Pathways to Participation: Engagement and Learning at the National Museum of Ireland during the Decade of Centenaries examines the ways in which the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) commemorated events associated with the complex period of Irish history between 1912 and 1923, and the ways it invited the public to participate in a stimulating, thoughtful and inclusive public engagement program.
The motivation behind the production of this book was to document and learn from the museum’s commemorative public program carried out between 2012 and 2018. It examines the significance of the NMI’s commemorative exhibits, including the hugely popular Proclaiming a Republic: The Uprising of 1916, and the enormous potential of the objects on display in this and other exhibitions to foster historical empathy, interrogate our understanding of the past, and influence views of the present. The book also reflects on the various elements of the Public Engagement Program, run by the National Museum’s Department of Education and Learning between 2012 and 2018. This program created opportunities for intergenerational dialogue, sharing of stories and perspectives on the past and present and for revealing new insights into this groundbreaking period in Irish history.
The authors of the 13 chapters of Pathways to Participation come from diverse fields and practices as scholars, archaeologists, artists, curators, community and cultural leaders, educators, politicians and policy makers. Alongside their insightful and inspiring reflections, the book captures the words spoken by a range of people who participated in the museum’s public program between 2012 and 2018.
Important themes emerge from the book’s chapters that resonate with the role of the National Museum of Ireland as a public and social institution. These chapters are grouped into four sections.
In the first section, cultural critic Luke Gibbons writes about the ways in which we remember and commemorate the past, and how museums can play a key role in facilitating a dialogue between past and present. Dr. Audrey Whitty, Deputy Director and Head of Collections and Learning at the National Museum, describes the museum’s various commemorative exhibits and highlights how personal items, such as those featured in the exhibit Proclaiming a Republic: The ascension of 1916, are powerful in evoking an emotional response from the public. Joanna Brück, professor of archeology at University College Dublin, argues that the objects possess unique qualities and offer insight into complex stories that challenge us to rethink the relationships between past and present. She advocates for museums to engage with communities by using objects as inspiration for dialogue.
Chapters in the second section of Pathways to Participation explore the role of the National Museum of Ireland as a social and civic space, where the public can engage in dialogue about sensitive and contested histories using multiple avenues of engagement and of learning. This section explores how the museum’s education department has engaged with diverse communities in dialogue about the themes and events around the Centenarian Decade in an inclusive, collaborative, and democratic way.
In Chapter Four, three panelists, Ivana Bacik TD, Mary McAuliffe, Director of Gender Studies at UCD, and Judith McCarthy, Curator at Donegal County Museum, discuss how museums could benefit from a more great engagement with communities and how commemorative events related to the Centennial Decade have deepened public interest in women’s history in particular.
In Chapter Five, Helen Beaumont and Siobhan Pierce, Education Officers at the National Museum of Ireland, reflect on how the museum’s lecture program has facilitated the sharing of knowledge, ideas, perspectives and experiences. multiple experiences and revealed new perspectives on this complex revolutionary period in Irish history. . Tom Doyle, Deputy Head of Education at the National Museum of Ireland, documents the range of events organized under the Beyond Sackville Street and the Somme program and highlights the involvement of rural communities in these events.
In the final two chapters of this section, Lorna Elms, Project Development Officer at iCAN, presents a community engagement model based on the principles of inclusion, trust and ownership, applied to exhibit development. Our Irish Women. It explores the museum’s active role in building trusting and lasting relationships with communities and highlights the value of investing in long-term partnerships involving museum staff and individuals, local communities and organizations.
Gary Granville, Professor Emeritus of Education at the National College of Art and Design, discusses a learning model, applied by the National Museum and other museums and galleries, that is student-centered and supported by a learning environment. democratic, inclusive and enabling learning for risk-taking, where learning outcomes are unpredictable. It highlights the value and importance of this model of learning which enriches the learning experience of students, deepens their empathy and inspires their capacity for greater civic responsibility.
The third section of Pathways to Participation explores how artists can create opportunities for people to address old certainties and express what it is to be human in the face of sensitive and complex stories. Artist Alison Conneely, as curator of The Shuttle Hive, a Century of Threads exhibition, reflects on how contemporary Irish textile design can respond to and challenge historical and political issues, and how participation in collectives can become an active platform for revisiting lost memories and sharing experiences.
Deborah Kelleher, Director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, highlights how music can facilitate emotional engagement with history and with those who have struggled to make a difference for others. Maureen Kennelly, former director of Poetry Ireland and current director of the Arts Council, recalls the rich heritage of women’s writing and the impact of creative expression and the arts on Irish life. In the final chapter of this section, poet, novelist and playwright Dermot Bolger reflects on his experience as the first Writer-in-Residence at the National Museum of Ireland in 2016. He recounts how his residency supported his own writing and facilitated his engagement with the audience. in an imaginative exploration of what it was like to experience World War I and the Easter Rising.
In the final chapter of Pathways to Participation, an inspiring and thought-provoking conversation between poet Paula Meehan and political analyst Michael O’ Reilly explores the relationship between memory and the museum. They reflect on the importance of museums as places of healing, trust and dignity and as spaces where truth is sought and dreams can be awakened. They call on museums to ensure the integration of family histories and stories that include those who now identify as Irish in Ireland today.
In the words of Mary Shine Thompson, co-editor with me of Pathways to Participation: Engagement and Learning at the National Museum of Ireland during the Decade of Centenaries:
“Commemoration is about writing history, about communities sifting through and reassessing past events. Imaginative commemoration can recall forgotten people, alternative perspectives, and misplaced histories. It can dismember self-deceiving mythologies. Although national commemorations necessarily reflect official narratives, they are also forums in which complex and conflicting national and group identities can be explored. Pathways to Participation reflects on how the National Museum of Ireland approached the challenge that commemorating the Centenarian Decade presented to it. Her open and democratic way of responding is reflected in the diverse voices and conversations in the book. His subject elevates not only the shreds and bits and pieces of material objects that have survived a century or more, but also the mundane concerns that underlie great history and great art.
In Pathways to Participation, it is evident that museums are arguably more important than ever in society as social, cultural and political spaces where communities can come together, virtually and in person, and engage in dialogue about what matters to them and to society. This dialogue can be inspired by the power of museum objects to act as agents of memory, recalling the humanity of forgotten lives and opening up new ways of approaching sensitive stories. The Centenarian Decade commemorative public program at the National Museum of Ireland was a springboard for dialogue and honest conversations, in which communities shared experiences and perspectives on a formative period in Ireland’s recent past. . The museum listened to these discussions and learned from them. He decided to continue building other avenues of participation as an inclusive, democratic and relevant museum.
Lorraine Comer is Head of Education at the National Museum of Ireland