Adjournment Debate. - National Museum Board of Visitors' Report.

Wednesday, 16 April 1975

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 80 No. 3

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Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  I am glad of the opportunity of a debate on the adjournment in order to highlight the fact that the reports of the Board of Visitors of the National Museum, although written and presented to the Minister for the past four years, have not been published and have not been laid before the Oireachtas. I must refer to a motion in the names of Senator Horgan and myself which [345] now following the passage of time, is at the top of the list of motions on the Order Paper. It reads:

That Seanad Éireann notes the Report of the Board of Visitors of the National Museum of Science and Art for the years 1970-71 and 1971-72.

In our innocence we thought that by tabling that motion we might encourage publication of the reports and, consequently, have the opportunity of discussing them in this House. That motion has been on the Order Paper for several years and that is why it is now at the top of the list. The last report to be published was that for 1969-70. This was dated 25th August, 1970, and was laid before both Houses during 1971.

Prior to that the record was rather erratic. The reports for 1965-66, 1967-68 and 1968-69 were all published during 1970. It is my information, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to confirm this, that the reports of the visitors have been presented to the Department—a combined report for 1970 to 1972, a report for 1973 and one for 1974 but that these have not been published despite the very clear obligation and a fiduciary obligation in trust placed on the Department to have the reports published and laid before the Oireachtas.

I refer to an agreement of March 1st, 1881, between the Department of Science and Art—now the Department of Education—the Commissioners of Public Works and the Royal Dublin Society. In article 17 of this agreement it is stated that the duties of the board of visitors shall be to make annual reports to the Department on the condition, management and requirements of the museum and to advise on points affecting its administration and that copies of such reports should be laid before Parliament by the Department. This matter is all the more serious because the Government undertook a fiduciary position at the time to take care of and control of our National Museum and of the very valuable collections which form part of our heritage.

The situation is all the more [346] scandalous because of the terms of the foreword to the last published report of the board of visitors. This is one of the saddest reports to be laid before this House as is reflected in the language it uses. This was a report for 1969-70 and I quote:

Nearly half a century ago, the Irish government took over control of the National Museum and responsibility for it. At that time, in the aftermath of a world war and the Irish War of Independence, the Museum's staff was few in numbers and its facilities were gravely deficient. Today, after virtual neglect in the intervening years, the Museum's divisions, with one exception, are forced to function in even more straitened circumstances. It reflects poorly on us as a nation that our National Collections, which are a priceless cultural asset, fared far better at the hands of the former alien governments, under whose influence they were, in fact, initially assembled, than they have under our own governments.

The blame for the present situation must rest with successive governments since 1922 and their administrative departments. The Board of Visitors is merely an advisory body and it has no powers to improve matters. Time and again over the years it has called attention to defects and inadequacies in the provision made for the Museum and to difficulties with which the staff has had to contend. It has noted and deplored the unsafe condition in which major parts of the Collections have been kept. Yet there is little evidence that anything more than scant attention was ever paid to the Board's views as expressed in its Annual Reports and in representations made to various Ministers for Education.

That is a very sad indictment of what appears to be continuous Government indifference, lack of concern and lack of attention to this very central part of our national heritage, what we should hope to pass on to our children.

This House has played a valuable role in the past when the annual reports have been available to us. We [347] have had useful and constructive debates on the subject and I am sure these have been encouraging to the board of visitors as well as to researchers and the staff of the museum who have to work under these appalling conditions. We are deprived now of even that role, of that possibility of public debate on the condition of the museum, because the reports which have been written and submitted have not been published.

Apart from these annual reports there is another report which I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to have published because it contains matters of public interest. This is the report compiled by the National Museum Branch of the Institute of Professional Civil Servants in December, 1969, on conditions in the National Museum. Copies of this report were deposited in the Royal Irish Academy and in the RDS. However it was not generally published and circulated. Again, this report is a clear indictment of the present position and it summarises the acute shortages and lack of resources in all the areas of the museum. I am aware that on the adjournment I cannot go into the substance of the problem under which the museum must labour, but I should like to refer briefly to some of the points in this 1969 report which make clear the very critical situation in this institution. In relation, first, to acquisition, the report states that:

Due to shortage of staff and lack of adequate finance the rate of acquisition of new material to the collections is far lower than it should be. No new material is being acquired for some collections. In the case of other collections valuable and essential material is being lost forever to the National Museum and the nation.

In relation to conservation, the report says:

Due to shortage of staff and the conditions under which much of the material is accommodated, proper inspection of the reserve collections, [348] with the view to necessary conservation, is impossible. The technical staff and the laboratory facilities are inadequate to deal with the new material being acquired, not to mention the existing collections.

