Visiting Museums – my personal bugbears!

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I’ve been on the road again visiting museums and heritage sites around Ireland. For the most part I’ve loved it. I learnt a lot and met many interesting people along the way. But I’ve also noticed that there are many things that could be done better and while there are specific things that could be improved at individual sites there are also a number of things that repeatedly drive me mad – things that could be fixed without any great investment of time or money.

I’m in the process of drawing up a list of things that have a negative impact on the visitor experience (and suggest some things that are easy (and cheap) to do that might save other visitors the irritation I’ve felt). This is just a start…I’ll have lots more to say when I go through my notes, but if anyone has suggestions of things to add to my list – things that drive them mad, or examples of where things have been done really well, please drop me a line and and I’ll include them.

To start here’s a few that immediately spring to mind:

List the correct opening days and opening hours on your website. There’s nothing worse than driving for hours to get to a site only to find that it’s closed when the website said it would be open. In some instances I’ve found sites that have different opening hours listed on different (official) sites. On one occasion I rang the site the day before I wanted to visit and was told that the last tour was at 4.00pm so we turned up at 3.30 only to discover that the last tour had already left.

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A padlocked door – never a good sign during supposed ‘opening hours’

Don’t spend lots of money on technology. It’s expensive, prone to breaking down and difficult to get fixed. It also goes out of date almost as soon as it’s installed. I can think of only one site I’ve visited where all the technology has been working when I’ve been there. There are occasions when it’s great and enhances the experience, but so often it really is a waste of money.

Be friendly and welcoming. In most cases those at reception and tickets desks are very friendly and helpful, but not always and a grumpy or sullen ‘welcome’ really does impact on the rest of the visit. More than once I’ve waited to buy tickets while the person behind the desk has continued a lengthy (and clearly personal) telephone call. On one very recent visit the man at the ticket desk never once looked at me or spoke to me while he took my money and begrudgingly handed me a receipt.

Death by Text. Many museums have an enormous number of panels stuffed full of information. No one will ever read all of them. And in rooms full of them many people will read none of them. Keep it short and sweet and direct visitors to books about the topics that the interested visitor can buy instead.

Less is More. Don’t put all your artefacts on display. Curate them, rotate them. Tell interesting stories about the ones that are there. Visitors will remember those stories, and they’ll come back to hear new ones when the displays change.

Tell memorable stories. I want to know about the buildings and the architectural detail can be fascinating, but I also want to know about the people who lived in these buildings. Too often I learn about the bricks and mortar, the naves and architraves, the mullions and machicolations without any proper explanation of what they are or why they’re there. Often I learn nothing about the people associated with these places. Frequently I bring children with me on these trips and the language used is often not appropriate – what 12 year old knows what a machicolation or a mullion is. Complex things can be explained using simple language.

But it is mostly good news. There are some brilliant things being done in museums and heritage sites across the country and I will write up a post about some of the best places I’ve visited recently when I’ve got over my irritation about driving for several hours to visit a site only for find it closed for a a private function!

In search of misery…please help!

Over the next few months I’ll complete my tour of misery in Ireland (and hopefully complete my jigsaw). Most of the trips have been far from miserable, but I have sought out tales of suffering, misery and hardship as told through our museums and heritage sites. I’ve traveled thousands of kilometers up, down and across the country to see how sites tell the stories of conflict, starvation, emigration and death.

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So far I’ve visited twenty-three counties and I’ve another four counties – Kerry, Clare, Offaly and Fermanagh to visit over the next few weeks.

However, there are five counties where I currently have no sites to see – Cavan, Longford, Leitrim, Armagh and Kildare (and only one site in Clare). I’d like to be able to include all thirty-two counties in the book so if anyone has any suggestions of places to visit in those counties please let me know.

