Earlier this month, in a stunning example of culture cancellation gone awry, President Judy Olian of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, announced the permanent closure of the Great Hunger Museum of Ireland, Musaem An Ghorta Mhóir, the gem of Quinnipiac and the only museum in the world to feature a comprehensive collection of art and artifacts commemorating Ireland’s Great Hunger, traditionally known as the Potato Famine.
The Great Hunger Museum of Ireland was born out of a moral vision to perpetuate the visual and artistic memory of the famine, especially as the events of 1847-1852 moved from lived experience to geopolitical history.
The inauguration of an academic space where artifacts, artistic images, films and lectures could be used as both a monument and an educational institute was a group effort, made possible by former Quinnipiac President John Lahey, generous donors such as alumnus Murray Lender (of Lender’s Bagels), historians such as renowned professor Christine Kinealy, artists and curators including myself.
The journey that led to the founding of the museum began with the 2010 Quinnipiac Original Art Collection Exhibition I curated at the Irish Consulate Gallery at 345 Park Avenue. This exhibition, officially opened by Irish President Mary McAleese, generated an enthusiastic reception that inspired Lahey to create a museum dedicated to the values of social responsibility and justice while raising awareness among students and the public about Great Hunger in Ireland.
But this vision could not have been achieved without the generosity of the lender. In the summer of 2010, Lender came to the consulate to view the exhibit. For him, it all started listening to Lahey talk about the story of Great Hunger.
Lender, a Quinnipiac alumnus and later co-chair of the university’s board of trustees, was inspired to donate funds that led to the establishment of the Great Hunger Museum of Ireland in Hamden.
Sadly, he didn’t live to see the museum open or hear Lahey proclaim at the 2012 opening, “Many Irish and Irish American artists and supporters helped make this day possible, but without the Supporting a son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland who saw parallels in our experience, we would not be able to dedicate this new facility. This is proof of the importance of this story for all immigrants. “
On September 28, 2012, the Irish Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, then Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sports, officiated at the inauguration of the museum. For eight years, until the pandemic forced an emergency shutdown in March 2020, the museum told the story of Great Hunger in America, with a focus on the victims: the million dead, up to ‘to two million others who fled in 1855..
The collection also toured Ireland from January to March 2019 (with support from the Irish government). Over 100,000 visitors viewed the exhibit during this Dublin Castle stop-off tour; West Cork Arts Center, Skibbereen; and Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, Derry.
Unfortunately, the closing of the museum was not unexpected. After Lahey retired from Quinnipiac, his successor Olian began his tenure in 2019 by canceling the university’s traditional participation in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and immediately threatening to cease funding the museum, stating that he would have until June 2020 to become self-sufficient. . These actions were carried out in the name of cost reduction.
To the Irish-American community, talking about cost reduction rings hollow. Shortly after taking office, Olian announced the university-funded renovation of the President’s House at a cost of $ 1 million, including a swimming pool.
At the time, William Weldon, chairman of the board, said in a statement that the purchase and renovation of the house was “a critical strategic acquisition for the university, unanimously supported by the board.” .
(It should be noted that Weldon was not known for his judgment. Never a supporter of the museum, Weldon, upon his retirement as president of Johnson & Johnson in 2012, would have received a payment of $ 143.5 million. In 2011, he earned a spot on The New York Times’ list of “Worst CEOs of 2011” for the increased number of Johnson & Johnson product recalls under his leadership.)
Plus, the museum is, in fact, a bargain. It occupies a building already owned by the university, like its permanent collection. Its annual operating budget of around $ 300,000 covers a director and a staff member and is lower than the budgets of other institutes in the university.
And its greatest value may be its ability to attract students and families. A large portion of the students are the children of the 35 million Irish Americans in the United States. The museum, with its universal themes of a people’s encounter with bigotry and hatred, provides an international brand and identity to the school that is particularly relevant today.
According to the local community, the theory is that Olian’s actions are simply motivated by spite over the success of the old administration. In addition to the museum, John Lahey left a lasting imprint on Quinnipiac. During his tenure, the university grew from a small business college in 1987 with 1,902 students to around 10,000 today.
In 2018, the university had an endowment of more than $ 500 million, a college of arts and sciences, and eight professional schools: business, communications, education, engineering, health sciences, law, medicine. and nursing. The physical factory has also grown from one to three campuses in two cities: the Mount Carmel campus, the York Hill campus, and the newer North Haven campus which houses most graduate programs. The college’s athletic programs have also moved from NCAA Division II to Division I. A particular point of pride is the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, which has grown from a small local operation in Connecticut to an internationally recognized entity. which conducts 12 surveys in 11 states, New York and nationwide. (Recently, Olian’s plan to “monetize” the Quinnipiac poll was scuttled by the board, as was his other recent effort to charge parking fees to outlying students who protested.)
Other institutes established during Lahey’s tenure include the Albert Schweitzer Institute and three in the Faculty of Medicine only, Primary Care, Rehabilitative Medicine, and Global Public Health.
Today, under Olian’s leadership, registrations are down 20%. As reported earlier this year, Quinnipiac, which for years has seen growth in both size and footprint, is now making 13 budget cuts due to declining undergraduate enrollment this fall.
As a result, the university is working on plans to move the collection of the Great Hunger Museum from Ireland elsewhere – or, as most see, to break it up, which would be a real tragedy for the public and the school.
According to a statement provided by John Morgan, the university’s associate vice president for public relations, “the university is in active talks with potential partners with the goal of presenting the collection to an organization that will increase access to a national audience and 14 international audiences on Ireland’s Great Hunger.
For all spectators, no partner is yet on the horizon.
As 2022 approaches, the 10th anniversary of the museum’s opening, we cannot allow the closure to continue without a push from the wider community to keep the doors open and this precious teaching opportunity alive. .
The students of Quinnipiac and the Irish American community deserve no less.
Turlough McConnell was curator of the original Quinnipiac University exhibition on Irish Hunger at the Irish Consulate General in New York (2010) and founding advisor to the Irish Hunger Museum (2012).
* This column first appeared in the August 25 edition of the weekly Irish Voice, sister publication of IrishCentral.