There is criticism of the lack of accommodation for reserve collections and for exhibition space. There is criticism, too, of the almost total absence of research resources. In this connection I quote from the report:

Research work of any sort is practically impossible in official time, due to the shortage of staff. Individual Professional Officers undertake such work in their private time. Research work should include the preparation of catalogues, monographs, guides to the collections and the provision of material for labelling the exhibitions.

There is criticism of the lack of any proper library facilities, of the very limited photographic facilities and the increasing pressure on the existing photographic facilities; of the lack of proper laboratory facilities and of accommodation for students and members of the public. The report goes on——

An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  I should be glad if the Senator did not dwell too long on a report not mentioned in the motion before the House.

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  I propose to end with a very short summary of the services the museum wants to provide, is unable to provide and about which we are unable to comment because we do not have these reports published. This is essential if we are to carry out our responsibilities in relation to the public. The report states:

The Museum has a duty to disseminate knowledge to the general public, both Irish and foreign, by means of exhibitions, printed guides to the collections and public lectures. There is a printed guide for only one exhibition. Public lectures are not given. Some of the exhibitions are so overcrowded or hopelessly out of date as to be practically [349] useless from the point of view of conveying information to the public.

I may be taken up by the Parliamentary Secretary on quoting from this unpublished 1969 report. It would have been helpful if that report had been published. Other than that, I should like to quote briefly from a more recent though not necessarily more authoritative source—the editorial columns of The Irish Times, 7th November, 1974:

Some alarming and sad facts have emerged from recent reports on the condition of the National Museum, where over the last 30 years a shortage of money, staff and space have taken their toll.

Government subvention towards running the Museum in the last year was only £153,000 more than it was in 1944, despite increases in the cost of everything since then. The National Geology Collection is not only not exhibited, but it is decaying in sub-standard storage in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, and a geologist is not to be appointed to look after the collection. And now we learn that a number of displays in the Museum itself, as well as those in storage, are deteriorating. Most disturbing, perhaps, is the fact that the Board of Visitors— the Museum's governing body—is being, and has been, consistently ignored when they have made recommendations and given their advice.

We cannot know in detail the recent advice of the Board of Visitors except as it is contained in the published reports. I note in the 1965-66 report what was a very commendable recommendation at that time and is still a very valid one that I hope can be taken up. In the first page of that report it is stated:

In fact, we would stress—as a general principle—the need for an authoritative group of specialists to act as a liaison between any academic institution and the administrative body to which it is responsible, since basic differences in outlook and approach may frequently be involved.

[350] There is still a very strong case for that proposal. Apart from criticisms of the resources, staffing, accommodation and general conditions in the museum, we find that the museum “is exercising a very important role in relation to our physical heritage”. It is now playing a major role in relation to archaeological digs. In relation to the dig at the Wood Quay-Wine-tavern Street site Dr. Nuala Burke had a letter in The Irish Times of 21st November, 1974. This has not got the attention it deserves. I quote:

Some facts concerning the excavations at Winetavern Street-Wood Quay will enable the public to judge whether or not there is reason for “grave disquiet” expressed by An Taisce in August and echoed since then by academics, journalists, concerned members of the public and by volunteers whose services have been refused by the National Museum of Ireland.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education (Mr. Bruton): Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  From what is the Senator quoting?

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  From a letter to The Irish Times on 21st November, 1974, from Nuala Burke. She is a renowned expert on the archaeology of the city of Dublin and has championed the need for proper excavation of this site and a proper archaeological survey. She points out in this letter that the adviser to Dublin Corporation has been exclusively the director of the National Museum and his staff and that the director is not himself an expert archaeologist but a folklorist who has never carried out an excavation in an urban area.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  I do not think that even a repetition of such criticism of a person in his capacity as an official should be made in that manner.

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  Sometimes it is very difficult to restrain oneself from criticism when the situation is as serious as it is. If one cannot indicate very sharply that criticism appears to be warranted when there appears to be——

[351]An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  Without encroaching on the Senator's time, the Chair would like to point out that it might be proper to make such criticism in a place where it could be answered. Criticism should not be made in this House of people in their professional capacities who are not Members of the House.

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  Rather than criticise the director of the National Museum, Dr. A.T. Lucas, I should like to quote directly from an article in The Irish Times of 30th January, 1974, in a reference to the preservation of the site at Winetavern Street-Wood Quay. It is headed: “Little left to preserve on site of Viking settlement—Museum reports to city manager.” It states:

While the Government has stopped work on the £5 million Dublin Civic Offices site at Wood Quay, the Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Dr. A.T. Lucas, says that the structures which have been found on the site do not lend themselves to preservation.

