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Dublin (re)drawn

Billy Shortall.

Commissioned, designed, printed, and hand-coloured by different women, the Cuala Press print, College Green, shows a lively scene in Dublin’s city centre. A traffic policeman stands in a moment of contemplation, as trams and cars trundle along the street, and people hurry on the pavements. Its distorted drone-like perspective allows the artist, Hilda Roberts, to bring together visually the familiar sculptures of Henry Grattan, created by John Henry Foley (1876), Thomas Moore by Christopher Moore (1857), and the pediment sculpture of Fidelity carved by Edward and John Smyth (1809) situated high on James Gandon’s House of Lords. Orientated as they are, the viewer can imagine they are in conversation with each other. The streetscape hasn’t changed much in the almost hundred years since this print was first produced. The public toilets beside the Moore statue are no longer extant but are immortalised by Joyce in Ulysses, ‘He crossed under Tommy Moore’s roguish finger. They did right to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters’. A satirical reference to Moore’s ode to the formation of Wicklow’s Avoca River, ‘The Meeting of the Waters’.

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Programme: The Many Lives of Medieval Manuscripts Symposium

A detail of an illuminated initial featuring a wild boar and two lionesses from the 12th century West Dereham Bible TCD MS 51, f.93v.

30th November – 1st December 2023

Trinity Long Room Hub

Note: Due to popular demand we have released one final small batch of tickets – sign up here!

Thursday 30th November

All events will take place in the Trinity Long Room Hub unless otherwise stated.

14.00-15.00 Registration

15.00-15.10 Welcome address

Session 1: The Manuscripts for Medieval Studies Project; 15.10-16.20

15.10-15.40 Estelle Gittins (Curatorial lead) and Dr Claire McNulty (Postdoctoral Research Fellow): Introduction to the Project and Overview of Manuscripts Digitised. 

15.40-15.55 Angelica Anchisi: Conservator, TCD. Paper: ‘Conserving Medieval Manuscripts in the Library’s Collection’. 

15.55-16.10 Caroline Harding: Senior Digital Photographer, TCD. Paper: ‘The Perks of Digitising Medieval Manuscripts: Reflections on Strategy, Challenges and Techniques’.

16.10-16.20 Questions & Contingency

16.20-16.40 Tea & Coffee

16.40-17.20 Keynote – Professor James Clark: Professor of History, Exeter. Paper: ‘The Miracles of Matthew Paris‘.

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Digital Exhibitions, and the Reach of Library Exhibitions: an Opinion Piece (part 2)

Image of manuscripts from the Fagel Collection on bookrests in the Reading Room.

A 2018 Arts Council National Survey indicates, in relation to arts sector engagement, that ‘lack of interest comes up as a big barrier in many other pieces of research we’ve seen over the years… You can’t simply re-market the same product and experience to people and hope they’ll come. It requires a deeper examination of what you do, and who it is for’. As a Junior Sophister English Studies student at Trinity, I took part in the module ‘Exploring Heritage Collections’. As part of this module, I had the opportunity of an internship with Trinity’s Old Library, where I worked with the Research Collections team. I considered the role of digital library exhibitions, and previous Long Room exhibitions which resonated with locals and the wider community. Trinity’s Old Library exhibitions are intended to reach as broad an audience as are interested in the material. The aspirations of Trinity’s Old Library for greater outreach and inclusivity are however restricted by funding, human resources and the pressure of current priority projects relating to the redevelopment of the Old Library building. Modern exhibition technology also shapes the way in which Trinity Library exhibitions are used, and the ways in which they could evolve.

Digital Exhibition Reflections

Digital library exhibitions showcase collection highlights through a thematic curatorial lens, which distinguishes an online exhibition from the library function of providing access to digitized materials.

Platforms currently in use for digital library exhibitions include Omeka S, marketing agency websites, Squarespace, and Google. The more engaging digital exhibitions use storytelling technologies such as ArcGis, Storymap to create interactive maps and timelines, which facilitate a depth of academic information. The recurring topics addressed by Library exhibitions of the NLI and Irish Universities are centenary events, Director’s Cut’s from collections, and collection highlights. In my opinion, the shortening human attention span which research suggests is eight seconds, is an enormous bulwark to engagement with digital exhibitions, as they compete with the multitude forms of digital resources and entertainment.

