Special Report 62: National Museum of Ireland Summary

The National Museum of Ireland (NMI) manages Ireland?s national collection of heritage objects. The NMI, which dates back to 1877, became a fully autonomous non-commercial semi-state body in 2005. It falls under the responsibility of the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism which has overall policy responsibility for the preservation of the nation?s cultural heritage.

The examination set out to evaluate how well the NMI manages the national collections. In particular, it reviewed collection management practices, how the NMI makes these collections accessible to the public and researchers and how it manages its overall performance. In making this assessment it drew upon standards and guidelines set out in an accreditation scheme established by the Heritage Council which provides a framework for assessing acceptable levels of achievement in all areas associated with managing a successful and effective museum.

Collection Management

The NMI estimates that it has almost four million objects in its collections. However, the results of tests performed during the examination and the NMI?s own attempts to trace objects in its Irish Folklife division suggest that there are significant shortcomings in its capacity to keep track of its collections. An important step in tracking artefacts would be to establish a comprehensive electronic record of all collection objects. Of the 911,000 objects which lend themselves to being recorded in detail, only 30% are electronically recorded at present. In addition to comprehensive recording, periodic physical verification of the location and condition of artefacts is essential in order to provide assurance on their existence and accessibility. The NMI does not perform any systematic inventory checks.

Problems associated with storage facilities at the NMI have been evident for a number of years. While improvements have been made, many artefacts continue to be stored in poor conditions in 11 of the 17 storage facilities of the NMI. The NMI needs to address storage facilities or the national collections will be at risk of damage and decay.

Shortcomings in the monitoring and control of temperature and humidity also expose the collections to damage. The NMI needs to install a system capable of both monitoring and controlling environmental conditions so as to maintain the collections at the optimum humidity and temperature levels.

Currently, conservation resources are largely focused on preparing objects for exhibitions. This comes at the expense of caring for the remainder of the collections. In addition, object conservation audits are not being performed. These should be a part of routine collection management operations, so that conservation work can be more efficiently targeted.

Overall, the NMI faces a considerable challenge in attempting to provide for the curation and preservation of all the material that comes into its ownership and care. A more discriminating approach may be necessary in order to ensure that the space available to the NMI is used to best effect.

This is particularly important in the light of a growing imbalance between the quantity of heritage material and the resources available to manage them. All archaeological material found during excavation is owned by the State and automatically comes under the care of the NMI. The growth in construction activity in recent years has caused particular problems for the NMI in relation to the adequacy of its storage space and the documentation of and access to excavated material. In these circumstances, there needs to be clear policies on the acquisition and de-accessioning of all collection objects.

Display and Access

The NMI does not compare favourably with other museums in terms of opening hours. In order to enhance public access to its material the NMI needs to work towards increasing the amount of time its collections are available for public viewing.

Aside from physical access, there is also scope for greater use of information and communication technology in making the collections more accessible. Developing electronic access to collections and modernising the NMI website to cater for the provision of electronic data about collections could also enhance public access.

Outreach work is carried out on an ad hoc basis largely due to resourcing constraints. A more structured approach to the planning and resourcing of outreach activity would provide opportunities for targeted groups to become aware of and experience the NMI collections.
Like most museums, the major portion of collection objects cannot be put on public exhibition. However, those objects not on display can have research and educational uses. Access to the collections by researchers is complicated and highly labour intensive for the NMI.

There is a need to streamline the arrangements for the provision of research access to make it more user friendly for researchers and more efficient for the NMI itself.

Managing the Museum

In the absence of a current statement of strategy for the NMI, there is a risk that development and change will be unfocused and day-to-day business will be unconnected to an organisation vision and mission. The NMI needs to formulate a strategy to link its higher-level goals with business procedures in order to enable it to plan and function in a co-ordinated manner.

It also needs to evolve a better set of indicators to measure its performance in key areas. With the exception of attendance figures, the NMI does not compile indicators of performance for its main activities.

In relation to corporate governance, there is no formal risk management system. While there are procedures to address public safety, there is no comprehensive disaster plan for the collections. The NMI needs to install a modern risk management system and complete a comprehensive disaster plan.

It also needs to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the expert knowledge and experience of its specialist staff is retained. In this connection, the NMI should institute arrangements to document museum-wide specialist knowledge of curatorial staff, so that vital knowledge is retained to its benefit.

Overall, in order to ensure that the additional funding being made available under the National Development Plan 2007-2013 is applied to optimal effect, the NMI needs to finalise a strategy statement and develop comprehensive acquisition, de-accessioning and exhibitions policies.