“This side of the Green is a little austere, a little institutional. We joke about it as “the Dark Side of the Green”, but as people walk through MoLI they will discover that there is a whole hidden oasis behind the walls, beautiful exhibition rooms, a wonderful collision of old and new architecture, secret gardens and our wonderful Commons Café.”
Can you explain the origins and role of the Museum of Literature Ireland?
The project began as a chance conversation in Bewley’s Café on Grafton St between my Chairman, Eamonn Ceannt – a sculptor and ex-Bursar of UCD – and the National Library of Ireland, focusing on two things: Newman House, UCD’s original home in the city, and the NLI’s Joyce collections, which were no longer on public display. A working group was put together to explore the possibilities of a Joyce exhibition at Newman House, which prompted a major donation from the Naughton Foundation.
This ignited the project – architects and exhibitions designers were invited to present ideas. Further support from Fáilte Ireland through their capital programme allowed the project to grow in ambition, effectively developing into a major new cultural institution which will open on Culture Night this year. We hope it will be a literary focal point in the city, not just for visitors, but for locals and the creative community too.
Can you offer some insights into the work done by architects Scott Tallon Walker and exhibition designers Ralph Appelbaum? What factors were taken into consideration in the development of its base at Newman House?
Scott Tallon Walker created a fantastic design that not only transformed the old UCD exam hall (the ‘Aula Max’) into a 10,000 ft2 exhibition space, but also created access to a very special but tricky suite of Georgian houses. The site comprises of three buildings. One of these, 85 St Stephen’s Green, was designed by Richard Cassels, and has a particularly delicate historic fabric. The architectural and construction work carried out is a major conservation achievement. Our exhibition designers, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, had to design an exhibition that had Joyce and the NLI collections at its core, but still allowed us to explore Irish writing from the past to the present.
When RAA asked one of my colleagues what content assets we had, she joked “1500 years of literature in two and more languages”. The final design approach is wonderful – from quite traditional artefact-based displays to immersive digital art installation, from author-specific to thematic and genre-focused exhibits.
Your previous role was as a founding curator with the Little Museum of Dublin across Stephen’s Green. What learnings did you take from it?
When I was helping Trevor White setup the Little Museum, I remember there was a clear sense at one point that the project was driving us and we had to keep up with it. MoLI feels like that in extremis – it has been propelled forward by so many different people, all of whom have been utterly crucial to its progress, and now it is about to come alive. Making sure that we allow it to develop in the way that is best for the museum as a cultural institution is essential, while remaining focused on public engagement as the core outcome of all our activity. That is something that is easy to say but requires real commitment to achieve.
What did your research into the creation of the museum tell you about identifying your ‘culturally curious’ target audience. What innovations are in place to appeal to them?
I think what is being created at MoLI goes far beyond a typical exhibition build that is focused on an international market segment. The Culturally Curious visitor, as defined in so much of Fáilte Ireland’s research and development, will adore the museum – and not just for innovative exhibitions & wonderful collections. This will be a living, breathing creative and civic space incorporating exhibitions, gardens, learning spaces, food, and historic houses that have played their own significant role in Irish literary history.
We want to encourage repeat visits – regularly changing exhibitions will be complemented with exciting programming all year round and throughout the summer months, including late openings for visitors who want an alternative to alcohol-based activities or attractions in the evenings. Our target audience is everybody, every age group and every demographic – MoLI will quickly become a place that is loved by locals, and there is nothing more appealing to international visitors than that.
The building was originally called the Ulysses Centre. What led to the name change?
It was important that the project had a name that accurately described the activity in the building; that would communicate a strong brand to visitors; that would reflect the gravitas of our parents in UCD and the NLI, but at the same time have an openness and accessibility – and playfulness – that would break down some of the seriousness and austerity with which Irish literature can sometimes be perceived. Joyce is at the core of everything we do, so the name also had to make a reference to Joyce in some way. A tall order! But I think we hit the target with ‘MoLI‘. And I’m delighted that the museum was named for Joyce’s heroine. The reaction to the name has been so overwhelmingly positive, it quite took us by surprise.
The project is a partnership between the National Library of Ireland and UCD who own Newman House. Are materials on display sourced from these collections? What over avenues did you explore in sourcing content for MOLI?
The core exhibitions include spectacular items from both the National Library and UCD Special Collections. In particular the NLI’s Joyce collections, including Joyce’s famous ‘Copy No.1’ of Ulysses, which he personally inscribed to his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver. This is such an incredible item to have on display – a modern day Book of Kells, and easily the most important modern literary artefact on display anywhere in the world. We will continue to develop exhibitions which will further explore the literary collections of both the NLI and UCD – I think MoLI will be an exciting public platform for both institutions, and for us it is exciting to have that kind of access to our parents’ treasures!
What can people expect when they walk through the doors of MOLI for the first time on Culture Night?
I think, more than anything, people will be surprised – from the outside this side of the Green is a little austere, a little institutional. We joke about it as “the Dark Side of the Green”, but as people walk through MoLI they will discover that there is a whole hidden oasis behind the walls, beautiful exhibition rooms, a wonderful collision of old and new architecture, secret gardens and our wonderful Commons Café (run by Domini and Peaches Kemp). They won’t want to leave. Of course, being Culture Night we’ll have lots of fun activities happening throughout the museum, a little taster of our plans for late night openings. And it will be a really momentous – and I expect emotional – moment for us when we open those doors for the very first time to the public. After nearly 10 years in the making, we will have finally arrived at the starting line.
UCD Newman House, 86 St Stephen’s Green
It will be open seven days a week from 10am to 6pm from Saturday September 21
Adults €8, Child, Student, Over 65s €6 & Family €17
Photos: Killian Broderick