A notable digital exhibition from the NLI is the digital edition of a physical exhibition, ‘A Modern Eye: Helen Hooker O’Malley’s Ireland’. The high-resolution images and thematic curation of the exhibition give a strong impression. It is also an archive of a woman’s work, as opposed to a traditionally male-centric historical focus. Photography lends itself to digital exhibitions as an entirely visual medium. The digital space invites further exploration of the artist’s work from other internet resources. Digital exhibitions also require access to a device and internet access and skills. Digital exhibitions also carry the risk of losing viewer attention, while visiting a physical exhibition space requires commitment. Although not collections based, a digital exhibition available from DCU is ‘Engaging with Sources: A Case Study in Humanities Research’, is made using ArcGis technology to incorporate interactive maps which create a sense of movement and progression.  This technology is easily applied with similar impact to collections-based exhibitions, as an indication of the possibilities for in-built exhibition interactivity, which provides a significant density of information.

The strength of this exhibition is that it provides insight into the Humanities research process. Perhaps future digital exhibitions could incorporate images or insights from the in-person exhibition where relevant, demonstrating the exhibition installation process and how the material was presented. Research suggests consistent public interest in the ‘behind the scenes’ of heritage institutions, in the manner of documentaries, social media and in-person tours. I believe it would engage visitor curiosity and entice serendipitous discovery of digital exhibitions if the digital record incorporated retrospective photographs, reflections from curators and visitors, and insights in the curatorial and conservation work which has made the exhibition possible. In my opinion this would focus on the human experience of heritage sector workers, and visitors, which would I believe help to bring the materials to life, showcasing the impact of the exhibition itself. One of the highlights of my internship was experiencing exhibitions which resonated with me personally. This also served to remind me of the key human factor of library exhibitions, as a display of human creativity, intellect and progress. Therefore, I began to view library exhibitions as a celebration of human endeavor, which ought to celebrate the breadth of human endeavor across society. Democratizing the exhibition and curation process in this way may also, in my opinion, encourage groups outside the library sector to engage with library special collections, and hopefully to find themselves represented in some way, or at least find something to resonate with, in the collections.

Trinity Library’s digital exhibitions have evolved from the era of Flash presentations to Google Open Gallery (now obsolete). They are now presented through the Google Arts and Culture platform and Microsoft Sway. This decision reflects the ease of use of these platforms for diverse exhibits intended for ‘as broad as possible’ an audience, however curators express concern around the longevity of digital exhibitions. Technological obsolescence is a recurring issue for digital exhibitions. It appears that the best solution would be in-house, without reliance on an external platform. A project completing in 2024 in TCD, entails the preservation of content which is ‘born digital’, specifically an archive of organizational emails. This archival point of reference reflects how library exhibitions must also facilitate the needs of the increasingly digital modern world. However, simple digital exhibitions are at risk of resembling well-presented websites when compared to the other extreme of in-person multi-sensory experiences. The value of digital exhibitions lies in their highly visual format, accessibility internationally, and as a format which can afford to include academically and textually dense material which may be overwhelming to visitors in an in-person exhibition.

Libraries seem to have difficulty tracking overall engagement numbers and the impact of engagement, in relation to digital exhibitions. Digital exhibitions in general appear to often form as a digital offshoot of physical exhibitions. Digital library exhibitions may be suffering from the lack of ambient and multi-sensory engagement which is so impactful in in-person exhibitions. There is a distinction between library’s digitized resources and digital exhibitions, and indeed virtual museums, a phenomenon I would have liked to explore further. I believe that the absence of a feedback system for digital exhibitions is detrimental to improving their impact and reach. It is likely that re-evaluating the use of online exhibitions would give a pause for reflection. If they function best as a record of physical exhibitions, they could alter to include aspects of the physical exhibition experience in future renditions.  

