History today


From the Spring 2017 edition

As the chief repository of Irish and European material culture, and whose collections span everything from antiquities, decorative arts, industry, folk life, zoology and geology, the National Museum of Ireland represents the largest and the most significant of our cultural institutions. The Kildare Street building, where it was founded, is now largely given over to Irish and European antiquities spanning prehistoric, Celtic, Early-Christian and Medieval eras, constituting the ‘soul’ of a greatly expanded institution, whose role and relevance continues to have enormous significance in our cultural life.

The origins of the Museum can be traced to the foundation of the Dublin Society in 1731 with the purpose of ‘improving husbandry, manufactures, and other useful arts and sciences’. After Richard Castle’s Leinster House on Kildare Street (built in the 1740s as the town house of the Earl of Kildare) was acquired as its headquarters in 1815, the Society’s museum collection – largely comprising natural history specimens of zoological, ethnographical and geological interest – were displayed across six rooms on the first floor. With government providing increasing support to the Society, the obligation to provide greater access increased as did the desire, first expressed in the 1830s, to make it the focus as a ‘great National Museum’. This aspiration began to be realised with the building of the Natural History Museum on Leinster Lawn in 1857, complemented a few years later by the erection of the National Gallery, enabling Leinster House to become the major cultural centre in the capital. Recognising this, the Government, in its efforts to promote science and art education as an integral part of the great imperial vision of the age, looked to Leinster House to facilitate its ‘grand design’ which effectively envisaged creating in Dublin something comparable to Burlington House in London.1 This was first mooted in 1868, when a government committee (chaired, somewhat appropriately, by the Duke of Leinster) recommended that a science and art museum (to include the celebrated Irish antiquities collection of the Royal Irish Academy) and a National Library should be established at this location with control of the entire Kildare Street site and the existing institutions to be transferred to the state.2

Exploiting the formal setting of Leinster House and its relationship to Kildare Street and Merrion Square, the earliest proposal envisaged the new museum building fronting Merrion Square, to provide a link between the existing Museum and Gallery.3 However, as negotiations with the Society proved complex, it was not until 1877 that the necessary legislation – the Dublin Science and Art Museum Act – was passed by which time the present site was chosen, then occupied by the Society’s agricultural hall.4

An architectural competition was announced in December 1881, overseen by the Board of Works and essentially seeking ‘twin’ designs for the museum and library to flank the main court of Leinster House, with the expectation that building would commence before the end of 1882. Although a great deal of nationalist aspiration was bound up in the project, the proposed museum was to be entirely subordinated to the London-based Department of Science and Art which also had responsibility for the South Kensington Museums, resulting in great dissatisfaction among Irish nationalists. These concerns seemed entirely vindicated when all five shortlisted designs chosen were by English architects, even though numerous prominent Irish firms were among the sixty-seven entries.

When the premium was eventually awarded to Richard Knill Freeman, the decision was condemned with widespread disgust, decried as a ‘cruel blunder’ by the Irish press who perceived the influence of South Kensington officials by declaring that ‘a serious error detrimental to our interest as Irish men had been committed by the Department of Science and Art under the very cover of doing us service.’5 However, principally through the exertions of the Nationalist MP Thomas Sexton, the government relented, the architects of the original shortlist were compensated, and a second competition was announced in 1883.6 In April the following year another shortlist was announced with three Dublin firms among the five selected.7 This time the premium was awarded to Deane & Son, represented by Thomas Newenham Deane (1828-1899) and his son Thomas Manly Deane (1851-1933) belonging to a noted architectural dynasty and successors to the firm of Deane & Woodward whose Trinity and Oxford museums are among the most important and influential buildings of the age.8

One of the chief merits of the winning design expressed by the selectors was that care had been taken to make the new buildings ‘agree and synchronise’ with Leinster House, as well as the more practical ‘subordination of the entire design to the means at disposal – both as to space and money.’ While many of the competition entries showed the late-Victorian preference for great stylistic variation and ebullience, the Deanes’ choice of style was in part determined by the setting and showed a degree of independence in their approach, eschewing the stiff red-brick character of Fowke’s 1860s design for the parent museum at South Kensington, which is also Italianate, and indeed the academic seriousness of Smirke’s purely Grecian British Museum.9 A year later, on 10 April, the foundation stone for the new museum was laid by the Prince of Wales, with the foundations completed by the end of the year when somewhat appropriately ‘an old Danish sword’ with gold decoration on its hilt was unearthed from the site.10 By the following October the exterior was ‘all but complete’, followed in June 1890 by the National Library.11 The opening ceremony for the two new institutions, arranged by the Ulster King at Arms, was performed by the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Zetland. During the ceremony (lasting not more than half an hour, with the speeches considered ‘a little prosy’)Thomas Newenham Deane was knighted in recognition of his achievement. 12

