I thank the Chairman and the committee members for the invitation to come and speak today on this very important topic. To give some context, the National Museum of Ireland is Ireland’s largest national cultural institution with four public sites – three in Dublin, the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Archaeology and the Museum of Decorative Arts and History and one in Castlebar, County Mayo, the Museum of Country Life.
The National Museum of Ireland, NMI, additionally manages a 20,000 m sq. Collections Resource Centre in Swords, which houses our collection ensuring it is available for research and scholarship. NMI collects, conserves and interprets the largest holdings of portable heritage in Ireland - more than 4 million artefacts and specimens - and welcomes more than one million visitors per annum. Visitor numbers have doubled since 2004 and continue to grow despite a significant reduction of 40% in budget between 2004 and 2016. A €1.42 million increase in budget allocation over 2017 and 2018 has initiated the process of readdressing this prolonged period of deficit. We welcome the continued focus of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Minister, Deputy Josepha Madigan, to increasing funding in arts, culture and heritage sector and, equally, the opportunity to engage with committee members today on this aspect of the museum's work, which is very important.
Under the National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2014, the National Museum of Ireland is the State's repository for archaeological objects and cares for them on behalf of the State. There are currently 168 staff employed across all of our sites. NMI has a national remit to work with the 12 local authority museums that are designated as places of deposit for archaeological objects of local importance. This is supported through an assigned designated local museum liaison, our head keeper of the Irish antiquities division, Maeve Sikora, who accompanies me today.
I will now provide some insight into the types of collaborations we have with local and regional museums. We have a rich and dynamic relationship with the network of regional and local museums, upon which we are eager to build. This is an opportune time to present to the joint Oireachtas committee as our recently published Master Vision reinforces the museum's commitment to local and regional museums stating as a key objective, "The proactive development of regional partnerships to deliver a truly national service." Collaboration is a core value of the NMI and it is supported at a strategic level by the NMI board. Collaborations with local and regional museums through collections loans, exhibitions, education and outreach programmes are a priority and crucial to achieving our ambition of a truly national service. The key areas underpinning these collaborations include a legislative role, which falls under the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997, whereby the director of the National Museum of Ireland can designate a museum as a place of deposit for archaeological objects of local importance. All archaeological objects found that have no known owner are State property and finders are obliged to report their discoveries to the National Museum or to a designated museum. The National Cultural Institutions Act 1997 additionally outlines the manner in which the NMI facilitates collection loans and enables the director of the NMI to place an object in the care of a designated museum.
Beyond the legislative role there is significant activity across collections and operations. The National Museum of Ireland facilitates loan requests to local and regional museums from the national collection, permanent and temporary. Attached to my opening statement there is an Appendix which lists some of the loans distributed across the museum network. The museum also provides advice, support and collaboration on issues of conservation, security, collection management and care, exhibition and interpretation at an individual level and, crucially, through regular network meetings with the local museums network group. We also programme events and outreach. We facilitate talks, lectures and research by key staff members across local and regional museums. There are numerous benefits to this relationship across all parties involved. The network of local and regional museums and the NMI's collaboration with same is critically important to the delivery of the vision of the NMI. Over the years, staff of the NMI have been heavily involved in the setting up of local authority museums. It is through these relationships, at institutional, network and individual levels, that the NMI can ensure the national collection reaches a wider audience, that local and regional communities are informed of the statutory role of the NMI in relation to archaeological finds, that NMI is enabled to connect more with a wider audience enabling their participation and feedback on our programme and that we grow awareness of the richness and importance of Ireland's cultural heritage.
The establishment of the museums standards programme for Ireland, MSPI, which is managed by our colleagues in the Heritage Council is a crucially important step in enabling best practice standards across museums in Ireland. While advocating for these standards across the sector and the resources required to support them, the NMI is itself in the process of MSPI accreditation. It is important to emphasise that our relationship also brings invaluable professional support to NMI and the local authority museums network, LAMN. For example, many members will be aware of the recent Tullydonnell Hoard find this summer in Donegal, which involved a rapid and close collaboration between the NMI team and Donegal County Museum. In many ways, it is an excellent example of the importance of these trusted and professional relationships and the reason it is important to grow and cherish these networks. There will be an exhibition of the Tullydonnell Hoard in Donegal County Museum, hopefully, in autumn 2019. It is through the network and these relationships that this function is carried out.