Reflecting on the Reach of Library Exhibitions

The Old Library of TCD houses both the Book of Kells exhibition, and the Research Collections which are regularly displayed in the Long Room. It serves a number of user groups, including academics, tourists and students. Alongside its academic outputs, an underutilised asset of the Old Library is its ability to facilitate collaborations with groups locally, and in the wider community. In general, barriers to engagement with library exhibitions and museum spaces include physical and sensory accessibility barriers, perceived expectations around language, physical appearance, posture and accents. The physically walled campus is recurringly highlighted by staff members as a possible psychological bulwark to fostering a sense of inclusion. I believe that for an exhibition to be as impactful as possible, there must be personal or national resonance with the material for the visitors, and a conscious effort toward inclusion.

With the library collections, inclusivity of content and engagement is led by the material itself. Previously, exhibitions concentrated on popular topics such as centenary events, and more recently have focused on academic endeavors in Trinity such as the ‘Shakespeare the Irishman’ exhibit.  There is room to grow in terms of the diversity of exhibition content. While publicly funded national libraries strive for maximum inclusivity, TCD Library’s exhibitions seem to have evolved in a different way. While ‘serendipitous’ collaborations with community groups are the current standard, ‘the will is there’ to invite relationships with local and diverse groups and individuals, on common interest projects. Relationships have been formed previously between the library and communities interested in the collections. Responsibility is felt in the Old Library for facilitating the public’s access to internationally important archives and special collections. The diverse interests of the public manifests in part through interactions with the Long Room exhibitions, and other library collaborations.

The current Book of Kells exhibition employs a ‘reactive rather than active’ approach to engaging with local and disadvantaged groups. There are a number of reasons why local Dubliners may feel alienated from visiting the Book of Kells exhibition. Generally, the requirement to pay for a ticket is limiting for many groups. I believe paid ticketeting is a barrier to visitors not only financially, but also because it is incongruent with the public’s sense ownership of national heritage. However, it also raises the question of whether the exhibit would see such high numbers of visitors if it was free of charge, or whether this would ‘devalue’ the exhibition in the eyes of prospective visitors. Data suggests that Dubliners visited the exhibition more during the Coronavirus restrictions of 2020-21 and are also the most represented group during the annual (free) Culture Night events in the Long Room. The Book of Kells exhibition regularly facilitates complimentary or reduced-price ticketing for groups, however this is on a reactionary basis and by request. Some of the groups which have done so in the past include ICA Active Retirement, Open House, schools, women’s groups and carer groups. I believe there is room for further growth in balancing the commercial function of the Old Library with outreach to local and community groups.

Community engagement with the Long Room exhibitions in previous years shows a thread of interest which may indicate further inclusive potential in the future of library exhibitions. The following exhibitions show engagement with non-traditional archival content and visitors. I believe they could be indicative of a framework for inclusivity of topics, visitors, and voices within the archives going forward.

The ‘Trinity Women Graduates Centenary Exhibition, 1922-2022′, the annual ‘TAP Bookmarks Programme’, and subsequent exhibition, the ‘Living in Lockdown: Archives of the Trinity Community in the Covid-19 Pandemic 2020’, each highlight the voices of traditionally under-represented groups in the historical record. ‘Changed Utterly’ was an online resource for 1916 centenary material put together by library staff, which seems to have resonated strongly with a sense of ownership of national heritage among the public and local Dubliners. A 2015 Long Room exhibition ‘The Papers of Louis Lentin’ led to a tour for members of the public who had personal ties to the content of some of Lentin’s documentary work, and some visitors were moved emotionally in the presence of the primary archival materials. Meaningful public engagement, as with this exhibition, are often only anecdotally recorded, at least from what I have observed, which risks the impact of the exhibitions being lost to memory. From reflecting on the process of exhibitions, I believe it is valuable to seek and record feedback from visitors and curators in order that future exhibitions can benefit. I believe systematically recording exhibition feedback would also be a valuable cultural and historical resource.

