Museum man torn between theme park and scholarship


Fact File

Who he is: Dr Patrick Wallace

Occupation: director of the National Museum of Ireland

Why in the news: gala opening of the museum's new premises was marred by a picket which Bertie Ahern refused to pass

Pity the poor director of the National Museum of Ireland. As master of ceremonies for Thursday's grand opening of the new premises at Collins Barracks, Dublin, this should have been Dr Patrick Wallace's week. Instead, the event was marked by a staff picket, which the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, declined to pass.

And, if there is no such thing as bad publicity, a recent profile of him in a Sunday newspaper has certainly put that theory to the test. The Collins Barracks project is valued at £30 million for the first phase alone, an EUbacked sum which is the envy of other institutions. Securing it required considerable political and official support, not least the vision of the former minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht, Mr Michael D. Higgins.

Yet Dr Wallace told last week's Sunday Business Post he had clashed a number of times with Mr Higgins. What's more, the director, who has been known to socialise in the Doheny and Nesbitt club of movers and shakers, dismissed some of the government officials he had to deal with as people who "spend their lives sitting around on their fat arses", thwarting progress.

The Collins Barracks scheme was "not a Michael D. project", Dr Wallace said. Step forward, the real hero: the man in the anorak, now the Taoiseach, who had provided the initial £10 million seed capital from the tax amnesty. If the director's instincts are to be followed, Fianna Fail will be in Government for some time; at least until Dr Wallace decides to take retirement himself.

The leading archaeologist, who is synonymous with the Wood Quay controversy, has always had politics in his blood. Born the son of a blacksmith in Askeaton, Co Limerick, he has described his father as a nationalist and his mother as a "great republican".

The young Pat went to school in St Mary's Secondary in Limerick and became an academic almost by accident. He recorded the best Leaving Cert results in the county in 1966 and secured a scholarship to University College Galway.

He applied for a post as assistant keeper at the National Museum and moved to Dublin. Before being appointed director of the Wood Quay Viking dig, he was in charge of the Oyster Lane excavations in Wexford. Dr Wallace was only 25 years old when he was recommended for Wood Quay by the then director, Dr Anthony Lucas, and it was like "winning a £2 million scholarship", he told Eileen Battersby of this newspaper last year.

It was also a "sink-or-swim situation", he said. He was aware of how extensive the work would be, but was, he said, unaware of how controversial it would become over Dublin Corporation's plans to build civic offices on the site.

It may have been one of the largest urban excavations of its type undertaken in Europe, in yielding two million artefacts or artefact fragments, catalogued in 89 individual manuscript volumes. Writing about it in Archaeology Ireland 10 years ago, Dr Wallace reminisced on the "memories of great times" with a team of archaeologists, draughtsmen, finds assistants, trowellers, volunteers and workmen who had since disbanded.

In 1988 Dr Wallace was appointed director of the National Museum to succeed Dr Breandan O Riordain, who had overseen similar excavations at High Street, Christchurch Place and Winetavern Street.

He continued with his scholarship. He has subscribed to the thesis of a Dublin of two Viking Ages: the first running from 840 to 902 and a later Hiberno-Norse settlement from about 917. Among his publications has been a two-volume study, The Architecture of Viking Dublin. For his work he has been elected to the Royal Irish Academy, and is a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (London) and a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

But his appointment was something of a surprise, given the stiff competition for the post. Consequently his progress had been closely monitored. He later admitted that he thought he could run a museum like "a foreman could run an excavation" but found that his every step was made more difficult by bureaucracy.

He was anxious to display a trove of prehistoric archaeology which was buried in Kildare Street, and expressed concern about the national folklife collection which was under lock and key. His philosophy was to seek the widest possible public for education; in that vein, he conceived and designed Irish Life's Viking Adventure.

In 1992 Dr Wallace professed that he loved "tourism and tourists" and did not dislike using words like "heritage". Latterly, however, he has become more openly critical of the "theme park" approach to heritage, and has placed greater emphasis on scholarship.

"We are living in a country and at a time of anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, anti-academic emphasis" which was part of a "worldwide shift to the antireflective", he said last year.

In November 1995 Dr Wallace suffered a stroke. Writing was part of the recovery, he said later. The illness was symptomatic of the pressures of the job; it was no coincidence that the former director of the National Library, Dr Pat Donlon, also became ill and made a remarkable recovery. In planning the move to Collins Barracks, Dr Wallace has described it as one of the most significant in the institution's history. In December 1994 he said that additional staff would be essential for the transfer. However, his apparent lack of support for the current industrial relations difficulties over promotions has won him few favours with his staff and colleagues.

Colleagues describe him as a "technician", affable, charming, witty and able but lacking the sort of long-term view which made Michael D. Higgins such a good minister.

For this reason, the museum has remained a "cabinet of curiosities", with a poor profile. "Lack of space is one thing, but one shouldn't need to move house to show off one's belongings," says one. "A museum is by definition a temple of the Muses. It would seem as if there has been a tendency to glorify the temple and discard the Muses."