The National Museum on Kildare Street was built by the firm of J and W Beckett, respectively grandfather and granduncle of Samuel Beckett. This seems somehow apt. There is a black and bleak humour to the way the Seanad is moving in on the building – and this Beckettian tone is about the only part of this disgraceful saga that shows any awareness of Ireland's artistic and cultural heritage. Otherwise it takes philistinism to a whole new level.
One of the key institutions on which an Irish identity is founded is being disrupted for the convenience of an arm of the State so lacking in legitimacy that it was saved from abolition only by promises that it would be radically reformed. The arrogance displayed in this affair suggests that its near-death experience has taught the Seanad nothing.
I’ve had the pleasure in recent years of working with many of the staff of the National Museum on the “History of Ireland in 100 Objects” project (which will take on a new form in January when it becomes the basis for the new series of definitive postage stamps from An Post). You couldn’t meet a less precious or inward-looking bunch of people. They care very deeply about what they do as scholars and curators, but they also have a real desire to share the things they know and the objects they care for with citizens and with the world.
When they feel belittled and undermined by the “temporary” Seanad takeover of the spaces that the museum uses for its public outreach work, it’s not because they’re ivory tower intellectuals defending their patch. It’s because one of the State’s central cultural institutions has been put on notice that it exists at the whim of a small group of politicians and officials.
The first thing to note about the Seanad's move on to the museum's territory (which has already started) is that no one is properly accountable for it. It is entirely driven by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (HOC), the body that runs Leinster House. It exists solely to serve the interests of the Oireachtas itself – it has no brief to make decisions for any other institution, such as the National Museum. So in this saga, it has looked into its own heart and considered only what is most expedient for Leinster House. The only real question it has asked is how the members of the Seanad and the officials who serve them can suffer the least possible inconvenience while their debating chamber is being refurbished. Its answer is determined solely by what suits its own purposes. The national interest in having independent and dignified cultural institutions is simply neither here nor there.
Don't take my word for this. Read the opinion piece in this week's Irish Times by Peter Finnegan, clerk of Dáil Éireann and member of the HOC. It sets out four criteria on which the decision to annex part of the museum was taken. Each of the four relates to the convenience of the Senators and staff. The role of the museum, its statutory independence, and the implications of the Anschluss for the status of all the major cultural institutions, do not feature at all.
Finnegan claims that “this decision was reached through dialogue, negotiations and agreement between all parties”. This strikes me as disingenuous: the HOC went through its own process of deciding where it wanted to move the Seanad chamber and then discussed the terms of this move with the board of the museum.
The HOC then rushed out an announcement that "agreement" had been reached and began the process of moving in to the museum almost immediately. This last fact would not have been at all obvious from Peter Finnegan's Irish Times column, in which he suggested merely that "we can now begin planning for the temporary relocation of the Seanad chamber".
The idea that this process is all lovely and consensual is belied by an important statement in that column. The clerk of the Dáil makes it clear that the process of decision was one in which the HOC looked at various options and excluded every single one of them except the temporary annexation of part of the National Museum: “All of the various location options were eliminated for real and practical reasons.”
But if you’ve eliminated every other option, it is blindingly obvious that you have decided on the only one left standing. So the HOC fixed on the museum as the one and only choice before it came to any agreement with the board of the museum. The process was like Henry Ford’s “choice” of colour for the Model T: anything could be agreed so long as it was that the Seanad was moving to the museum. The board of the museum – a new board appointed over the summer and faced with this fait accompli as the first item on its agenda – had a “choice”: go to war with the political establishment next door or try to make the best of a humiliating situation.
But the museum is supposed to have a protector within the political system – the Department of the Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs . Minister for the Arts Heather Humphreys told the Dáil that she had no role in all of this except to "facilitate the relocation request". That should terrify every cultural institution in Ireland.