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'Should we admit this is a gesture?': Staff at Trinity College called for clarity ahead of call out for more women sculptures

The university has asked staff and students to nominate the first female scholar to be memorialised in a bust.

Bust of Johnathan Swift in the Long Room, Trinity College Dublin.
Bust of Johnathan Swift in the Long Room, Trinity College Dublin.
Image: Shutterstock.com

STAFF AT TRINITY College Dublin said the university isn’t “exactly going to right the wrongs of history” by commissioning busts of female scholars for its library, emails released under Freedom of Information show. 

Earlier this month, the university asked staff and students to nominate the first female scholar to be memorialised in a bust for the Long Room, the main chamber of the Old Library, the Irish Times reported. 

In an email to students and staff, Trinity Provost Patrick Prendergast said it was time to make Trinity’s public spaces “more representative of our diversity”.

Prior to the email, however, Trinity staff made a number of suggestions for how the university should phrase matters. 

One suggestion was to change “some sculpture busts of women” to “two sculpture busts of women” because, as one staff member suggested, the word ‘some’ “might be inadvertently vague and not as deliberate as this action and project aims to be”. 

“Obviously, we cannot redress the balance completely without a completely different approach,” they said. 

For the past 300 years, The Long Room at Trinity has only displayed busts of men.

The 40 marble sculptures lining the main chamber include representations of Edmund Burke, Johnathan Swift and Isaac Newton. The Long Room itself dates back to the 1730s. 

The absence of women lining the room was noted back in 2014 by American journalist and social commentator Mona Eltahawy during a visit to Trinity in which she called on the university’s Philosophical Society to “agitate” for more representations of women. 

Internal emails show that the university was considering a commission for sculptures of women as far back as February.  

Before announcing the commissioning, the university considered whether or not to go along with the suggestion that the commission to include female scholars was, by and large, a gesture.

Wrote one staff member: “Should we admit this is a gesture and we know including some or two isn’t exactly going to right the wrongs of history, but that it is that – history – and we are proposing to make a change for the present and the future generations?”

In the end, Trinity opted to simply specify “some sculpture busts of women” in its commissioning brief. 

Prendergast said nominations will be considered by a committee chaired by himself and other members of the college community and that commissioning the new sculpture will follow the same criteria for previous busts – the subject must have been a scholar, although not necessarily at Trinity, and be deceased.

Nominations will be considered until 1 December. 

A number of suggestions have already been publicly made, including commissioning busts of writer Maeve Brennan, doctor Kathleen Lynn and Skibbereen-born astronomer Agnes Clerke. 

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