America’s Irish Famine Museum
November 9, 2018 § 1 Comment
A little while ago, I got to visit Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Qunnipiac University in Hamden, CT. My wife’s Aunt Claire lived in Hamden, and as a good Irish American woman, she loved this museum and it is one of my great regrets that I did not get to the museum with her before she died last spring. May she rest in peace.
I was on a tour at the museum, despite my deep knowledge of Irish history, the Famine, and the diaspora, to say nothing of the practice of museums in general. I kind of regretted this. Our experiences of museums and their collections are mediated by the docent. And in some cases, this can work really well, we get docents who are knowledgeable and personable and they make us think about the artefacts, collections, exhibits in ways we would not otherwise. In sbort, the docent, as Franklin Vangone and Deborah Ryan note in their Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, ‘can make or break the visitor experience.’ Vangone and Ryan advocate a more personable approach to docent-led tours, one that lets the experience of the docent in the museum, come through. This is to avoid rote-memorization. They also advocate a non-linear interpretation (amongst other innovative measures) of the museum, one that can account for multiple interpretations and stories simultaneously.
The other major problem with docent-led museum tours is that they are telling us, the visitors, a pre-determined, pre-packaged nodes of information. But, of course, we, the visiting public, go to museums to seek out our own experiences of the artefacts, the history, etc. Indeed, when my students write museum reviews, part of their remit is to both cast a critical eye on the museum, the structure of the tour, the artefacts of the tour, the story being communicated, and so on. But they are also supposed compare their own experiences, what they looked for, what they took away, with the pre-packaged history they consumed at the same time.
People tend to either love or hate docent-led tours. I’m more ambivalent. Sometimes they’re fantastic. Other times, they leave a lot to be desired. My visit to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum was the latter experience. The thing was, my docent clearly approached his job in a non-linear, personable manner. He told stories of his involvement, his approach, and why he loved doing this. He was also really good with a lot of his audience, composed of university student. He made eye contact, he had a presence. What he did not have, though, was pitch modulation in his voice. He talked in a dull monotone. And he very clearly needed to keep authority on his side of the tour, to the point where he was patronizing and insulting in taking questions or comments. And, with a group of undergraduate students (not mine, for the record), this immediately shuts down a dialogue, though it was also clear that my docent did not want a dialogue.
As a way of a comparison, my wife was on another tour at the same time, with another docent. My docent was a late middle-aged man, and hers was a similarly aged woman. Both docents were of Irish heritage, of course. But her docent was lively, had both a modulated voice and was willing to take questions and different interpretations of events and items. I was jealous.
So clearly, at least on this day, one’s experience with the museum was determined by which docent one ended with.
The museum itself holds so much promise. The building housing the museum, purpose-built, resembles an Irish Work House from the mid-19th century. The work houses were where (some) of the starving Irish peasantry were sent. There, they met with disgusting, vile, unsanitary conditions and disease preyed upon the inmates.
The Famine Museum, however, is built of much higher quality materials. And, unlike a fetid mid-19th century Irish Work House, is shiny and comfortable, of course. The visitor experience begins with a short documentary where the background of the Famine is delivered. I found this bizarre.
One has to also presume that the majority of people who seek out this museum are already familiar with the concept of the Famine. I’m not sure a 10-minute video is really going to do much to aid in people’s understanding of the calamity (as a reminder: 1845-52; potato blight; Irish peasants lived on potatoes; grain and meat was still shipped out of Ireland to Britain whilst the peasants starved; British response wholly and completely inadequate; 1.5 million or so die; 1.5 million or so emigrate; Ireland hasn’t really recovered yet). But what did surprise me was that the narrative of the documentary termed this a genocide.
I don’t disagree. As the Irish nationalist and Young Ireland leader John Mitchel said in 1846, ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.’ It wasn’t just that the British response was inadequate, it was purposefully so and the words of Charles Trevelyan, the Under-Secretary of the Treasury was unabashed in his delight at the suffering in Ireland, a chance to remake the country, he thought.
But what struck me was that when I was reading for my comprehensive exams fifteen years ago, the idea of the Famine as a genocide was not one that was accepted by academic historians, for the most part. Since the early 00s, however, the idea has become more and more accepted amongst Irish history scholars and now, it appears we can indeed term the Famine what it was, a genocide, caused by the massively inadequate response of the government.
