‘The half that just haven’t been mentioned yet’: Women’s Museum of Ireland interview

Karl McDonald
Posted March 4, 2013 in Opinion


Ahead of the Women’s Museum of Ireland‘s debut exhibition, Monsters of Creation: Snapshots of Women in Higher Education tonight at 8pm in the Long Room Hub in Trinity, we sat down with founders Jean Sutton and Kate Cunningham to talk about motivations, future plans and being told that there are no women in history because women have literally never done anything until now.

Where did the idea for the museum come from?

Jean Sutton: It came from a Facebook joke.

Kate Cunningham: It was Jean’s idea, first of all.

JS: I was in Vietnam and I saw a women’s museum and thought, “this is great”. I thought it’d be great in Ireland, it would be gas, because certain people would give out about it. And then I did an article for the Journal, and people weren’t even reading the article, just giving crazy comments. So when people were talking about what to do with the Central Bank building, I thought it would be funny to suggest making it into a women’s museum, so I put it on Facebook and Twitter, and Kate responded. Holly Furlong, Ursula Quill and another girl Zoe Coleman from Sligo are also involved.

Do you have a medium-term plan for this?

KC: The medium-term plan is to have a physical presence by the summer, but only a temporary one. The plan is to put together a whole series of small exhibitions and then bring them all together for a week.

JS: I have a long-term plan which is quite ambitious in that I actually want a permanent space.

KC: She actually wants the bank.

JS: I actually want to get a building in Dublin. And I’m around for a while. I really want some of that Arts Council funding. It’s fifty percent of the population.

Probably fifty-one.

JS: Yeah, and I also want to go international with it, to go to America and Australia where the Irish diaspora is quite strong, to do travelling exhibitions. When I was in Toronto, they had the clay soldiers there. I think we could do a lot more of that in Ireland, and I think the government might be interested in helping us out with that. So in the next few weeks and months we’re going to set up an outreach operation, sign people up here and abroad, and then we’re going to set up a company and try for charitable status. 

KC: We just want to build ourselves into a sort of tangible organisation. At the moment we’ve no money, at all. We’ve got a grand total of about €400. So we need to give ourselves a presence, to build a following I suppose.

Well you’re getting started.

JS: Yeah, we’ve got a really nice website, and Facebook, and Twitter, and Tumblr. And Pinterest.

It’s interesting to go abroad to where the diaspora is, to bring your own curated version of Irish women’s history to people who might not be immediately involved in modern Irish society but would identify as Irish.

KC: Women’s roles in the Irish abroad are really important. Something like 60 per cent of the people who sent money back from America in the early days of emigration were women. It’s really important to look at that.

JS: Also Rian Derrig’s speech that was in the Irish Times brought up the question of how come the Irish, when they go abroad, are so ambitious. In Ireland, we’re prone to being really modest, to a damaging degree, whereas when we go abroad, we’re massive businesspeople and success stories. I think it would be interesting to try and bridge those different Irelands.

One of the most interesting exhibitions I’ve seen was an exhibition of Finnish art in the National Gallery that told you all about how the Finnish artists all went abroad to Paris to live with their mistresses, and sent their art back. It was a strange one to see in the National Gallery and I think it would be interesting to show Irish stuff abroad like that.

Also, the Vietnamese museum was incredibly nationalistic, but in Ireland I think we have a healthy disdain for the country, so I don’t think we’re in danger of being too celebratory.

You don’t think so? Not even in a twee way, like ‘ah, auld Ireland’?

JS: Well, we’re not going to be looking for old Ireland back.

Most of the stuff for this exhibition is loaned, I take it?

KC: Well it’s all digital because it’s a photographic exhibition, but obviously the rights still belong to the original owners. We’re not dealing with any physical artefacts for this one. One of the big things about having this exhibition is to show people that it’s more than just a website, that it has a long-term plan. Obviously museum loans and artefacts are a huge deal, and they involve quite a lot of mutual trust.

JS: I think the goal is to get the structure in place and to give people assigned roles, whether online or in outreach or in fundraising and to turn into a proper, full-time operation, so our work can be targeted. I think because we have no government funding we are a little constrained, but we can also be bolder. The goal to go abroad is to do with that, because there is money there. There’s no money in Ireland, because of cuts and so on.

Are you actively trying to build a collection?

KC: Of artefacts? Well, it’s more a collection research. That’s one of the biggest assets we have, that there is actually a huge body of research out there, and a huge community of people really interested in women’s history. It’s just that nobody has taken on the job of really curating it and making it publicly accessible. So we are in the sense that we’re currently working with people who are writing things and sourcing information. Our first collections will be academic, more information-based. After that, if we want to and if we can, we’ll collect things, like a photography library.

JS: A lot of it would be loans and donations. I think in the same way that people love seeing their name in the paper, people would be really happy if they saw their granny in a museum.

So it’s just a case of building up trust for a while?

KC: Women’s history also operates slightly differently in that it’s not always artefact-based. If you go to a history museum there might be a lot of military history, whereas women’s history operated on a different level. So much of it is domestic, or artistic. If you’re working with cultural history, so much of it is music and art, that don’t necessarily translate into a physical object.

Are you expecting a fully broad audience within Irish society or are you looking for people who are interested specifically in women’s history?

KC: Well the point of it is that it’s just history. A lot of what we’ve been talking about is that this stuff is just there, but it hasn’t been unearthed before. It’s history that’s already there, as opposed to building a whole new interest. If you’re interested in Civil War history, you should by default then be interested in the half of the participants that just haven’t been mentioned yet.

So you’re just presenting what’s already there.

KC: Yeah, and a lot of the research is already done, but it’s just lying there in academia.


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