The curators and designers of the new exhibition Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising at the National Museum of Ireland (Decorative Arts & History) at Collins Barracks had a tricky task. Charged with communicating the complex political and cultural background to the Rising, the military action of Easter week, its aftermath and memory, they have to please many audiences. Given the flood of new, revised and rehashed information on the Rising, there are now even more experts in this most-studied event to keep happy as well as the thousands of school children likely to be brought to Collins Barracks over the coming months and years. There are also many who have a personal stake in particular aspects of the Rising, whether through their family or close identification with locations. The result works in a number of registers, achieved through the layout and the powerful evocation and settings of the objects on display.
The exhibition is punctuated at the start and end by two pieces of text treated with great solemnity. The final one is a sombre listing of every one who died during the Rising, speaking of the new-found importance of acknowledging civilian casualties.
The first space is dedicated to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the significance of its proclaiming by Patrick Pearse outside the GPO emphasised by a looped recording of an actor that is audible throughout the exhibition.
The copy on display was owned by Kathleen Lynn, signed on the back by 11 of the female prisoners in Mountjoy Gaol in May 1916 and authenticated on the front by those involved in its printing. The daring of its making is well communicated by the document itself though the wonkiness of its setting, but the display in the museum of some of the type actually used in the printing of it, in the basement of Liberty Hall, emphasises the physicality of the work.
In terms of providing a cultural context to 1916, the curators have focussed on differences and cross-currents. While these may be familiar at an intellectual level, still the objects communicate what to many will seem the strangeness of the past. In particular, the rough Fianna Éireann boys’ uniform and “traditional” piper’s tunic of Éamonn Ceannt seem alien. This is not only in the way of old clothes – without a body to animate them – but in the oddness of their form. The roughness is part of it too, of course, and although we can’t touch them, many of the objects convey bodily sensation. For example, just looking at the hefty Mauser rifle suggests its physical weight and drag far more directly than reading about how antiquated weapons were such a problem for the combatants.
The central part of the exhibition, mainly dedicated to different garrisons and battle sites, suggests something about the varying experiences of Easter week. The most narrative-driven of all the areas, it requires more explanation through graphics and text than elsewhere. In fact, the most intriguing objects in relation to the Rising are almost incidental to the main action. A favourite is the “cricket bat that died for Ireland”, also the title of curator Brenda Malone’s wonderful blog (thecricketbatthatdiedforireland.com) featuring objects from the historical collections. The bat was part of the window display of Elverys Sports store in Sackville Street, on the site now occupied by Supermac’s, near the GPO. As Malone explains, it was caught in crossfire during the Rising and struck by a .303 calibre bullet from a British gun that lodged in its front. On donation to the museum in 1981, it may have been viewed as little more than a curio – at that time, the 1916 exhibition was a fairly straitened display mainly comprising documents, uniforms and weapons. However, it clearly belongs in Proclaiming a Republic, where objects were chosen partly for their ability to tell a story or provoke association.
In that earlier version of the museum's 1916 exhibition – unchanged really between 1966 and 1991 – the most emotive objects were those few associated with the dead leaders. If the Proclamation and list of the dead in the current exhibition is treated with solemnity, then there is an even more serious – almost reverential – air to the space dedicated to the executions. Each of the dead is given a cabinet with their last things on display. The objects are often very ordinary – for Thomas Clarke, they are a spectacle case, a pencil and book of stamps that were returned, the label reads, by "the British authorities" to his widow Kathleen "after the execution of her husband, having refused to return his body for burial".
We witness the haste and pathos of those deaths and how everyday things became precious relics: playing cards found in Thomas MacDonagh’s cell given to his sister Sr M Francesca; a sword-stick belonging to Patrick Pearse given by his mother to a friend; Seán Heuston’s rosary beads; and, perhaps most pathetic of all, buttons from Michael O’Hanrahan’s tunic that he gave to his sisters when they visited him a few hours before his execution. Perhaps most chilling here is an empty clip for the bullets used on May 3rd 1916 in the execution of Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke. Someone picked it up from the ground, someone kept it. With this, as with so much on display, you sense the importance of objects in communicating the past – as agents, souvenirs, relics, fragments, as witness.
Lisa Godson is co-editor with Joanna Brück of Making 1916: material and visual culture of the Easter Rising (Liverpool University Press)