Diversity & Inclusiveness in Irish Museums


A review of Museums in The Construction of a Diverse and Inclusive Ireland, by Alan Kirwan.

“Are Museums useful to society, and if so, in what ways?” So reads one of the questions put to visitors of Irish museums by Alan Kirwan. This kind of research has real value because it gives us an insight into what people who visit museums really think about them. Alan has gone out and asked people from diverse cultural backgrounds what they think about three Irish museums. The analysis of the answers to this and a range of other questions about the representation of diverse cultures in Irish museums is the basis of his innovative and revealing new qualitative research about the role of museums in a new multicultural Ireland today. If you really want to know what visitors to Irish museums think about the representation of cultural identities in museum displays, then Alan’s dissertation is the place to start.

The dissertation brings a brand new perspective to the social role of Irish museums in the twenty-first century. It challenges curators to respond to a newly multicultural Ireland; migrants are now coming to Ireland from all over the world in greater numbers than in previous eras. Museums, Alan argues, “could forge a role in assisting in the process of creating ‘Irish multiculturalism’” (p. 134). Drawing on such concepts as “interactionist multiculturalism” (p. 19) and “Irish post-colonialism” (p. 23) the process of constructing a diverse and inclusive Ireland in Irish museums is explored from a range of academic perspectives, including Irish studies, the social sciences and museum studies. This approach shines an important light from the direction of international academic discourse about cultural diversity, on an under explored, and indeed, neglected topic in Ireland. The subject is refreshingly tackled through an analysis of new and rich qualitative semi-structured interview data, with the dissertation speckled throughout with revealing quotations from members of the public, encased within an international frame of reference from a range of literature. The results, Alan argues, show that museum visitors expect to find knowledge and an understanding of diverse cultures and people. They actively seek to discover cultural identities and Irish identity.

Chapter 1 sets the contemporary social scene of a twenty-first century Ireland in a period of “transformation” (p. 1), as more migrants come into the country than at any time in the past. Alan places the museum world in the context of this new multicultural society, advocating a social role for museums within the wider frame of social, political and cultural policy about multiculturalism. He suggests Irish museums embrace this new society, in line with the intellectual genealogy of a museology that points to the significant role for museums in shaping social, political and cultural concerns, and further engaging with and challenging prejudice and racism. As Richard Sandell advocates, “the question practitioners face is not, in fact, whether museums should  be engaged in attempts to shape the ways in which difference is viewed but rather how they can most appropriately do so” (p. 14; Richard Sandell, Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference. London: Routledge, 2007, p. 195). Alan further discusses how key theories and concepts from the social sciences about multiculturalism have provided the theoretical framework for his research, drawing on Bhiku Parekh (p. 19), who espouses “not a passive and mute coexistence of cultures and cultural communities but their active engagement with each other”, and “Museums and art galleries, which define and celebrate the national heritage, should include and suitably integrate minority contributions” (Bhiku Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory. Great Britain: Macmillan 2006, p. 350; pp. 222-223). Alan chooses Parekh’s ideas to discuss representation within pluralist societies, in particular drawing on the concept of ‘interactionist’ rather than ‘static’ multiculturalism (p. 5) to establish the core idea in this dissertation; that the making of a common culture out of difference may be achieved through intercultural dialogue in museums. A further intellectual genealogy for the key concepts of this thesis, comes from Irish studies (Anthony D Smith, Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism. London: Routledge, 1998), in the terms ‘Irish post colonialism’,  ‘Irish nationalism’ and ‘ethno-culturalism’ (p. 23), which Alan critically explores and makes use of in his research interviews with museum visitors about the Irish identity of artefacts and museum displays.

Chapter 2 presents Alan’s research methodology and critical stance with regard to existing museum interpretation. The three case study museums are discussed: the display of decorative arts and modern social and military Irish history (40 respondents) at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, Dublin; The Sacred Traditions Gallery, which presents world religions through its historic collections (27 respondents), at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin; and The History of Waterford (33 respondents), at the Waterford Museum of Treasures. In Waterford, he carried out group interviews with local migrants who were enrolled in educational classes at the local women’s centre. Overall, 42 interviewees identified themselves as coming from ethnic minorities. Chapters 3 – 6 then present findings from the data obtained from the interviews Alan carried out with 100 visitors to these three museums between 2008 and 2011, around half of whom were of ethnic minority backgrounds.

Chapter 3 reveals the motivations for museum visiting, setting responses within a frame of class and status in the Irish context. The findings of the visitor surveys are analyzed in terms of who visits and what motivates them to come. The economic and social status of visitors surveyed is analyzed within the theoretical framework of Pierre Bourdieu (1984), discussing how social class may affect cultural consumption. The findings show that while social and economic factors do have an impact on who uses Irish museums, with those from a higher social strata more inclined to visit, low income ethnic minorities may be motivated to visit by a desire to gain a better understanding of the area and its cultural identity in order to try and integrate into society more fully (p. 97). Alan’s conclusions suggest that one motivation for ethnic minority visitors to existing museum displays, is their desire to learn about what it means to be Irish. “‘Actually, there’s nothing much here about Irishness, if it had been, it would have really interested me Irish history etc. I came to see some Irish History and didn’t see it’ (Joseph, an Indian engineer visiting the Chester Beatty Library)” (pp. 83-84).