Reflecting on barriers to public engagement with heritage institutions, I spoke with Oisín Kenny who is the facilitator of the Apollo Project at the National Gallery of Ireland, a Youth Panel who facilitate an impressive scope of events, workshops and involvement with the Gallery. I believe the Apollo Project is a model framework for engaging diverse groups with fresh perspectives and varied needs and skill sets. The Apollo Project aims to give ‘… ownership and a voice to a new diverse, under-represented audience who may feel that the Gallery is inaccessible to it…’. The Apollo Project began as a reactionary effort as part of the school’s programme in 2018, to address an absence of outreach outside academic settings. ‘Give as much as you can and we give back’, is the aim of the project. The strengths of the Apollo Project, which I believe could be incorporated by Trinity’s Old Library, are to prioritise a connection with the community through arts and culture, as a heritage institution of national significance. Engagement with the arts struggles currently due to young people being driven out of the city financially, and by poor public transport access in rural areas. The Apollo Project ensures that collaborative and inclusive efforts are carried forward consistently as part of the Gallery framework.

Conclusion

From my time working with the Old Library Research Collections team, it appears there is a precedent for a broad variety of individuals and groups to approach collections, which could be fostered in the event of available resources. Local historical groups, young people, disadvantaged groups and artists have been shown to engage and respond with such variety to cultural heritage. Collaborative relationships with the community, perhaps invited through social media, are beneficial hugely to the experience of both curators, heritage custodians and the public. Recorded feedback from exhibitions would record these interactions across cultural spaces in Dublin in a way which might inspire fresh directions for collaboration. An examination of the user groups of Trinity’s Old Library, whether academic, visitor, or student for example, shows a potential for greater involvement from external groups in creating responses to the collections. As technology evolves, there are growing opportunities for outreach and connection across institutions, local and national groups, and international connections, by digital means. Optimistically, digital spaces transcend certain physical barriers of transport, ability and dress, and can incorporate language and information resources by the nature of being internet based. The evolution of library exhibitions will hopefully continue to incorporate unheard voices from different backgrounds to what has been traditionally recorded. It would be inspiring to see engagement from a broader variety of community groups and people of different backgrounds engaging with the special collections, particularly as the collections themselves continue to evolve in inclusivity. 

Molly Robinson

Evolving Library Exhibitions as Multi-Sensory, Inclusive Experiences: an Opinion Piece (part one).

Photograph from Yeats: The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats exhibition.

As a Junior Sophister English studies student at Trinity, I had the opportunity to take the ‘Exploring Heritage Collections’ module. Stemming from this module, I completed an internship within Trinity’s Old Library with the Research Collections team, where I was tasked with researching the impact and reach of library exhibitions through site visits and desk-based research and with sharing my response. The exhibitions I focus on below include The Old Library and Book of Kells exhibition, the Museum of Literature Ireland (MOLI), The Irish Emigration Museum (EPIC), 14 Henrietta Street Museum, the National Library of Ireland exhibitions of Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again, and Yeats: The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats. Although not Library exhibitions, both 14 Henrietta Street and EPIC provided interesting examples of museums that rely on primary source material from archives and libraries, without displaying any originals aside from archival footage and photography.

Exhibitions serve as an informative highlight for collections, as a social resource, and can be inspirational, moving, and entertaining spaces to visit. However, exhibitions face modern short attention spans and the fatigue of visitors. Anne-Marie Diffley, from Book of Kells Visitor Services acknowledges, ‘it’s tiring to be a visitor’ and estimates visitor attentions spans to be ‘30 minutes. In my estimate, the most impactful exhibitions are flexible in combining primary archival materials with multi-sensory experiences. Immersive digital technology allows visitors to rest, while archival materials are still available for engagement. Storytelling techniques are integral to library exhibitions, where engagement is ‘led by the material’. Factors including in-person interactions, tactile elements, audio guides and projections form the modern library exhibition experience.  


Audio guides

The audio guides available in Trinity Old Library, EPIC and NLI exhibits, serves as both a language translator, and an effective and ambient guide to the exhibition highlights, such as Yeat’s oil lamp in the Heaney exhibition, the significance of which may otherwise be overlooked. The audio guide sets the pace for moving through the exhibition; however, it competes with other audio-visual elements. The use of devices required for engaging with audio guides may be age and ability exclusive. The audio tour of Heaney for example, is consistently well received on TripAdvisor, while the EPIC audio tour serves mainly as a language translator and does not, in my opinion, contribute otherwise to the exhibition experience. 