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The key criteria is that there has to be some interpretation associated with the site – a memorial, statue or plaque isn’t sufficient (though I do stop by any that I happen to be passing). Ideally, the museum or heritage site should have some connection with the stories that it tells – places such as Wicklow Gaol, the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna, the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross where the site is crucial to the visitor experience are ideal, but I’ll go anywhere that tells a story associated with a place rather than a generic story of the famine in Ireland – anything to get that jigsaw finished!

If anyone has suggestions for places I might visit please let me know via here, or twitter (@gillianmobrien) or email: g.p.obrien@ljmu.ac.uk.

Dark Tourism – Sligo Gaol

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In early September I spoke at the ‘Crime and Punishment in 19th & 20th Century Ireland’ Conference which had been organised by The Friends of Sligo Gaol to mark the bi-centenary of the prison. The conference was great – it’s rare that I go to a conference where I want to hear all the papers. The location of the conference was fitting in some ways – formerly St Columba’s asylum, now a hotel. Not content with hosting a conference the Friends of Sligo Gaol also launched a beautifully illustrated children’s book about a child prisoner and commissioned a painting of Michael Collins, the jail’s most famous prisoner. And they had themed buns! Continue reading

Never work with Animals or Children, they say…

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Meeting me on my travels should come with some sort health and safety warning. There’s a distinct possibility that you might be dragged out on a skite to visit a site – as darkness falls after dinner and a couple of glasses of wine it is dangerous to mention that there’s a dolmen just out the road and sure we’d make it before dark to have a look. I will insist upon it! In the gloaming it was a wonder neither of us were garroted by barbed wire or carried out with a broken ankle! Also, it’s probably best not to meet me for breakfast as I’m likely to abandon the coffee shop for a quick wander around the local graveyard. That seems to me like a perfectly sensible thing to do after tea and toast.

 

Since the middle of May I have visited 36 museums and heritage sites as part of my Grand Tour of Ireland (and that doesn’t include the late night foray to see a Dolmen in Roscommon, or the early morning traipse around a graveyard in Athlone.) I’ve been to forts, prisons, stately homes, tenements, cemeteries, workhouses, military barracks and more. It’s been informative and really enjoyable. I’ve met all sorts of fascinating folk on my travels (of which more anon) and had some excellent travelling companions.

They say never work with animals or children. So far I haven’t taken any animals with me, but I have taken children and teenagers on some of my visits. I’m interested in seeing what interests them at sites that deal with difficult and, at times, upsetting, stories. I was a little wary about borrowing children to use as my research assistants (I didn’t take any kids I don’t already know, but still I thought there might be a lot of long drives full of grumpy silences…I was wrong. They were brilliant, insightful and entertaining).

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The visits I made with the kids were the best ones. They spot things that would have gone unnoticed by me. They’re bored by a lot of the things I found fascinating. They were curious and in many cases had questions that weren’t answered by the panel text or the audio or visuals (some of the questions I could answer…occasionally it’s useful to go around Irish historical sites with an Irish historian. Other times I suspect it’s a bore. I tried to limit my ‘Did you know….’ stories!)

It was no surprise that they enjoyed being active rather than passive. They don’t need everything to be interpreted – sometimes it’s enough to be allowed roam around a site (though a little more interpretation at Charles Fort in Kinsale wouldn’t go amiss). Sneaking about, staring at walls trying to find some old graffiti that hasn’t been spotted before, disappearing down tunnels and playing with creaky doors are some of the great joys of visiting old sites. Being able to go inside a cell and close the door, being allowed walk around the prison yard, (this was possible in Wicklow Gaol, but not in Cork City Gaol…and we’d really liked to have been able to do that there), seeing the dormitories in a workhouse were all moving and visceral experiences. Being told that a family of 8 needed to eat 25 kilos of potatoes a day is pretty abstract, but being able to pick up a sack that weighs 25 kilos is much more tangible. Knowing that up to 300 steerage passengers were crammed below decks in the Dunbrody famine ship for weeks at a time is one thing, sitting in the hold of the full-sized replica gives a real sense of just how awful that experience was.

