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'This is the memoir that your mothers were reading': The Museum of Literature Ireland pays tribute to Nuala O'Faolain

The impact of Covid-19 has led the museum, which opened last September, to rethink its approach to the coming years.

Image: Conor Healy/Picture It Photography

FOR THE MUSEUM of Literature Ireland, which first opened its doors last September, the impact of Covid-19 has prompted a shift in how the young institution is looking towards the years ahead.

The museum reopened at the end of July with a new temporary exhibition on Nuala O’Faolain’s 1996 memoir Are You Somebody?, which was originally scheduled to launch on 25 March and run through the summer.

As a new museum, the first year of operations normally acts as a “year zero”, and the second year is used as a baseline to compare success in later years against.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, museum director Simon O’Connor said that the effect of lockdown and its fallout is that “our second year will be year zero, and the year after that is going to be our baseline”.

An unusual year

“We’re going to be in a very unusual, atypical situation – but it’s not all negative,” he said.

“We’ve remodelled the organisation, we’ve taken a huge look at the sustainability of work practices around costs, as well as the distribution of work and how certain projects develop, so there are huge positives in working systems prompted by Covid-19, even for an organisation as young as ourselves.”

The museum’s primary audience in its first year has been a domestic one, but around 35% of the visitors it was attracting were international ones.

Those international visitors, who would have contributed to the “really busy summer” the museum was anticipating, have taken a significant cut amid Covid-19 restrictions on travel.

“For the next 12 months, notwithstanding the development and distribution of a vaccine, we’d certainly be planning for a very small portion of our audience to be international visitors. If I’m wrong about that, I’ll be very happy, but at this point, it’s prudent for us to assume that audience may take some time to get back.”

“But to be honest, our ethos has been that the museum’s primary audience is a domestic audience, and that’s who we programme for. It doesn’t feel very complex for us to make decisions that put that audience first because that’s what we would have been doing,” O’Connor said.

The memoir your mothers read

Its first temporary exhibition since reopening looks at a text that had a “very, very significant impact socially” in Ireland when it was released in the mid 1990s, O’Connor said.

Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir, Are You Somebody?, charts her experiences growing up in a conservative Ireland and her life as an educated, independent woman with a varied career – she worked as a writer, but also as a teacher, a journalist, and a TV producer with RTÉ and BBC.

“For the memoir to present that kind of life as existing and being possible was probably quite a surprise to a huge amount of people in Ireland at the time, like any of these types of books that tell the truth. A big part of their effect is that they enable other people to tell the truth as well. So that was something that we wanted to explore,” O’Connor said.

ofaolain-nuala-date-20020101-basso-cannarsaopale Source: Alamy Stock Photo

One of the reasons O’Connor was attracted to O’Faolain’s text as the focus of an exhibition was the resonances he found between the 1996 memoir and Emilie Pine’s recent collection of essays, Notes to Self, which won the An Post Irish Book of the Year in 2018.

“I noticed not just other people but myself buying lots of copies of it to give to people, and I remembered that Are You Somebody? was a book people bought lots of copies to give to people. It was kind of like, ‘this is information that you have to have’.”

“For the younger audiences maybe who are reading books by Emilie and writers like her, it’s important for them to know there was this other memoir you should have a look at as well,” O’Connor said.

“This is the memoir that your mothers were reading when they were your age.”

Emilie Pine is among O’Faolain’s readers whose testimony on the impact of Are You Somebody? is featured in the exhibition.

She sits alongside other Irish writers, artists, academics and journalists who speak about the memoir’s significance, such as Anne Enright, Roisín Ingle, and Mary McAuliffe.

The exhibition is presented as a video installation, and was curated by June Caldwell, who recently wrote an introduction to an anniversary edition of Are You Somebody?.

“I approached June and we had this long phone call where she spent nearly 90 minutes trying to convince me she was the wrong person for it. I’m delighted that she didn’t succeed,” O’Connor laughed.

O’Connor said that one of the first challenges with planning an exhibition is deciding what form it should take.

“We’re not as interested in the glass display case exhibition, for our temporary shows at least. We want that room to be different all the time and try new things than the idea of the literary exhibition.”

“Settling on the form then was the real challenge, that’s what took time. When we realised that the exhibition would be about testimony and people speaking about the book, that’s when we realised it probably needed to be a video installation,” he said.

Originally, the exhibition had a different design that relied on the use of headphones – but the onset of Covid-19 stopped that in its tracks.

Now, the exhibition is “something that people sit and watch together in the museum”.

“Because we have a number of restrictions now that we may not have had, we have a limited number within that room. We have this unusual challenge now that people really actually are staying for a long time in the exhibition room and we do want them gently to move on – but it’s a good problem to have!” O’Connor said.

NOF_MoLI_1 Source: Museum of Literature Ireland

Behind the testimonies and readings, visitors can heard a gentle score playing in the room. Composer Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, the museum’s digital curator, asked one of O’Faolain’s sisters what her favourite piece of music was. He used it to compose a score, and the music filling the exhibition space is the sound of it being performed by local musicians.

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“It’s all of these lovely subtle, environmental artistic touches within it that I’m so pleased with, because it’s a literary exhibition – but it’s also a lot more.”

 A shifting environment

The museum, along with many other cultural institutions around the country, shut down on 12 March after then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced a series of measures that began the country’s closure amid Covid-19.

While it was closed, the museum focused its attention on its digital projects, some of which were given a significantly accelerated timeline compared to their status if the museum had remained open.

“We did a huge amount of work very quickly around our child-learning programmes and our teen creative writing programmes that went up online,” O’Connor said.

“Our digital platform, RadioMoLI, has an on-demand side which we were able to get live within about four or five weeks weeks of the lockdown starting. That probably wouldn’t have been live for about two years.”

“By the time we had all of that rolling, that was when the roadmap to reopening started to become clearer,” O’Connor said. “There was a huge amount of work for us, as there would have been with any cultural institution, to manage that safely, not just for visitors, but also for staff.”

The museum has made some changes since reopening, including rethinking its reopening hours to accommodate local visitors, but none that have dramatically changed the space.

“We’re quite lucky in that we have a lot of very large, open spaces that are easy to ventilate. We were joking that we were practically socially distancing already because a lot of the rooms are so big and comfortable to be in.”

 ”We stopped opening first thing in the morning and started opening later in the day at half 11, but then we open until 7.30 in the evening. That’s forced us to close on Mondays, but hopefully eventually we’ll be back open to seven days a week.”

Other changes have included introducing more pre-booked time slots and limited capacities on each room. 

MoLI_Exterior_1 Source: Museum of Literature Ireland

For O’Connor, one of the pleasures of the museum’s reopening has been watching as regular visitors make their way back to the familiar space.

“We have a lovely courtyard garden here and a beautiful café. There are a lot of repeat visitors and members of the museum and it was a really big deal for them to be able come back in, chill out in the garden, have a coffee, listen to the birds, and pop in to see an exhibition. I think it’s a big part of what chills them out.”

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