In-person interactions

In-person interactions are highly valued by visitors, as indicated by TripAdvisor reviews, and by staff members of Trinity Library’s Visitor Services. In-person guided tours of exhibitions attract visitors seeking behind-the –scenes insights, as the guide can provide anecdotal storytelling, which brings the exhibition to life. 14 Henrietta St uses archival footage to present the story of the museum. The tour guide contextualises these ‘short films’ before and after their presentation, encouraging the full attention of the visitors. Guides can demystify the significance of items for visitors, such as in 14 Henrietta St, where the guide explained the features of a piece of 18th century furniture for the tour group. In-person guides facilitate questions from visitors, for personalised engagement. Some libraries offer online tours, which broadens the scope of the exhibition’s inclusivity to a wider and international audience. The experience of a human tour guide as opposed to digital guides, is instinctually engaging as a visitor. Through the inherent adaptability of tour guides, I believe they can help break down barriers of alienation, and bridge gaps of knowledge and accessibility while creating memorable experiences.

Projections

Projection of images and videos is a flexible tool frequently used in library exhibitions. Projections used range from speaking actors, archival footage and recreations of artistic processes. In Heaney, the poet’s manuscript corrections are humorously recreated onscreen as he writes. To hear the poems read aloud, also a feature at the Yeats exhibit, is particularly moving. Audio-visual displays allow for rest and have a cinematic effect. The most effective use of projection is in combination with physical archival materials. At Heaney, the combined impact of projected footage, accompanying sound and the presence of Heaney’s desk nearby is memorable. An audio-visual installation at MOLI on the writer Brendan Behan is described on the label as ‘an almost psychedelic blend of archive footage, music, photography and Behan’s own words, going in search of a more nuanced understanding of the Dublin writer’. Notably however, projected material can become repetitive and tiring when over-used. Neither does the projection of actors effectively replace in-person guides, in my experience.

Primary materials

When I visited the Trinity Long Room, the illuminated display cases with primary archival materials were a welcome sight to me. This traditional presentation of materials remains popular with visitors, who can read and observe the displays alongside other visitors. Examining display cases alongside other visitors feels like a valuable experience, situating the archival materials alongside a cross-section of the modern population. Simple written text is also an effective way to express accountability in relation to exhibits. An example of this at EPIC, where one exhibit acknowledges the sometimes-harmful actions of Christian missionary emigrants from Ireland. This point is conveyed with respect in simple writing, while more playful aspects of the exhibit such as sport and literature warrant multi-sensory experiences. Estelle Gittins, a manuscripts curator in Trinity, notes that ‘communication must be clear’ as visitors may be unfamiliar with the material. Reading dense text is tiring for visitors, which risks later materials being skipped over in favour of seating and audio-visual presentations if available. Eye level writing catches the visitor’s attention, and merges well with standing and moving crowds. Other forms of primary materials, such as photographs are used to great impact such as in Heaney, where a striking photo collage wall frames Heaney’s work in reference to politics in Northern Ireland.

Touch screens

Interactive touch screens bring a wealth of material, often in the form of digital facsimiles, into a small space. In Heaney, EPIC and MOLI screens contain diary entries, a ‘Curator’s Choice’, and drafts. This gives agency to the visitors in engaging with the material that most intrigues them. It is difficult to ascertain whether the screens provide the opportunity for meaningful engagement, or whether they are quickly browsed by visitors before moving on. When visitors are presented with an excess of screen-based information, the novelty of modern exhibition technology wears off quickly and becomes repetitive. The strength of the touch screens appears to be versatility for rotations of exhibitions, and for providing interactive access to large volumes of material. Potentially, touch screen interactivity creates more meaningful engagement when employed in moderation, such as once or twice per exhibition.   

Buildings and landscape

‘They come to see the Book of Kells and they leave with the Long Room’, is the refrain attributed to visitors of Trinity Old Library. Indeed, the space used for exhibitions is crucial to the visitor’s experience.

The way visitors move through space as well as the attraction of the architecture itself is significant.

