This is the third in a series of interviews with sector colleagues about new museum practice and projects from Wales, Scotland and the island of Ireland.
Hannah Crowdy, Head of Curatorial for National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) talks to Sarah Costigan of the Little Museum of Dublin.
HC: Sarah, would you tell us something about your museum.
SC: Founded in 2011, the Little Museum of Dublin is a registered charity (no. 19825). We promote education and scholarship about the history of our city by creating, conserving and exhibiting a collection that documents the rich history of Dublin, and by engaging guests with our collection through guided tours, performances, education programmes, special events and temporary exhibitions.
We will celebrate our 10th birthday this September. Over the past decade our dedicated team have welcomed over 908,492 guests, hosted 27,795 children in free civics classes and collected more than 6,325 artefacts. Again, this was only possible thanks to the generous people who have worked with us to tell the story of the city – our artefact donors, team, volunteers, funders and community.
I joined the Little Museum in 2012, and have worked alongside the museum’s founder, Trevor White, to build this important civic resource at the heart of the city that I was born and raised in. As deputy director, I work with our team, funders, stakeholders and board of directors to realise our ambitions and strategy.
My working day typically includes welcoming our guests, collection care, delivering on strategy objectives, presenting fundraising pitches, exhibition planning and working with our team. One current priority is to rebuild our inclusion and education programme as we move through the pandemic.
HC: What is special about your museum?
Founder, Trevor White, and Sarah Costigan, of the Little Museum of Dublin
SC: In the Little Museum, we are obsessed with three things: history, hospitality and humour. And we are working towards our vision of creating the best small city museum in the world.
Our mission is to build awareness of Dublin’s history with stories, objects and powerful shared experiences in a world-class city museum. Our museum is located in a Georgian townhouse on St Stephen’s Green that is owned by the city, therefore Dublin City Council is our primary patron, enabling us to run a museum of Dublin for its citizens.
Through this special example of public-private partnership, together, we have managed to create a world class city museum at a fraction of what it would otherwise have cost the taxpayer. We are very proud of this fact. We believe that what we have achieved in partnership with Dublin City Council is unique and special.
HC: What do you see as the main challenges for museums on the island of Ireland in 2021?
SC: For those of us who manage privately run museums (we, for example, are a registered charity) I feel that the first challenge is for our organisation to simply survive the pandemic. To keep the doors open, collection intact and lights on.
Fáilte Ireland, has used the phrase “survive to thrive” when speaking about the impact of the pandemic on the tourism industry, of which I very much believe that museums are part.
As individual organisations we need to rebuild our domestic and international audiences, our programmes and our revenue. All organisations are in the same boat. Therefore, not only do we need to individually rebuild our business – we also collectively need to rebuild Dublin, and Ireland, as a world class and safe tourism destination.
Public health comes first. Without question. However, another challenge is that Ireland is a nation of storytellers. A guided tour and human conversation is at the heart of a meaningful visit to many museums.
Indoor guided tours are not permitted under the current government guidelines. Again, health comes first – but it is very difficult to deliver the quality of experience that we want our guests to receive when a core part of the experience is missing.
HC: What do you see as the main opportunities for museums on the island of Ireland in 2021?
SC: I run an online initiative called 120 Dublin Stories, this is a weekly webcast run with Santa Rita Estates. Speakers have included archivists, urban planners, historians, writers, museum directors, academics, social advocates and political figures. One recurring theme in these conversations is the need for public conversations about placemaking. A vision and a plan for the role that each of us can play in developing our city, and its future.
Museums help citizens to look to the past. To understand what has come before. A place for ideas to form and for citizens to have their voices heard. To discuss what our future might look like.
Recognising this opportunity, we are working with social commentator and journalist Frank McDonald to curate an exhibition and publish a book which looks at our city’s history and presents a vision for the future of Dublin. Launching in Autumn 2021, we hope that this project will start lots of conversations within and outside the walls of the Little Museum.
I believe we have an opportunity to inject honest fun into our younger generations’ museum experience. The pandemic has been an awfully difficult time for everyone. Life has been on hold. Life has been lost. It has impacted and affected us all in different ways. Children have lost out on vital learning time, social development opportunities, fun and, at times, the simple right to be a carefree child.
Museums have an opportunity to create a space for imagination, for play, for learning and for laughter. It might be loud. It could be intergenerational. But, it should be fun. I don’t think this responsibility is uniquely ours as a sector, however I do think it’s important, so worth naming.
HC: We understand that the Little Museum is working on a cross-border exhibition with National Museums Northern Ireland, to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland. Could you tell us more about this?
SC: Over the last 100 years, many Irish politicians have argued that the border with Northern Ireland should be removed. This has been a topic of much discussion in recent years. However, many people in the Republic of Ireland know little about the customs, culture and history of Northern Ireland.
To put it simply: ‘You say you love me but you don’t even know me.’
Coinciding with the centenary of partition, this remarkable exhibition will introduce (or, in some cases, re-introduce) Northern Ireland to the people of Dublin. Featuring 20-25 artefacts from the National Museums of Northern Ireland collection, You say you love me but you don’t even know me will explore different varieties of ‘Irishness’ without ignoring contested elements of our complex shared history.
Co-curated by staff from National Museums NI, who will each select items from their collection, this landmark exhibition will present a very personal take on the history of Northern Ireland to a new generation of museum-goers. We are incredibly proud to be building this important and timely partnership with the National Museums NI.
As part of our access program, admission to this exhibition will be free every Wednesday morning thanks to a partnership that we have with BNY Mellon.
HC: What should we look out for at your museum over the next 12 months?
Sarah Costigan photographed with the Little Museum of Dublin Board of Directors after winning the Best Dublin Tourism Experience at the Irish Tourism Industry Awards 2019. Pictured (l-r) entrepreneurs Brody Sweeney & June O’Connell, former Lord Mayors of Dublin Councillor Mary Freehill & Councillor Nial Ring, treasurer Brian Geraghty and creative writing educator James Ryan
SC: We are also excited about working with Senator Eileen Flynn, artist Fiona McDonnell & researcher Niamh Scully on an important new commission. This project is being made possible by the Heritage Council and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports & Media.
As society starts to reopen, we have reflected on our shared need for human connection after the isolation experienced this past year. There is an intense need to foster inclusion, a sense of place and community spirit – especially for otherwise under-represented communities. We are challenged by the idea that we are on one hand longing for human connection, but on the other hand, exclusionary and divided as a society.
We will create a permanent exhibit – a modern tapestry – and online exhibit about the life and work of Senator Flynn, who recently made history as the first woman from the Travelling community to sit in the Seanad.
Fiona McDonnell is an acclaimed illustrator with a distinct and colourful style of work. Fiona has worked on many social issue campaigns, including End Period Poverty with Uplift and Free Safe Legal with Dazed. Her work fosters conversation and a sense of inclusivity.
You can not be what you can not see is a phrase often heard when dealing with women’s empowerment and marginalised communities. Senator Flynn is committed to securing real equality and human rights for Traveller women and girls. She is an exceptional role model.
You can contact Sarah Costigan at firstname.lastname@example.org