In a letter to the City Manager, Mr. Matthew Macken, and circulated to Dublin City Commissioners, Dr. Lucas says: “The great majority of the structures were of comparatively flimsy construction, the walls being, in great part, constructed of wattlework. The preservation of this would present insuperable problems. Such large timber as was used was confined to footbeams, doorposts and pathways and it would be meaningless to attempt the preservation of isolated bits and pieces of this nature.”

Dr. Lucas's views were expressed in a reply to a letter written to the City Manager by Professor P.V. Glob, Director of the National Museum, Copenhagen, who had welcomed the Viking find in Dublin. “This momentous find,” he says, “has attracted attention all over Scandinavia and many archaeologists have visited these important excavations...”——

[352]An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  Again the Chair must intervene at this point. It does appear to the Chair that this is not relevant to the motion being discussed on the adjournment.

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  I am trying to relate the present situation at the Wood Quay site to the fact that the museum is now involved in a supervisory role——

An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  The Chair fails to be persuaded that the Senator has made this connection. The motion is concerned with the non-availability of reports for discussion.

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  I accept the ruling of the Chair on this matter.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  I would indicate to the Senator that there are two minutes remaining and would just express the hope that the remaining two minutes would be close to the motion.

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  I am trying to establish that there has been a great deal of conflict of evidence and disquiet in relation to the Wood Quay site. Forty-one senior academics signed a letter in November, 1974, again addressed to the national newspapers, calling for a supervisory body to be established in relation to the archeological dig. In a press release of 7th April, 1975 An Taisce described what is happening on this site as “institutionalised vandalism”. I quote briefly from this and will end with this:

What is happening could be described as institutionalised vandalism. Nobody seems to want this outrage, yet it proceeds. Spokesmen from Dublin Corporation have, from time to time, stated that the responsibility rests with the National Museum. City Councillors have been reassured that anything the Museum requested would be done by the Corporation and that the Museum would be allowed the necessary time. A letter from the Museum dated 10th March, was circulated to City Councillors saying “We hope to finish our investigations of Area 1 of the Wood Quay [353] site by the end of this month. We are completely satisfied that all significant data have been successfully retrieved and recorded to date and confidently expect to accomplish the same in remaining fraction of the site within the time agreed upon.” An Taisce feels sure that this was written in good faith and must be true in some very limited sense. It is difficult however to reconcile these statements with the fact that a large archeological team is still working on Area 1 on April 7th and still, obviously, has much work to do, or with the fact that broken sections of mediaeval structures are to be seen in the trench being prepared for the tanking wall.

There is obvious conflict between what is happening physically at the moment and what is being stated by Dublin Corporation relying on the advice of the National Museum. We in this House must be concerned about what might be regarded as minority issues. The museum is not a practical bread and butter issue. But it is of very critical concern to us as a nation and it involves the heritage we must pass on to our children. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to ensure that annual reports are published forthwith and also that the 1969 report which I mentioned is published. I would call upon him to establish an overall scrutiny body to supervise the excavation and reporting of archeological digs in future and I would draw his urgent attention to the disquiet at present.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education (Mr. Bruton): Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I made arrangements with the Stationery Office for the printing of the report of the Board of Visitors to the National Museum for the years 1970-72 and 1972-73. Both reports have in fact now been printed and have been submitted to the Government. Following their presentation to the Government and not beforehand, they will then be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. I expect that the reports will thus be available to the Members of both Houses within a couple of weeks. This is the normal [354] parliamentary procedure followed in the case of the laying of such reports before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The House will appreciate that there is some considerable delay necessarily incurred in the printing of these documents and this is a matter which is outside the control of my Department.

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  Four years.

Mr. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I can assure the Senator there is delay involved in the printing. In the meantime I have been active in regard to the matters referred to. In the first place I have arranged that the reports be issued under a more attractive cover. The colouring and lay-out of the cover in each of the two reports in question is brighter, the quality of the paper better, and the general appearance more becoming a report of this nature.

In regard to the subject matter of the reports themselves, I have taken advantage of the intervening period to consider how best the matters referred to might be remedied. As I said in the Dáil on 31st October, 1973—Volume 268 columns 1007 and 1008 of the Official Report—the major problems to be faced by the National Museum are lack of accommodation, lack of staff and the need to bring the museum's riches to the notice of a larger number of people. Whilst one can do a certain amount about each of these problems independently of the others, in fact the lack of accommodation impedes progress with the other two to a substantial extent. Accordingly, the main efforts of my Department towards solving the museum's problems are being concentrated on the question of the provision of additional accommodation. Meetings to discuss this have been held as between officials of my Department, the director of the National Museum, officials of the Office of Public Works and officials of Dublin Corporation and I am hopeful that the outcome will be satisfactory. Let me add also that similar discussions have taken place with the relevant interested parties with a view to obtaining an alternative site for the Folk Life Collection now housed at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. These discussions too are continuing. The whole question however, [355] as the House will appreciate, is complex and inter-related, and admits of no instant solution.

