Is pribhléid mhór dom a bheith anseo os bhur gcomhair inniu. I thank the committee for the opportunity to present today on behalf of the NMI. We appreciate the fact that this committee identified the recovery of cultural institutions, and the cultural sector in general, as part of the work programme it published in June. Together with the director of the NMI, Lynn Scarff, I hope that during this exchange we can provide the committee with some considerations that may usefully be applied in a policy context as we start to emerge from the effects of the pandemic. I will deal with some top-line points in this statement and we are happy to discuss our more detailed submission with the committee that will follow this afternoon.
As most members of the committee will be aware, the NMI is among a number of cultural institutions including, for example, the National Archives of Ireland, the National Library of Ireland, the National Gallery of Ireland and others. The NMI has four public sites, three of which are located in Dublin. Many members will be familiar with the Natural History Museum, which is on the Merrion Street side of Leinster House, in addition to the Museum of Archaeology, which is on Kildare Street. I hope members all regularly take the chance to visit these sites. We also have a site at Collins Barracks, where our decorative arts and history galleries are located, and we have the Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, County Mayo. In addition to our museum sites, we also manage the collections resource centre based in Swords, which is where we house the majority of our collections that are not on public display. In fact, we have had exchanges previously with this committee. The Chairman of this committee has visited Swords. We have a number of issues with the lease of that premises, which we may address in future correspondence with members.
To return to the issue of the pandemic, like many of public bodies we closed our doors on 12 March last year. It has been a stop-start situation since. We have made every effort, while we have been open, to ensure the safety of our visitors through instituting pre-booking visits and one-way systems as well as some physical alternations to support public health measures. Many of the measures and changes we have instituted to support the public during the pandemic have been enabled with the support of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and her Department. We are very appreciative of that.
Of course, the work of the NMI is not just about welcoming visitors through our doors. During the pandemic, we have continued to collect, conserve and educate, including through an enhanced online offering. The experience of the pandemic has taught us many new things, as well as presenting new challenges. At its broadest level, the pandemic has caused many to question the role of culture and heritage in all our lives. For so long, the key performance indicator for the sector has been visitor numbers. This notion, in our view, has been completely turned on its head. As we move out of the pandemic, there is an opportunity to consider the wider and deeper role of cultural institutions and culture more generally. Museums as collectors, curators, spaces of well-being, places of discussion about our future and instruments of community cohesion are all ripe for new consideration.
In the early days of the pandemic, the NMI decided to work harder to meet our public sector and human rights duties by considering those communities most adversely impacted by the pandemic. As it happens, many of those communities are on our doorstep. These include families who had poor access to online learning, children who did not have the home supports to progress with learning and education and those families and individuals living in accommodation without gardens and outdoor spaces to escape, especially during the early days of lockdown when we were all confined.
As international tourism remains low, the National Museum will continue to focus on disadvantaged communities and support recovery from learning loss and loss of opportunity. However, as we move out of the pandemic, we want to bring more rigour and discussion to the concept of the inclusive museum. We know that cultural institutions play a critical role in creative place-making and are important elements of our overall cultural ecosystem, and in turn the health and well-being of communities. As many committee members are aware, the Black Lives Matter movement, which became an active voice in the pandemic, has highlighted that museums across the globe have a distance to travel. Political engagement, including engagement with this committee, in our dialogue on an inclusive museum will be very important in establishing new, common and acceptable key performance indicators that go far beyond visitor numbers. This is a policy and a resource issue for all of us.
Of course, the national cultural institutions in Ireland were cushioned, from an income perspective, during the pandemic given our high dependency on Exchequer funding. We are grateful to the Minister and Department for ensuring that our budgetary allocations remained intact. However, we have seen a loss in retail income for which we will have to adjust. As many committee members know, as they come from different parts of the country, it is the many cultural and heritage sites, big and small, dotted around the country and which rely heavily on visitor numbers for their survival that are suffering and will face a much more difficult road to recovery. For that reason, while getting people through the door can no longer be the key performance measurement for cultural institutions, the sector needs a return of strong visitor numbers to survive. Income diversification and incentives to collaborate across the cultural sector are opportunities that need to be created and supported.
The role of cultural tourism in post-pandemic Ireland must not be neglected in our bid to reopen fully. I know this committee has undertaken a report on the recovery of tourism and has acknowledged culture in that. The committee will also be aware that the EU’s blueprint to support the tourism sector, published in the early days of the first wave of Covid, highlighted the importance of cultural tourism in building more sustainable long-term tourism economies. Not only must we look at the immediate recovery road for the cultural sector, we must also look at the long-term road of recovery and how that fits in to the tourism strategies the committee is considering.
For the cultural sector, including the national cultural institutions, enhanced capabilities with more fit-for-purpose buildings and viable online offerings help to support the cultural offering as we try to rebuild. Ensuring that the investment anticipated for the sector under the national development plan does not fall away could not be more important as we move out of the pandemic. While the museum worked very hard to reach audiences online during the pandemic, we know that building a high-quality online offering to complement physical programming will, in post-pandemic life, be just as important in driving interest and outreach in our collections. There is a digital capacity gap in the cultural sector that will need to be bridged. Skills and staff will be required to do that work.
Considerations about the development of an enhanced night-time economy in Ireland, which is also an item for consideration under this committee, should not just tag culture in a long list of potential component parts. It should situate culture as a key plank in helping to bring audiences into our towns and cities after working hours, in particular. Using cultural spaces to support artists and host events, and using them as a safe and enjoyable place to simply hang out, are all ripe for consideration. When we travel again, we can experience places such as the cultural quarter in Vienna or cities such as Washington and New York. There is an opportunity in those places for people to come in, hang out, use the cafe and WiFi. That is normal for cultural institutions. We must build our capacity to make these places nice places to come and simply hang out.
The committee will be well aware of the recommendations of the arts and culture recovery task force, some of which I have mentioned today. It provides strong recommendations for the more immediate recovery of our sector. However, long-term strategic considerations of the role of culture in our society and how that is supported by cultural institutions is also required if we are to ensure the sector weathers future storms, which it will inevitably face. Over the coming weeks, as the board of the National Museum regroups, following a number of reappointments and new appointments, we will be writing to the committee on some of these longer-term issues, not least with regard to our enabling legislation, which is now quite old, even by the standards of a national museum. We would love a dialogue on that, as we would love a dialogue on our ambitions as an inclusive museum.