Briana Palma is a freelance writer and editor living in Dublin.
It’s a Sunday afternoon at The Little Museum of Dublin and a tour of the homey, two-room space has just ended. The guide, a college-aged woman, has stepped aside to allow the handful of visitors to take a closer look at the artifacts but lingers in the doorway in case any questions arise. The people move toward the walls to examine the historic posters, photographs, and advertisements on display, while one man approaches the woman.
“Now, are you certain John Lennon ate at the Russell Hotel?” he asks in a friendly tone, pointing to a 1950s menu from the posh establishment. “Because I think it closed down before the Beatles were famous.”
The museum’s development director, James Harold, steps in to confirm the facts and soon the inquisitive man is sharing memories of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Ireland’s capital, breathing life into the two black-and-white photographs that depict the event.
The Little Museum of Dublin, which opened on October 21, was established to provoke moments just like this, to foster exchanges and discussions around its collection of 20th-century artifacts.
“We’re trying to create a bigger sense of community,” Harold explained. “With the economy we’re all a bit down, so it’s something to bring people together.”
Anyone can tour the collection, but at its core, The Little Museum is for Dubliners by Dubliners. The institution aims to boost civic pride in a country where the tone of the news seems overwhelmingly negative as it continually focuses on austerity measures and budget cuts.
In the museum’s first month, 95 percent of its visitors were locals, according to Harold. Outside, a sandwich board with the tagline, “The story of you,” entices them to step into the Georgian townhouse, while inside they can discover a collection of artifacts primarily donated or loaned by their fellow citizens.
The Little Museum is part of a dual, not-for-profit project supported by the Irish government. It operates alongside and serves as the base for City of a Thousand Welcomes, a greeting service that leverages Ireland’s famous hospitality and arranges meetings between first-time visitors and Dubliners. While the initiative benefits tourists by giving them an authentic and friendly experience, its founder, Trevor White, conceived the project as a way to infuse locals with pride and engage them with their city.
When the call went out for volunteers in March, White and General Manager Simon O’Connor found themselves inundated with responses. They expected about 1,000 applications, but to date they have received more than 2,500, which have yielded 400 active ambassadors rather than the 100 they had hoped for, according to O’Connor.
The enthusiasm for White and O’Connor’s project manifested itself again in April, when the duo began to spread the word about the need for objects to build the museum’s collection. More than 450 pieces flooded in as residents felt compelled to contribute to the new institution dedicated to their city.
“I would think around Ireland particularly, everybody’s attic has something in it,” said David Casserly, who loaned a lemonade bottle from 1918. “If The National Museum of Ireland asked people to start donating artifacts they’d be overrun with them.”
After learning about The Little Museum, Casserly thought his old-school bottle would suit it perfectly, as the pop culture item carries with it some significant local history. Casserly found the object about 20 years ago while diving upon the wreckage of the RMS Leinster, a mail steamer from Dublin that was sunk by a German submarine in the final weeks of WWI. Five hundred people died and the event played a major role in delaying the armistice by a few weeks, but, according to Casserly, it never got its proper place in the history books because just three months later, Ireland found itself in the midst of a new war, this time fighting for its freedom from Britain.
Despite its significance, the lemonade bottle sits humbly in the museum with no plaque to tell its story. Still, none of the objects are highlighted with text or explained on an audio track, because the experience is meant to breed human interaction and conversation.
“That is what it’s all about,” said Harold. “We promote the idea of oral history and people adding in what they know, and even what they think they know.”
Though The Little Museum presents history, that history is not carved in stone. Rather, it is like a mound of clay, slowing taking shape as more and more Dubliners stop in and share their personal tales, leaving fingerprints on the collective story of their city in the 20th century.
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