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Broadening the appeal

The Interview
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Broadening the appeal

 

Sean Rice 

SOME day soon Bob Dylan will perform in Turlough Park … and Anne O’Dowd’s dream will have been fulfilled. No effort is being spared to seduce the celebrated American artiste to the idyllic setting which the Dublin-born curator helped to pin down for the vibrant Museum of Country Life.
She will have drawn experience for the Dylan event from the concert she has organised for June 24, the first to be held on the pastoral grounds, featuring Sharon Shannon, Finbar Furey, Lunasa and the Sligo group Dervish.
A casual remark to music friends in Dublin that she was pursuing Dylan in order to expand use of the grounds at Turlough House left Anne grabbing greedily at their offer to perform a traditional Irish concert  … an event that will engage the consummate organisational ability of the staff.
The concert has a dual purpose. In addition to raising funds for the Aisling project it will also attract the one category of visitor that has slipped the nets. Unlike the hordes of others, who have made up the half a million and more visitors to the museum, those in the age group 17- 21 have eluded all inducements.
Four-and-a-half years into its dynamic life the Museum is now hosting 105,000 visitors a year. Only that one age-group is missing. For them the concert may become the catalyst. Music transcends all cultures.
Dora Murphy, who is attached to the education department of the museum, said exhibitions of that nature were not considered cool by teenagers. Things linked to their parents which seem to be old-fashioned was not their main interest. They don’t want to be shown around the exhibitions and told how easy they have it compared to their parents. It is not what they want to hear. They want to be involved in popular culture.
Has that to do with a sense of shame about our past? The thatch or anything remotely connected with the lifestyle of a primitive past, anything to do with that netherworld of poverty and servility and repression? No, claims Anne O’Dowd. Indeed the present generation is removed from that.
“It is our generation that is ashamed, and I think that’s why it took so long for the museum to happen. This collection was being put together as far back as 1900. But it was stored all over the place. It ended up in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham. It was kicked out of there and went down to Daingean in Offaly. And when it went down there in the late seventies everyone thought that would be the end of it. It would sink into the bog.
“We are ashamed of it. It smells of poverty. It smells of disease. It smells of death. We don’t want to know about it.”
Fortunately, someone did. Someone cared. Anne O’Dowd was in Finland studying Finnish folklore when the decision was made to move the collection to the old reformatory in Daingean. It had never been out of storage and her heart was set on saving it for posterity. She had joined the Museum in 1976, studied folklore under the guidance of Kevin Danagher who instilled in his students the importance of the collection. All his life he had tried to get it on exhibition but despaired of the bureaucratic lethargy that prevented it.
Anne took up the challenge, determined that the dream engendered by Kevin Danagher would not die. She came to the museum eager and committed to that cause. With help from the museum directors she produced a strategic plan for exhibiting the collection. All she wanted was a suitable location to have it displayed.
While working on another project in Achill and east Mayo some years later Anne read in The Mayo News of the purchase of Turlough House and Park by Mayo county manager, Des Mahon. Her pulse raced. “I had a list as long as my arm of places proposed for the museum. Nobody had taken it up. You would be told to go and have a look at places and you would get your expenses. But nobody picked up the report. Everything got into a file and was forgotten.
“When I saw Turlough House and Park I said we cannot let this slip. It was like walking into a house and saying yes this is where I want to live. I knew there and then where I wanted the collection to be, and where I wanted to work.”
It all happened at the end of the Fine Gael Coalition period in Government and Enda Kenny, who was Minister for Tourism, rushed the project through the Cabinet table and the decision was made.
It could have gone elsewhere. Sites were available in Wexford, Galway, Sligo, Cork and Collins Barracks in Dublin. But by a long shot Turlough was the most suitable. Des Mahon had come to the rescue of Anne O’Dowd’s dream in buying the estate and with Michael D Higgins and Bord Fáilte on board agreement was unanimous. In September 2001 the Museum of County Life threw its doors open to the public for the first time.
“It has been a roaring success,” says Anne. “It is the envy of the National Museum. When you compare like with like we are streets ahead of Collins Barracks. When you look at the population of Dublin compared to the population of the west this has been an amazing success in comparative terms.”
Although born and bred in Dublin, Anne has been attracted to the west all her life. In early childhood her father, a native of Ballinasloe, packed all of them into the car and took them to Invern in Connemara on holidays. She loved everything about Connemara, loved even the taste of iodine from seaweed in the milk of the cows. When the rest of the family went elsewhere on holidays she was drawn back to the west. Now she lives in Kilmeena. “It’s a dream come true for me to be living here.”
But they would like to collar that one group of young people that ignore their work, to throw to them an incentive to come and see for themselves.
Dora Murphy says the drive to know where we come from is a curiosity in most people, and the phase young people are going through will change. When you move on in years people get curious to know where we come from. You begin to see the stories told again and again by your parents in a different light.
On May 18 - International Museums Day - for which the theme is ‘Young People and Museums’ they are organising a one-day seminar in Turlough House with speakers from museums in Wales and England. Transition Year students from Rice College and Davitt College will speak on the value of the museum, what they think is being done right, what might be wrong, and what they are not doing. Their views ought to be informative.
Dora has been attached to the Museum since October. A native of Castlebar, she lived in Berlin for years, involved in various aspects of adult education. “What we are about is coming up with ideas of entertainment basically. Hoping people will learn through that and using what we have got, whether it is the artefacts, the exhibitions, the grounds of Turlough House, and building projects around them. It is about learning, how you make it enjoyable. We want people to tell us what they want and we will work with them.
“We have Sunday/Wednesday programmes for families. Parents are often looking for something to do with their children and we are relatively easy accessed. Older people are catered for through groups, people participating in communities or old folks, active retirement, women’s groups etc. At present we are looking at catering for pre-school groups. And everything is free.”
On Mayo 20 and 21 next they are holding a Féile. The brainchild of Bernie Byron in the marketing section, the two-day event was a huge success last year involving the creations of crafts-people, all sorts of artists, education programmes, traditional games, storytelling, music lessons for children etc  … something for everybody.
They have in mind for the future the introduction of rare breeds of animals to the museum, animals that had to to with the traditional way of life.
There is still a large part of the collection in Daingean and they want to get that moved west  … agricultural machinery, tractors, carts etc for which they need an open purpose-built store. They hope to begin work on that next year.
A new venture on which they have embarked is the Lunchtime Talk to cater for those who complain that their daily programmes are scheduled while people are at work. People can take in lunch in the excellent restaurant in the House and listen to the guest speaker for half an hour. They have had one speaker already who gave a talk on beekeeping. John O’Brien will talk on the Ice Age, Lord Lucan’s Estate and Clew Bay.
Further innovation may have the museum linking up with Turlough village. “We cannot isolate ourselves on our little patch, we have to think of the village outside the gates. We would like to know what their plans are. Can we be part of what their hopes are,” says Anne.
The concert on June 24 will be a huge attraction. They are expecting 3,000 to turn up, the proceeds of which will go towards the Aisling Project which helps people who emigrated in the 40s and 50s, and did not quite make it.
After that Bob Dylan will be the focus of their considerable energies.

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