 

Through August and September I’ll be visiting another 30 sites (and I suspect that number will grow as I get recommendations along the way – having long been sceptical of Twitter it has been the source of many excellent recommendations and has brought me to places I would never have thought of visiting.) I have visited or am visiting heritage centres or museums in every county except Down, Armagh, Fermanagh, Mayo, Longford, Kildare and Clare. If I’ve missed out on any ‘Dark Tourism’ museums in those counties let me know.

I’ll also be adding to the #ReshootingJohnHinde map as I go. The map that Ronan O’Driscoll is kindly updating can be seen here: #ReshootingJohnHinde and if anyone wants to get involved in adding to the map then just follow the instructions here

 

 

Dark Tourism on RTE Radio 1

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Last Friday I spoke to Ryan Tubridy about Dark Tourism and my plans to spend the summer travelling around Ireland visiting sites associated with suffering, misery and death. I hadn’t banked on the weather being glorious, which makes chasing shadows both necessary and incongruous!

I really enjoyed the chat with Ryan where I got to talk about my grandmother’s love of death (!), lots of amazing sites, my attempts to make the journey more cheerful by trying to recreate John Hinde postcards with images of today and having William Makepeace Thackeray, Frank O’Connor and others as my aged guides around the country.

You can listen back to the interview here: Dark Tourism RTE Radio 1

I have a long list of places to visit. Phase 1 of this project involves visiting sites that have a museum or heritage site or interpretative centre associated with them, but if you know of others please contact me so I can add them to my list.

This is what my map currently looks like:

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Phase 2 will include tours – be they walking, driving, sailing, flying…..

Phase 3 will include memorials (and anything else I’ve missed)

I won’t be doing Phases 2 & 3 this summer (unless I work out how to clone myself), but feel free to add to my list so that I can investigate them in the future.

Next week I take on Cork, Kerry, Galway and Roscommon!

Finally, the John Hinde Postcard project is very much a communal effort so if you want to help us cover the country please join in.  You can read here about how to do that here: #ReshootingJohnHinde

Contact me on Twitter: @gillianmobrien or by email: g.p.obrien@ljmu.ac.uk

Where Am I? Ireland’s Ancient East

RTE’s excellent Brainstorm site recently published my thoughts on Ireland’s Ancient East (they’re not all negative, but it’s such a shame that the concept is so flawed when for no additional financial investment it could have been so much better). Anyway, the article is below or you can also read it here

Ireland’s Ancient East: when East is not always east

Hook Lighthouse in Co Wexford, which is definitely in the Ancient East. Photo: Michael Gissane
Hook Lighthouse in Co Wexford, which is definitely in the Ancient East. Photo: Michael Gissane
Opinion: the idea behind Ireland’s Ancient East is hugely commendable, but there are serious problems with the concept in both form and content

By Gillian O’BrienLiverpool John Moores University

Since its launch in 2014, the Wild Atlantic Way has been enormously successful so it is easy to see why Fáilte Ireland was keen to introduce a new branded tourist offering to lure visitors to and through Ireland. However, Ireland’s Ancient East lacks the coherent offering of the Wild Atlantic Way. If Ireland’s Ancient East as a concept meandered south from the Cooley Peninsula in Co. Louth to Hook Head in Co. Wexford then the designation would make sense.

But it doesn’t. Instead, it travels as far west as Cork city and Dowra, Co. Cavan and intersects with the Wild Atlantic Way at three points. In Fáilte Ireland’sreimagining of Irish geography, east is east and west is west, except when it is both, while the poor midlands appear to have been entirely obliterated.

The idea behind Ireland’s Ancient East is to increase visitor awareness of sites that are off the beaten track and encourage longer stays in areas that have been traditionally overlooked as destinations. Raising awareness of some fascinating, if largely unknown sites, such as St Peter’s Tin Church in Co. Monaghan and Loftus Hall in Co. Wexford, is an excellent idea and crucially brings much-needed money into the local economy.

