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Explainer: The curious case of Michael Collins' bloodstained cap being removed from museum display

The National Museum of Ireland said the 2005 decision was ‘primarily’ about preserving the hat.

Collins was shot in an ambush at Béal na Bláth, Cork on 22 August 1922
Collins was shot in an ambush at Béal na Bláth, Cork on 22 August 1922
Image: Twitter/NMIreland

RELATIVES OF MICHAEL Collins have come out to criticise the decision not to display in the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) the cap worn by the revolutionary leader when he was killed. 

The cap was previously displayed alongside Collins’ coat in the museum in Kildare Street from 1991-2005 but does not feature in the permanent exhibition in the barracks that bears his name on Dublin’s northside. 

That exhibition also features his death mask and several other key objects associated with his life.

Collins was shot in the head in an ambush in Béal na Bláth and the cap has an opening on the back where the bullet passed through. As a result, the cap is bloodstained and brain matter is also present.

Blood and mud stains are also visible on Collins’ coat. 

Explaining the rationale behind the decision to display the coat and not the hat, the NMI said in a statement to TheJournal.ie it was a twofold consideration to both protect the cap from decay and also in line with the code of ethics around exhibits.  

“The cap has not been on public display since then primarily because of conservation concerns, and also in line with best international museum practice on the display of objects with human remains, given the cap’s condition,” the NMI states

Any member of the public is very welcome to make an appointment to see the cap or indeed any object in storage in the collections of the National Museum of Ireland, when the Museum reopens.

The best practice cited by the NMI has is the code of ethics published by the International Council of Museums (ICOM)

The code of ethics makes specific reference to display of human remains as part of museum exhibits.

The code does not bar such exhibits but states that “human remains and material of sacred significance should be acquired only if they can be housed securely and cared for respectfully”. 

The code also states that crucial to any such display is that it is done in a manner that is “consistent with the interests and beliefs of members of the community, ethnic or religious groups from which the objects originated”.

In short, artefacts including human remains can be on display if it is done so respectfully and in a manner that does not compromise the item. 

The NMI therefore argues that “given the cap’s condition” it would not be appropriate to have it on display. 

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In previous media reports, a spokesperson for the museum stated there was a “sensitivity of General Collins’ blood and organic matter on the object”. 

The issue has resurfaced in the past week and several relatives of Collins’ have spoken publicly to say that this should not be a reason not to display the item. 

Speaking on the Neil Prendeville Show on Cork’s Red FM today, Collins’s grandniece Fidelma Collins said that it was only right that the cap should be on display. 

“Unfortunately he was shot, he was shot through the head, the cap is there, the bullet hole is there. And of course there’s going to be some blood but that’s reality, that’s the history of it. There’s no point in trying to airbrush the history out or bury it, it’s the fact.”

In its statement, the NMI has said it is open to discussing the issue with family members: 

“We have noted the comments by relatives of Michael Collins in the media and we would like to invite them to contact the Museum directly to discuss this matter. We are always open to discussing our exhibitions, and in particular with people who have a family connection to the objects in our collection”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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