience, they should really be involving people in looking and in experiencing the real. They're not a substitute for the real, they should be an enabling factor to encourage people to get more from what they have seen. That is very much what we endeavour to do."

The other danger is that those who commission the exhibition may attempt to influence the interpretation, to ensure that it conforms to a limiting political perspective. This is something Phelan is also aware of, but which, she says, she has never encountered. In her view, it is more likely that her clients will want to tell the entire story. As examples, she cites her work on the first World War exhibit, In Flanders Fields, and an exhibition on the 1798 rebellion in Enniscorthy.

"The project that just won the Council of Europe prize, In Flanders Fields, which tells the story of the first World War, is a very emotional project: the war as seen through the eyes of ordinary people. There are no generals or dates, and everything is expressed in quotations, in the words of the time. There are four stories - English, French, German and Flemish - and they are told consecutively. The stories are told in parallel. The citizens of Ypres [in Belgium] commissioned this project, and they wanted to tell all the stories, but we have dealt with many sensitive issues, for example 1798. "There our client was extremely anxious that all sides should be told, that there were many different viewpoints. In fact, there is one area of the exhibition where four different points of view are given. Then, finally, the point is made that this presentation that we have just done is another point-of-view again. It's not cast in stone. It's that sort of historiography: presenting the history of the history. Maybe we've just been lucky, but I think there is a great maturity now in wishing to tell the totality of the story."

It was this kind of plurality of interpretation which was commended by the Council of Europe in awarding its prize for the In Flanders Fields project. Less contentious projects such the traditional music museum, Ceol, in Smithfield in Dublin have also been commended. In allowing ordinary people to tell the story of traditional music themselves, the heavy-handed authoritative voice is avoided in the Ceol experience. Indeed, recent Irish museums, like Ceol, point the way forward for Cel Phelan. She particularly praises new museums such as the one at Collins Barracks for representing the future of Irish museum design.

"I saw Collins Barracks before it was developed and I like the way it has been brought to life very imaginatively. I love the use of colour in it. I think that many of the displays are very fine. It is the first time that the range of the artefacts which are part of the national collection have become available. And I think their marketing is rather good. I feel it is a big big step forward for museum design in Ireland."

The design foe the new Chester Beauty Library may also mark a big step forward for the Irish Museum. As Phelan explains, the collection divides naturally into the sacred and the secular. The new presentation will emphasise this division, with the secular works on the lower floor and the sacred ones on the top floor, "closer to heaven". As with other museums deigned by Event, there will be a strong use of colour in the New Chester Beatty. Each of the three major strands of the collection - the Christian or Western, the ?Islamic and the Oriental - will be represented by different coloured exhibition spaces. In minimalist design, with long views and vistas leading naturally tot he major exhibits, Phelan says the public can expect to find "a classic showcase" when the new library opens on February 67th. If Cel Phelan's track record of trophy winning is anything to go by, the new Chester Beatty might just add another accolade to her collection.

With such an impressive list of awards behind her, it can be taken that Cel Phelan knows what she is talking about. The opening of the new Chester Beatty Library in March might just add another trophy to her collection.