Behind the scenes: History conservators open up on their running of the National Museum of Ireland

Hazel Gordon

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National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts and History - Michael Collins Barracks

The National Museum of Ireland is an educator of the history of Ireland while also acting as a source for Irish history on a global scale. Founded in 1877, it is centre to our social, political, and cultural history. A significant site of the museum’s grounds is Collins Barracks, which not only contains exhibitions, but is a part of history, having played a role in the 1798 Rebellion and the 1916 Easter Rising.

Today the Barracks contains the museum’s conservation studios, the means of entrance for every artefact into the exhibitions. The modern labs of the studios are where nine conservators work across the four sections of the museum. They are responsible for the 4 million artefacts that are currently on display.

Patrick Boyle specialises in furniture that comes in to the labs. ‘This is all from somebody’s kitchen and was treated as what it is, just furniture, but in here it’s delicate and is used to help us learn more about the past,’ he says as he is cleaning a 100-year-old dining chair with bamboo toothpicks. His small laboratory is full of furniture and other artefacts such as a 17th century bronze bell.

17th Century Bronze Bell Artefact

Before an artefact is placed in an exhibition its context must be established. To explain this, Patrick took an old cigarette tin that was made in Dublin. As just a random object, it would be considered as a piece of social history. If it was discovered it belonged to James Joyce, for example, it would have a completely different historical context and treatment. Items are frozen for 3 days if possible to kill any pests that may be living on them.

The nine members of staff in the conservation studios don’t only work on preparing items for the museum here in Dublin, they also loan out artefacts to other museums. The National Museum loans out items to exhibitions all over the world. So far, this year loans have been made to London, Prague, Boston, and New York among others.

Hannah Power works in what she calls ‘applied arts,’ or everything after archaeology, taxidermy, and furniture. Her laboratory is significantly bigger than Patrick’s, to hold the larger artefacts she specialises in.

Her current project is renovating a badly damages marching drum that dates to the 1913 Lockout. While cleaning the drum, she came across handprints from the individual that was using it, their sweat imprinted the mark on the calfskin. She spoke of her plans to repair the drum using a similar material to tie it back together so as not to interfere with the artefact too much.

Hannah’s passion and interest in historical weapons is evident when she speaks about her work with them. Hannah shows photographs of a 19th century dagger when she received it to compare it to after it’s been cleaned. It has suffered some corrosion but the visible detailing reveal it to be a dagger from the Persian King’s army.

Conservator Paul Mullarkey is studying to find further information about a book shrine that was found in a lake in Co. Roscommon in 1986. The shrine was preserved in the lake as it settled in to the peat in the bed of the lake. It has an oak base and an engraved mounting made of bronze, amber and gold. It was discovered with a metal detector. The engravings in the metal date back to the 9th century. The base was held for 3 months in salt to dehydrate it as if it was left to air dry the wood would crack.

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Another aspect of working behind the scenes of the museum is making replicas. Nieves Fernandez makes replicas of donations for other museums, or makes a copy for the National Museum if the person doesn’t want to donate the real thing. She also makes replicas for artefacts that may have missing or broken parts. She adds a catalyst to silicone to make a solid. Photographs of her impressive work are kept.

The current project is a replica of John Boyle O’Reilly’s death mask. The mask is for a prison turned museum in Australia where O’Reilly was held in the 1860s. It is tedious but rewarding work, the real artefacts and the copies are identical to every detail.

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The National Museum of Ireland is open to the public Tuesday to Sunday and is currently preparing for summer exhibits.

National Museum of Ireland | Free Exhibitions

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Hazel Gordon