Monday 3 May 2010

City of the Dead

Did you know that I live beside a necropolis? Well, you would know if you read this. Glasnevin Cemetery has been undergoing restoration for the past few years and now, in addition to be a working graveyard (if that’s the right phrase) it has a museum, café and gift shop. So of course Máire Áine and I had to visit.
We went to the café first and I’m very happy to report that it shows lots of promise. The coffee is good, the salads are not at all bad, the cakes (apart from being drenched in icing sugar) were also a cut above. The toilets take a little bit of finding because of some confusing signage. It turns out they’re more or less behind Michael Collins’ grave, but probably they don’t want to advertise the fact. (There is a discreet wall between the two.)
And then the Museum, divided into three sections, City of the Dead, Milestones and the Prospect Gallery which is a space for temporary exhibitions. City of the Dead is the most interesting as it gives the history of the cemetery as well as an exploration of burial customs.

The first section is atmospheric and effective: a scrolling list of names is appropriately eerie,

and this display (echoing memorial plaques? ) is quite stunning, consisting of clear boxes with a name, a date and an object representing each person’s life.

Next is an excellent AV (mostly stills, but really beautiful photography) on the history of Glasnevin Cemetery, covering everything from foundation to graverobbing to monument design.
Oh, and the skull buried in the floor (probably reproduction, looks real though) is a nice touch, reminding you that, interesting as the Cemetery is above ground, it’s really all about what’s below the surface.

Then there’s an archive space, where you can leaf through facsimiles of some of the record books and use some interactives to explore different areas of content. A couple of the interactives weren’t working very well though which took away from the experience.

The next display was well done, quite simple (as far as I could tell, backlit graphics but the light source shifted so it looked like the text was moving) and an interesting comparison of how death is treated across different religions. I liked the simple division between ‘body’ and ‘soul’. If I had a nit to pick it was that someone should have done a better job of checking for typos:

Lots of stage-setting throughout, like this wall of epitaphs and this wall (fake, I checked) which, like the skull, prompts you to think about what lies beneath. I think a few more object displays would have helped, but I imagine there are practical reasons why they chose to go down the AV/interactive route rather than displaying objects.

Beside the lift is a flickering graphic of a fire – representing hellfire, cremation, who knows? But mostly it suggested that being trapped in a lift on fire would be a really nasty way to die.

The space upstairs looks like it’s designed to be multi-functional and is, unfortunately, a little bit bland in consequence. There’s a big timeline interactive spread across several screens. It wasn’t working so the big ‘wow’ of the space was lost. It is inevitable that technology goes wrong sometimes and given the Museum has just opened, they may have some snagging yet to do. I have been there and know how frustrating it is. 

The highlight of the Prospect Gallery (the temporary exhibition featured historic post office ‘wanted’ posters) is the views out over the graveyard – these Japanese visitors, each carrying a rose, intrigued us. We never did find out where they left their flowers.

It reminded me that worthwhile as a visit to the Museum is, it is most effective when it prompts you to explore the Cemetery itself. Another day I would combine a visit with a tour.

If you go, call me and we’ll go for a pint in the Gravediggers afterwards.

1 comment:

  1. i)Did you buy a Daniel O'Connell pencil? Or keyring?

    ii) I can't believe you went with Máire-Aine and not me

    iii) the division into body:soul is a reinforcement of the Cartesian dualism that, as an anthropologist, I must protest against. Next time I come home I am going to write them a strongly worded post-it.