Chapter 4 highlights further findings as to whether multiculturalism exists within Irish museums. This chapter reveals how people use terms such as ‘multiculturalism’ in conversation. The findings infer how visitors perceive the social role of museums in a multicultural society. The chapter considers a strategy of active intercultural engagement in Irish museums, and points to how visitor interviews show that some kind of “process of intercultural negotiation and finding out about the ‘other’ is already taking place in the museums” (p. 134). As one interviewee stated, “‘There should be a collection of the other cultures as well, a mix of other cultures here so at least the Irish will be aware of the other countries’” (Martha, an Indian visitor to the National Museum of Ireland, p. 166).

Chapter 5 focuses on the National Museum of Ireland and confronts the concept of the postcolonial Irish museum in the past and future. By considering the National Museum of Ireland within the theoretical frame of postcolonial theory, visitor responses are further analyzed and interpreted to suggest ways in which past Irish history under British colonialism may have implications for any future role of Irish museums in a multicultural society. Alan suggests that the concept of ‘the other’ at the National Museum is “affected by Irish interpretations of the colonial past and contemporary Irish post colonialist discourse which addresses this past” (p. 155), and that is how Ireland has created its own sense of Irish identity (p. 169).

Chapter 6 extends Alan’s arguments in exploring how Ireland’s colonial and post-colonial experiences have influenced contemporary constructions of Irish identity and its representation at the nation’s museums, and how this process of identity construction continues today. In this chapter, he features white Irish interviewees’ responses which show that they overwhelming identify with “a strong ethnic and cultural ‘collective identity'” (p. 196). Whereas the recent migrants making use of museums “are involved in a process of interrogating definitions of Irish identity – past, present and future. Their questioning of Irish identity as represented by the case study museums is in many ways connected to minority participants assessing how they, but also, their future generations could be part of an Irish nation” (p. 196).

Chapter 7 places museums in the wider context of mass media. It considers how the museum is an important voice in communicating stories and messages about non-Irish culture. It interprets some of the interview responses concerning how they decoded or understood representations of non-Irish culture. It suggests that museum displays are considered “valued and trusted elements within the wider Irish mediascape” (p. 229).

Chapter 8 concludes with key findings, recommendations and future research.

Overall, Alan suggests that Irish museums should engage further in intercultural engagement: “The will and ability of Irish museums to engage with the cultural past and present of minority communities in their locale, especially newly arrived communities, is at the heart of museums’ participation in the multicultural agenda” (p. 240). He presents three key findings: “Minority ethnic participants in particular are utilizing the case-study museums to interrogate notions or constructions of Irishness ” (p. 233); further, “Museums are being visited by a diverse ethnic and cultural range of first generation migrants to Ireland. This is a significant finding in relation to such sites as places that can facilitate dialogue around future notions of an inclusive Irish multicultural society” (p. 236); and that “Ireland’s colonial past may play (a role) in contributing to the framing of the country’s multicultural future within Irish museums” (p. 238).

In order to move further towards Irish museums becoming spaces for intercultural dialogue, recommendations include: to “actively invite and employ individuals from the country’s diverse communities to contribute to the curation, programming, education and marketing of such institutions” (p. 245); to employ artists and musicians from ethnic minorities to work with the public; to go beyond education and outreach work, and “create a rounded, holistic intercultural museum” which includes collection acquisition, display and interpretation; and finally for the Irish Museums Association to take a lead and highlight the significant role its members can play, by situating intercultural debate at the centre of their institutions’ activities (p. 246).

This thesis has the potential to lead the way in advocating a new social role for Irish museums in society, in terms of how recent migration into twentieth-first century Ireland can affect the display of cultural identity in Irish museums. It critically assesses how Irish identity is currently represented and codified in museum displays, from the perspective of whether strategies include or exclude diverse cultural identities, including Irish cultural identity. This pioneering thesis argues that Irish museums can become spaces for dialogue and intercultural understanding between diverse communities and cultures and make a key contribution to cross-cultural awareness and mutual understanding in a multicultural Ireland.

Harriet Purkis PhD
Faculty of Arts
University of Ulster

Primary Sources
Museum Galleries: Sacred Traditions Gallery at the Chester Beatty Library, Waterford Museum of Treasures, National Museum of Ireland
Interview data: Results of semi-structured interviews with 100 museum visitors

Dissertation Information
University of Leicester. 2012. 282 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard Sandell.

Image: Young Curators, exhibition in The Exchange, Dublin 2013 as part of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival. ©The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

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