During this period also I have had numerous discussions with the director of the National Museum, and both he and I together with officials of my Department have met the board of visitors twice in the last two months and one further meeting is envisaged next month. I think I am correct in saying that I have their understanding of the problems involved and their goodwill in the matter of various proposals, ranging over a wide field, that I have disclosed to them.

Plans are well advanced for the installation of the museum photographic studio in part of the space formerly occupied by the botanical collections. Another room in the section has been used to provide accommodation for the newly-appointed librarian and the artist staff have been accommodated in another section of the space.

Regarding the five vacancies for assistant referred to in the reports, one has been filled, a competition has been held to fill another and competitions to fill the remaining three vacancies are being arranged. Two supernumerary assistants are being recruited in place of the two assistant keepers for which there are vacancies on the staff. The question of the appointment of a geologist to the staff of the National Museum has been under consideration. I would hope to arrange, with the sanction of the Minister for the Public Service, to have an additional post created to which a geologist would be appointed. I am not convinced, however, that the creation of a separate Division of Geology as suggested in the reports is warranted.

At the present time the museum is engaged in excavating the site of the proposed civic offices at Wood Quay, Dublin. The director of the museum is satisfied at the progress of the work and at the facilities provided by the corporation, which also provided some funds for the purpose. Finally, I would like to inform the House that I am currently reviewing the complex problem of the National Museum in its [356] entirety, having regard to the need for additional accommodation, additional staff and an expansion of the role of the museum into the provision of additional services to schools and the public generally.

In relation to the Wood Quay excavation there is every reason to be confident in the opinion expressed by the director of the museum. I would remind the Senator that the museum covers a number of divisions of which archaeology is only one. Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that the director should be himself an archaeologist as all the sciences are involved in the museum.

The director has available to him in relation to any decisions he may make on this matter a number of qualified geologists of whose identity I am sure the Senator is well aware and to whom she did not refer in castigating the opinions expressed on behalf of the museum by the director. These opinions were, of course, expressed in consultation with these other men, including people who are in fact undertaking the excavation in question, who are members of the staff of the museum and who therefore have the best firsthand knowledge of what is happening on the site, the people carrying out the excavation. These are members of the staff of the museum who would be advising the director in relation to any pronouncements he should make in regard to the suggestions currently being made.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  There are two minutes left for discussion.

Mr. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  On the question of grants for the purchase of specimens, the grant this year is £36,700 as against £5,000 in 1968-69. It has not been increased as much as I should have liked but there has been substantial progress in the past decade.

The Senator made many points of a general character which are worth looking into in relation to the general co-ordination of archaeological policy. I hope to have this matter examined in connection with the overall review [357] of museum policy which I am undertaking in conjunction with my more immediate task of trying to get additional accommodation for the museum. In conclusion, I would stress that until we get additional accommodation for the museum it is very difficult to find the physical space for more staff or to develop the type of services which we all, including the Government, agree are desirable in a museum of this kind.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  The question is: “That the House do now adjourn.”

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  Would the Parliamentary Secretary accept that although he may have had very detailed discussions with the board of visitors and others on a series of matters under consideration, this House has been deprived over the last four years of an opportunity of exercising parliamentary scrutiny over and having a debate about the whole matter?

Mr. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I think the Senator did not have very much difficulty in raising the matter here this evening.

Mr. Yeats: Information on Michael B Yeats  Zoom on Michael B Yeats  Could the Parliamentary Secretary say when he got these reports that are now being printed?

Mr. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I have not got the date. It was some considerable time ago. The printing was a lengthy process.

Mrs. Robinson: Information on Mary Robinson  Zoom on Mary Robinson  They are very short reports.

[358]Mr. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  The Senator will appreciate that the Stationery Office has many other reports to print, some of which are, perhaps, of greater urgency because of other considerations.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  I should like to point out that the question has been put and the time has been exhausted. Whatever about the extent to which the Parliamentary Secretary is prepared to indulge Senators, there is a limit to the indulgence of the Chair. I will accept a very short question from Senator Martin.

Dr. Martin: Information on Thomas Augustine Martin  Zoom on Thomas Augustine Martin  Has the Parliamentary Secretary given any thought to the possibility of appointing a city archaeologist who would be apart from the museum, and could therefore have direct responsibility and concern for such things as Wood Quay?

Mr. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I do not think the appointment of a city archaeologist would be a matter for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education. Responsibility in respect of this matter at present rests with the National Museum and I am reasonably satisfied that the museum is carrying out this responsibility to the best of its ability. I will have the Senator's suggestion conveyed to the appropriate quarter.

Question put and agreed to.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 17th April, 1975.

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