Laid out to an essentially symmetrical, square plan, the main elevation of the museum addresses the courtyard of Leinster House, with a rotunda recessed in the centre between corner pavilions, once adorned with symbolic statuary by Thomas Farrell.13 The real success of the designs rests with the Bramantesque treatment of the rotunda, given an open colonnade in the Roman Doric Order on the ground floor. The Kildare Street elevation, more extensive than the Library, is relatively sedate, presenting a successful classical interplay between the Orders – an elaborated Ionic window arcade threaded through a Corinthian colonnade – in a way comparable to Sansovino’s theme for the Library of St Mark’s in Venice of the 1530s. The main building material was granite, from Wicklow and Armagh, combined with an attractive, cream sandstone from Mountcharles in Donegal used for most of the external architectural detail, and though suited to the high degree of enriched carving it proved extremely vulnerable to atmospheric conditions so that a great deal of the facade restoration in the 1990s required its repair. Inside, softer Bath stone and other sandstones were used along with various marbles, concealing a structure that technically at least was quite up-to-date, the floors formed using ‘Lindsay’s steel decking’, a patented system using steel and concrete to make them fireproof.14

With the cost of both buildings estimated at £109,700, it was naturally hoped it would provide a boon for Dublin artisans and tradesmen, there having been for some time ‘a dearth of work of which they have latterly complained.’ The main contractors were J&W Beckett, one of the leading Dublin building firms, who employed Thomas Dycher as foreman. Most of the carved stonework, as well as the plaster decorations, was carried out by Charles W Harrison, a stone carver favoured by the Deanes, based in Dublin and who worked here in partnership with his eldest son, Charles Lloyd Harrison.15

However the use of Italian craftsmen provoked controversy among Dublin tradesmen, the Cabinetmakers’ Society aggrieved that a reputed £2,000 was being spent on ‘foreign doors’. They were mollified only when the architect explained that not only was the actual cost £700 (including packing and delivery), but that they would also serve to provide important ‘examples of Italian work…in the museum just as any other exhibit’.16 These exquisitely carved doors from the Sienese workshop of Carlo Cambi are certainly a worthy addition to the museum, set in grandiose faience door surrounds designed in complementary Renaissance styles, and executed by Wilcock and Co. of Burmanstofts, Leeds (Figs 3&5). Even if most of the building work and services were sourced in Dublin, a good deal of the internal work was actually imported, including the columns, galleries and roof of the centre court which were supplied by Henry Young and Co. of the Eccleston Iron Works, Pimlico, London; the mosaic floors used in main exhibition rooms were by the Manchester firm founded by the Venetian-trained Ludwig Oppenheimers, otherwise better known as ecclesiastical decorators of the Gothic Revival, including countless Irish Catholic churches.

The main entrance to the museum leads directly into the great domed rotunda, usually (and reasonably), likened to the rotunda of Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin. Extending 60 feet in diameter, and rising 76 feet to the top of the dome, it has an internal colonnade of twelve handsome Ionic columns, composed of various coloured marbles, some from Italy, otherwise Irish – Galway, Limerick, Tipperary, Cork, Armagh and Kilkenny, set on bases of Bath stone, with the capitals and cornice executed in a red sandstone adding greatly to the rich richness of the effect. These support a wide gallery, formerly used for exhibits and above which the internal walls of the drum are expressed in two stages with the upper stage – lined with Corinthian pilasters to frame the windows – dramatically inclined, and thus enhancing an impressive sense of scale, an effect that is reinforced by the diminishing scale of the square coffers and the bold foliated panels that help to define them (Fig 6&7). Unhappily the space is now greatly spoiled by the clutter of the gift shop – a somewhat ignoble use, the original presentation of museum artefacts here ensuring the true grandeur and architectural impact of the interior could be fully appreciated, with the spaces in the colonnade filled, pantheon-like, by classical statues representing mythological figures and ‘tutelary deities’.17

Beyond the Rotunda, a more understated classicism is preferred, which around the centre court uses twin Ionic pilaster and subsidiary arches expressed in Bath stone against plain plastered walls. As with the architecture, much of the decorative detail was designed to evoke aspects of the Italian Renaissance – in many ways reflecting how the stylistic traits of the cinquecento had proved especially popular among progressive architects in the second half of the 19th century. The best of this is evident in the carved doors and their ornamental surrounds, and in the carving of the Bath stone in the stylish, handsomely-scaled main staircase aligned with the Rotunda, across the central court (Fig 8). Here pilaster arabesques and grotesque panels were carved to designs of ‘original conception’ that provide wonderfully intricate displays, all executed with ‘great delicacy of finish’ by Charles Lloyd Harrison, who incorporated the architects’ initials into the arcade on the mezzanine.