Although there is merit to the guided experience, visitors like to have agency over their engagement, such as in the Heaney exhibition where visitors can be observed moving through displays counter to the intended route to reach the audio-visual displays. The use of folding screens as a display surface for postcards was notably versatile in this manner at Heaney. A consistent link with the landscape itself where relevant was a favorable feature, such as at MOLI and Heaney. In the exhibit ‘A Riverrun of Language’, MOLI really well situates literature in Dublin’s landscape. The screens, replicating a river, display relevant quotes. A diorama of Dublin with quotes marked at various locations also familiarises the visitor with the literature and the city. As the museum gardens are visible throughout the whole museum, there is a consistent connection with nature – which is refreshing.

Space

The use of space is a strong indication of the focus and target audience of the exhibition. For example, at EPIC, a feature is the projection of the word ‘prejudice’ on the wall as part of a display. The item, although relevant to the exhibition content, is strikingly isolated from the content when viewed alone or as a photo opportunity. The effectiveness of using buzzwords and trendy displays in this manner is incongruent with the sincerity of the content. Alternatively, at 14 Henrietta St, ‘the building is the artefact you have come to see’. The conserved building itself features the original 250-year-old floorboards, and in one room the lid of a cigarette tin remains attached to the wall where it was placed to reflect candlelight in the decades before electricity was available. These features are worthy of being captured in photographs, where their significance largely speak for themselves and outshine decorative buzzwords in their humanistic significance. Inclusivity in exhibition spaces strives to reach a broader audience. This includes ample seating measures, the JAM card programme, social guides to exhibitions available online for the NLI exhibitions and seeking feedback and responses from the visitors.

Gamification

Interactivity is a key feature of recent library exhibitions. Interactive and tactile exhibition features relate to the discourse around gamification in heritage spaces, a direction which can be educational but also can stray from meaningful engagement with the material and become superficial. At MOLI, a strong example of this is the themed, motion activated quoting podiums with takeaway postcards which bring a range of quotes to life with audio, foregrounding the literature. At Heaney, elements of the exhibit such as the peat sods which invite handling, floor screens, localised audio speakers and interactive headphones, and chalkboards strike a balance between playful engagement, in a manner which is respectful of Heaney’s work. The poet’s writing process is well-expressed with primary sources, anecdotes and finished materials which is both inspiring and informative to follow as a visitor, alongside the enjoyable agency of interactivity. Commercial competition may be driving heritage exhibitions to incorporate more cinematic and gamified elements within exhibits, although it is important to consistently prioritise independent and group intelligent responses to and engagement with cultural heritage.

Takeaways

It is part of the visitor experience to feel that you have gained something, whether it be a token to remember your visit, a piece of information, or a sense of inspiration from the exhibition. Leaflets, photo opportunities, anecdotes and feedback all form part of the exchange of information involved in exhibitions. Children’s discovery guides as at the Old Library and Yeats exhibitions are a sign of diversifying exhibitions which move to include younger audiences and family visits. An art installation at entrance to Heaney of paper birds by the artist Maser, in relation to a poem, broaden the relevance of the poems by interpretation. This is an inspiring example for visitors of what responding to the materials on display can result in. At EPIC, a criminal mugshot selfie wall, and a mock-up of an Irish pub appears incongruous with the museum’s endeavor to combat Irish stereotypes, and do not provide a depth of information or insight beyond the superficial. From my estimation, it is important to find the balance between interactivity and encouraging a sincere consideration of the archival material.

Conclusion

In my opinion, successful in-person library exhibitions show consideration for the human experience of engaging with the material on display. With library exhibitions in general moving toward multi-sensory experiences for visitors, there is an inherent opportunity for inclusivity of a broader range of visitors than traditionally would have frequented library exhibitions. I found the Heaney exhibit to be the best example of balancing primary materials with audio-visual elements and multi-sensory engagement for a diverse audience. From my estimation, an over-reliance on technology to replace the guided experience contributes to visitor fatigue, even as it strives to engage visitors. With appropriate respect given to the exhibition material, the exhibition space can foster a sense of community and shared interest in the material, bridging gaps between socio-economic classes through physical and financial accessibility, and diversifying of exhibition functions. Personally, being able to spend a moment encountering a poem performed accompanied by music or imagery, with the poet’s manuscripts to see nearby, is an example of the powerful and memorable high point of a library exhibition.

Molly Robinson