And remember, that ‘British’ government was not actually supposed to be British. The country was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Thus, Ireland was part and parcel of the wealthiest nation in the world in the mid-19th century.
An example of the perfidy of the government: when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire pledged to donate £10,000 for relief for the Irish peasantry, Queen Victoria asked him to cut reduce his donation by 90%, to £1,000, as she herself had only pledged £2,000. And then there’s Trevelyan. He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’ But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’ When I teach the Famine in Irish history, my students are always flabbergasted by this to the point that more than one has asked me if I made it up. I wish.
At any rate, from the downstairs, we went upstairs and began with one of the most stunning Famine sculptures I’ve ever seen. Most Famine sculptures are haunting to begin with, wraiths of humans staggering to the docks of the River Liffey in Dublin. Or to the Foyle in Derry. But Kieran Tuohy‘s work, carved out of bog wood, defies easy description. This is the centrepiece of the museum. It still haunts me. A family of 6, victims of the Famine. Here, our docent was magnificent, I have to say, as he encouraged us to look closer. He began with the infant in the mother’s arms. He pointed to the way she was holding the infant, how the infant’s body looked.
Was the baby dead? The rest of the figures are lean and gaunt, dirty hair hanging down, vacant expression on the faces. And then as one scans downward, there are no feet. These are spectral figures, wraiths, ghosts. They are the dead of the Famine. The dead of our ancestors, essentially.
But this is kind of it. The museum is the world’s largest collection of Great Hunger-related art. The unfortunate thing, though, is very little of it is on display. In fact, almost none of it is on display. On the day we visit, there is an exhibit about the American Civil War. The Famine is central to the story of the Irish diaspora, especially as it relates to the United States. For most of us of Irish ancestry (ok, fine, I’m Irish Canadian, but part of my family actually emigrated to New York before heading north), our ancestors initially came here during the Famine. And the sons (and grandsons) of Erin who suited up for the Union and the Confederacy were in America precisely due to the Famine.
While the massive bulk of Irishmen who fought in the Civil War fought for the Union (around 160,000), some 20,000 Irishmen fought for the Confederacy. This is kind of one of the dirty secrets of the Irish diaspora. And one that is conveniently papered over most of the time. To be fair, our docent did note that the Irish also fought for the Confederacy, but they weren’t the focus of the exhibit.
Either way. The Civil War. I can’t even begin to count the places I could go to find images of the Civil War in this country, and finding this war inside a museum ostensibly dedicated to the Famine was disappointing, to say the least.
And so I was left with the remainder of the permanent exhibitions, which focus on the American response to the Famine. And a feeling that this is the most poorly-named museum I have ever visited; it should not be called Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, but The Museum of the Irish Famine in America. Aside from Tuohy’s sculpture and a few other pieces, there was nothing about Ireland to be found. This was the story of the Irish in America.
And then there was the thing I found most fascinating. Our docent told us the origin story of the museum. But the interesting thing was that after a slight mention of a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s, he moved onto the (much too long) story of how the museum came to be over the next fifteen years or so. And he made no mention of why there was a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s in the first place.
1997 was the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, generally regarded as the worst year of the Famine. And this was a chance for the Irish, and the diaspora, to re-think the Famine, its causes and meanings, and its consequences. It led to an explosion of academic scholarship, popular histories, documentaries, and public art attempting to reckon with the Famine.
And it even gave then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair a chance for a mealy-mouthed acknowledgement of the role of the British in the Famine, skirting the fine line of apologizing. That Blair couldn’t even be arsed enough to deliver the short lines himself, or have Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II (the great-great-grandaughter of Queen Victoria) do it speaks volumes. Instead, an Irish actor recited the lines at a festival in Cork.
At any rate, none of this is part of the narrative of the museum, instead the narrative of the Great Men who built it is the central message. So we get the story of more Great White Men and their wonderful work in doing Great Things.
Anyone who knows me that I don’t generally like museums all that much. The ones I have visited and truly enjoyed number in the single digits. There is a reason I am a big fan of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. The lessons of it can be applied to larger institutions, of course. But rarely am I as disappointed by a museum as I was by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, from the docent-led experience to the exhibits.