In all there were twenty exhibition rooms in the original arrangement, disposed symmetrically around the galleried great court which, as the main exhibition space, perfectly epitomised the architectural qualities of the industrial age two rows of columns with dosserets, support in turn the gallery and great decorated iron trusses that carry the glazed roof. 18 Originally this space was filled predominantly with casts from antique and medieval sculpture, including ‘a monolith unearthed in Central Mexico’ and details from Amiens and Chartres Cathedrals (Fig 8). These were overlooked from the surrounding colonnade by a further series of statues and busts, part of the distinguished collection that had been donated to the RDS by the sculptor John Henry Foley. These have all disappeared and today the sunken area is given over to the rather bulky, solid white cases which display the superb collection of Iron Age gold.

In 1900 the National Museum was transferred from the Department of Science and Art to the newly created Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in Dublin (largely through the influence of Sir Horace Plunkett and others who favoured direct Irish control), and after 1922 to the Department of Education. Since 1984, somewhat demeaning its significance, it has been shuffled off between various departments.19 However in 1997, the National Cultural Institutions Act saw improved investment in staff and facilities, including the creation of new headquarters at Collins Barracks with rooms devoted to decorative arts, and the establishment of the Folk life Museum at Turlough Park in Mayo. Under the Act, the National Museum was established in May 2005 as an independent statutory body with an autonomous board appointed by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

Kevin V Mulligan is co-author with William Laffan of Russborough, A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections (2014).

Figs 1 & 8 reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Footnotes
1    The department of Science and Art was established in the 1850s, and was responsible for the ‘Museum of Irish Industry and Government School of Science applied to Mining and the Arts’, formed in 1852, and which lasted until 1867 when its collections were transferred to the Natural History Museum.
2    E Crooke, Politics, Archaeology and the Creation of a National Museum of Ireland, An Expression of National Life (Dublin 2000), 101-128.
3    An outline plan of the proposed building is illustrated in Crooke, Fig. 10, p. 115.
4    The choice of this site resulted in the displacement of the Society’s agricultural activities, leading to the establishment of the show grounds at Ballsbridge. Terence De Vere White, The Story of the Royal Dublin Society, (Kerry 1955), 120- 125.
5    Crooke, op. cit, 117, quoting the newspaper Hibernia.
6    Rena Lohan, A Guide to the Archives of the Office of Public Works, 1994, 43.
7    Irish Times 3 April 1884.
8    Frederick O’Dwyer, The Architecture of Deane and Woodward (1998), 393.
9    It was claimed that Deane was initially reluctant to submit a classical design. O’Dwyer, op. cit., citing JRIBA 1900, Vol. VI, 3rd ser. 48-9.
10    The Daily Express, 11 April 1885; Freeman’s Journal 29 December 1885.
11    Irish Times 13 Sept 1889.
12    Freeman’s Journal 30 Aug 1890; Irish Times 30 August 1890.
13    The statues represented architecture and science, and answered those of Poetry and Literature erected on the Library opposite. Irish Times 30 August 1890. The Deanes’ early designs were published in the Irish Builder, 1 December 1887.
14    Irish Times 13 Sept 1889; Irish Times 30 August 1890.
15    O’Dwyer, op. cit., 336-8. The Harrisons also executed the carvings of the museum rotunda, including the plaster decoration of the dome, as well as much of the exterior stone carving. The rest of the carved work was by Sharpe and Emery who also did much of the carved work for the Library.
16    Patricia McCarthy, ‘From Torpedo Boat to Temples of Culture: Carlo Cambi’s Route to Ireland’ In Irish Arts Review Yearbook 2002, Vol. 18, 71-79. Some of the carved work has been attributed to at least one Irish craftsman, John Milligan of Granby Row, who also laid the oak floors and carved the oak screen in the National Library.
17    Daily Express, 30 Aug 1890.
18    A detailed account of the planned arrangement of the rooms is given in the Irish Times 26 Nov 1889.
19    Patrick F. Wallace, ‘The Museum: origins, collections and buildings’ in P.F. Wallace and R. Ó Floinn, Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland (2002), p.9.