Visit the Little Museum of Dublin, says Eithne Owens

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Ask twenty people what a museum is and you’ll hear descriptions of grandiose spaces where visitors are meant to be seen and not heard. But this idea of a museum is in flux. Museums are increasingly (if, sometimes, reluctantly) participatory. More and more are encouraging visitors to share their stories and become contributors to the meaning-making process rather than passive consumers. Sweeping narratives are being rejected in favour of intimate, personal stories.

Into this changing world, enter The Little Museum of Dublin, telling ‘the story of Ireland’s capital city in the 20th Century.’

The brainchild of Trevor White, former publisher of The Dubliner, the museum went from idea to reality in less than a year. A call went out for objects in April 2011 and the museum was officially opened in October 2011. (The unofficial opening was on Culture Night in September.) This short gestation period is more akin to a pop-up or temporary exhibition than a permanent museum. Not to suggest that the museum is temporary – rather that the pop-up model (fluid, adaptive, hey-kids-let’s-put-the-show-on-right-here) is a perfect fit for the current economic climate. The Little Museum might never have seen the light of day during the boom, given the bigger-is-better mentality that prevailed.

The Little Museum is, well, little. It shares a space on the first floor of a Georgian townhouse on St. Stephen’s Green with its sister project, City of a Thousand Welcomes. That project, which connects visitors to Dublin with locals, is part funded by Fáilte Ireland, Dublin Regional Authority and Dublin City Council, the latter providing the space.

No big banners herald the entrance, just a small sign hanging from the railings. A sandwich board advises passers-by that this is ‘the story of you.’ On the two occasions I visited, the reception desk was in different locations, adding to the sense of an organisation that’s evolving day-to-day, determining what works and what doesn’t.

Much of the charm of the museum comes from its setting. The first, drawing room-like gallery space invites visitors to sink into one of the comfortable armchairs, enjoy the fire in the grate and browse the interesting selection of Dublin-related books on the low table.

The domestic setting is further enhanced by the absence of traditional museum showcases. Two-dimensional items are framed and hang salon-style around the walls, while clusters of objects are displayed on mantels, bookcases and china cabinets.

The collections are decidedly idiosyncratic. A signed photograph of Maureen O’Hara (dedicated to the ‘Little Museum’ of Dublin + all my fellow Dubliners), a letter from Samuel Beckett (about schools he attended), a shirt box from Switzer’s. Who needs madeleines when there are Dublin Millennium milk bottles and a model of the Wanderly Wagon to evoke knee-jerk nostalgia?

The personal and participatory aspects of the museum are underlined by the fact that people who give objects are acknowledged as part of the story, rather than anonymous donors. Some of them, like Maureen O’Hara, are well-known – but many are ordinary Dubliners.

The only thematic structure to the display is that objects are arranged chronologically, by decade. The only visible signs of interpretation are plaques labelled ‘1900’, ‘1930’ etc that anchor these groupings. There are no labels, but there is a detailed guidebook available to borrow or buy. There are also regular guided tours and friendly volunteers to answer any questions.

It struck me that the absence of labels encourages interaction and sparks conversations – whether with a guide or with another visitor. A bus conductor’s ticket machine reminded me of my granddad, who worked for Dublin Bus. I told the friend who came with me (not from Dublin) that once upon a time a conductor came to your seat, cranked a handle and produced your ticket from the machine around his neck. A Ryanair business class sticker provoked widespread hilarity when a guide pointed it out to us. The space invites storytelling – perfect for Dubliners.

This is not necessarily a museum for everyone, especially not anyone looking for an encompassing overview of the city’s history (or, for that matter, looking for the city’s history pre-1900). This is history told through fragments and some visitors may find this frustrating rather than charming. Arguably there is still a role for a ‘big’ museum of Dublin to fill the gaps. Certainly some museum should display the collections of the old Civic Museum on South William St, currently in long-term storage.

But set aside what this museum is not. What it is is a refreshing addition to the cultural scene – a museum that, for all its period setting, is decidedly 21st century in its outlook.

It will be interesting to see whether the flexible, adaptive approach endures as the museum becomes more established. But given its ambitious plans for 2012 that include a lecture series and a café, this is a museum worth watching – and visiting.

The Little Museum is at 15 St Stephen’s Green. The museum is open Thursday to Monday from 12pm to 6pm (late opening until 9pm on Thursdays) and closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is €5, with reductions for senior citizens, the unwaged and students. Children go free.

By Eithne Owens

Eithne Owens is a freelance curator currently dividing her time between Dublin and Melbourne.  She blogs about things she encounters on her travels at hints to lady travellers.

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