Some examples of activity over the last 12 months include the Cloosmore medieval ring brooch on temporary loan to Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne 2018; the temporary loan of objects related to policing in Ireland to Monaghan County Museum 2017-2018; 13 Viking objects from recent excavations at Beamish & Crawford site at Cork Public Museum 2018; the collection of High Crosses on loan to St Mary’s Medieval Mile Museum, Kilkenny and, by way of example of our educational programmes, the delivery of local archive and heritage projects through the iCAN project, which is a local archive project supported by the National Museum of Ireland and Galway County Council, supported by Creative Ireland. Other examples of temporary loans include the de Burgo-O’Malley Chalice to St Patrick’s Church in Newport for its centenary celebrations in September 2018.
There are some challenges and we have made key learnings along the way. Timelines can present an issue. The NMI is significantly under resourced across its curatorial and conservation departments. We have six full-time members of staff in conservation and five full-time curators in our antiquities department. These staff, along with our registration department, are crucial to the process in terms of loans. We currently require a minimum notice period of 12 months for loans. This is to allow us to fulfil the significant amount of practice from a selection, condition checking, conservation, recording and mount making-design point of view and also to complete the administrative paperwork that is required for a collection loan. We understand that this timescale can present a problem for local museums who may not have clarity on budgets within the prerequisite time of a 12 month timeframe and this is something we wish to work on more.
From a resource perspective, the safeguarding of the objects in the care of the National Museum of Ireland is the key responsibility of collections staff. Low staffing levels, particularly within our conservation and curatorial departments, can create a bottleneck. However, the availability of increased budget to facilitate a collection loan from conservation costs to security costs would be a way to address this difficult problem. In regard to the types of artefacts requested, there is a public expectation that a number of the significant objects of the national collection will be on permanent display in the National Museum of Ireland. Some examples include the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice and the Broighter Hoard and our internationally renowned bog bodies. Considering the visitor numbers and the level of expectation for displays at the National Museum, it is generally the policy that objects that are on permanent exhibition are seldom placed on an outward loan. In these cases - this is the crucial element of the relationship with the local museums and special interest groups - NMI seeks to provide a talk, lecture or event on the object in local area. For example, as part of the 150 year anniversary of the Ardagh Chalice, our former director, Raghnall Ó Floinn, delivered a lecture in Ardagh to mark the occasion. We do receive ongoing requests. A notable exception of a short term loan is the Derrynaflan Hoard to Tipperary County Museum.
Having recently had a number of discussions with our colleagues in the local and regional museums we have identified some areas as potential opportunities and enablers of greater collaboration in our network. Increased communication is critical. Regular communication between the National Museum of Ireland and the Local Area Museums Network, particularly at the level of director and the management team, is critical. Mr. Bradley mentioned the joint strategic plan. This joint thinking around strategic planning and partnership at an early stage enables us to ensure it is factored into annual business plans and, crucially, budgets. Investigation and delivery of joint initiatives and events, including co-curated exhibitions, education and event programmes, as well as early consultation on potential travelling exhibitions, means we can directly link in with national and local community interests and concerns.
As mentioned by Mr. Bradley, the investigation of opportunities that may increase the mobility grant or similar grants and ensure there is a greater resource available to enable the costly process of collection loans would have a significant impact.
As outlined in the appendices provided to the committee, there is a strong collaborative relationship and significant activity between the NMI and the network of local and regional museums. We will continue to drive and support that relationship. An increase in staff and budgets across institutions would enable greater and more strategic activity. However, the strength of these relationships is primarily driven by the commitment of those here today, the dedication of the staff involved and continued open and regular communication.