The people, places and things that make Dublin special.
It’s Ireland’s top museum, according to Trip Advisor, and last year it had 118,000 visitors. What was their experience of the Little Museum of Dublin like? And what’s the thinking behind it? We took the tour, and we talked to its founder to find out.
In the drawing room of a Georgian house, a window looks out over Stephen’s Green. Sitting on top of the frame are six fluffy ducklings, tiny masterpieces of the taxidermist’s art. But like every other exhibit in this remarkable museum, they have a good reason for being there – as our tour guide, June Fitzgibbon, points out. The ducklings are a playful reference to a ceasefire that was called during the Easter Rising: for a brief period, rebels and army agreed to stop shooting at each other so that the park keeper could feed the waterfowl on the Green.
‘Playful’ is a good way to describe the museum’s modus operandi as a whole. Or, as founder Trevor White puts it “we educate by stealth. We use entertainment as the vehicle, basically giving people a good time – because if they’re not having a good time they’re not going to be able to learn any new information”. “Forget dates”, adds Megan McDonnell, who is the museum’s first ‘Oscar Wilde Fellow’, tasked with injecting performance and theatricality into the museum. “Boring museums are ancient history”, she says. “We’re all about putting on a nice show for our visitors”.
White describes the LMD as a people’s museum – and he means this in a very literal way. “I suppose what makes it unusual is that public donations created the entire collection by the people of Dublin. When we launched the museum we’d no building, we had no artefacts and no money”.
The premises itself was also donated – by Dublin City Council – and the collection it now houses goes way beyond eclectic. Here you will find everything from a pot of Sudocreme (‘invented by Dublin pharmacist Thomas Smith in 1931’, reads the caption, ‘now sold in 30 countries around the world, it remains your only man for nappy rash’) to ‘an original Georgian roof slate from Russborough House‘.
If there are precedents for this sort of thing, Trevor doesn’t know of them. “I’ve not seen a museum with a collection that’s created by public donation. I’ve never seen anything like it”. Two practical advantages were gained by making that public appeal for assistance. “The first”, says Trevor, “was that we were able to build a collection, and the second is that we got public buy-in, we gave the people of the city a kind of a connection to it, it was their museum”.
According to Trevor, this place is all about forging connections – between Dubliners and their city and between the city and the rest of Ireland. “Dublin has a very complex relationship with the rest of the country. Obviously, there are sound historical reasons for that. It was the centre of colonial occupation, etc. But I suppose my conviction is that it’s time to move on really. We’re nearly 100 years an independent nation, and without a strong dynamic capital, the rest of the country is banjaxed.”
“This window once lived on the side of a Dublin tram.” This is just one of our 5,000 objects on display. Join us seven days a week on a #guidedtour of our main collection, every hour on the hour between 9:30am and 5pm! Book your tickets now on our website: https://t.co/KGlFka1dN1 pic.twitter.com/c51o7V8C8B
— The Little Museum (@dublinmuseum) March 26, 2019
In addition to its regular guided tours and an ongoing series of temporary exhibitions, the museum runs two innovative outreach-type projects. I Love Dublin is an education programme for school kids from all over the country. Says Trevor “it’s free and it’s basically about developing civic pride here in Dublin. What typically happens is a group of kids will come in here at 11 o’clock, and they’ll be rather bored and yawning and not very happy, and they’ll leave an hour later, and some of them are walking a little bit taller. That is the product here, ultimately. Why are we doing this? We’re doing it because we want to create a new generation of civic-spirited leaders”.
The other initiative is the City of a Thousand Welcomes. “It’s a greeter program”, explains Trevor, “where Dubliners volunteer to meet a visitor to the city – they go off and have a cup of tea or a pint, the Dubliner volunteers their time, and the visitor gets the free welcome – with a pint or a cup of tea provided by our hospitality partners the Merrion Hotel, the Porterhouse, and Hatch and Sons. It happens every day. It’s a lovely thing, and it’s a hugely important part of the work, and something we’re very proud of”.
Trevor, who was previously editor of the Dubliner magazine, says “I’ve been lucky enough both in this job and in the last job I did to serve as kind of a champion of the city. I spent most of my career writing about Dublin, and I suppose I just love the city. I think it’s one of the great small cities in Europe. I think as Dubliners we often overlook its charms”.
And that’s another thing that the Little Museum of Dublin has in spades: charm. As befits a ‘little’ museum, the tour takes a mere 29 minutes – they are minutes you will enjoy spending.