However, there are serious problems with Ireland’s Ancient East both in form and content. While the signage for the Wild Atlantic Way is discreet yet distinctive, the same cannot be said of Ireland’s Ancient East. When a visitor reaches an Ireland’s Ancient East site, they are greeted by a large, rather gaudy, double-sided sign. The chief purpose of the sign is not to shed light on the site itself, but to highlight 10 other sites in the vicinity. There is a photo of each site, a short description and an estimate of how long it will take to get there. On the reverse there is a map indicating where the sites are located.

Yet nowhere do these signs tell the visitor where they actually are. “You are here” proclaims the map, but where “here” might be is not explained. If a visitor happened to stumble across a sign at an unstaffed site, they would have to go to the next location to find out where they had been. Since each sign is bespoke (the map is different for every site), there is no reason why a paragraph about the site couldn’t be included. It’s a missed opportunity.

Storytelling is key to the Ireland’s Ancient East brand. While the Wild Atlantic Way, is primarily focussed on the landscape, the Ireland’s Ancient East website attempts to link the disparate collection of sites under a range of “signature stories” including “Castles and Conquests”“High Kings and Heroes” and “Sacred Ireland”. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, but it’s worrying to read in Fáilte Ireland’s Toolkit for Storytelling Interpretation that “storytelling interpretation does not look or sound like a history book. Think of it as a novel, even a graphic novel”.

The implication is clear: all history books are dull and the past needs a light dusting of fiction to make it palatable. This focus on simplifying the past into bite-sized chunks of easily digestible narrative is both disappointing and surprising, especially when you consider the target market for Ireland’s Ancient East is the “culturally curious”. According to Fáilte Ireland, these tourists are over forty years of age, “independent active sightseers”, travel as a couple or individuals who want “an authentic experience” and “love to discover history”.

There’s a real danger that Ireland’s Ancient East will reinforce stereotypical ideas of Ireland as a nation of spontaneous storytellers

The culturally curious may “love to discover history”, but sifting truth from fiction may present a challenge when the Toolkit for Business suggests that the visitor approach a site guide and “ask them to tell you a story and let it begin Fadó Fadó…”. There’s a real danger that Ireland’s Ancient East will reinforce stereotypical ideas of Ireland as a nation of spontaneous storytellers, sitting around an open fire clutching a glass of whiskey while traditional airs waft in through the open window, while the target market sits cross-legged and open-mouthed at the seanchaí’s feet.

Branding is key to Ireland’s Ancient East’s success, but entertainment is prioritised over education in trying to connect diverse sites though such broad themes. It should be possible to combine entertainment with accuracy, authenticity and education. Providing layers of information is vital, particularly as the target market is intelligent, well-educated and interested. They will demand substance behind the costumes and detail behind the glossy exteriors.

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From RTÉ Radio One’s Marian Finucane Show, Gillian O’Brien talks about dark tourism

There are undoubtedly good things about Ireland’s Ancient East. It takes tourists off the beaten track, promotes accessibility at sites and encourages multi-sensory interpretation and provides employment in the heritage and tourist industries. This is all to be welcomed. The problem is not the idea, but the execution of it.

One of the major issues with Ireland’s Ancient East is that it the concept is too broad. It is in danger of being perceived as a nebulous marketing exercise designed to encompass everything that couldn’t be shoehorned into the Wild Atlantic Way.

It may be that this has become apparent to those behind Ireland’s Ancient East for there is talk of two new areas to be branded and marketed. These are the midlands, perhaps the “Magnificent Midlands”, which would take in an area south from Cavan to Kildare and west from Westmeath to East Galway, and the Viking Coast in the south-east of the country. If these areas are developed, then perhaps Ireland’s Ancient East might undergo a rebranding and become simply Ancient Ireland, which would at least appease those horrified by its somewhat blasé attitude to geography.

Dr Gillian O’Brien is a Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University

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