Since August 10, when Quinnipiac University announced it would close the Great Hunger Museum in Ireland for good, the reaction has been muted at best. It is somewhat surprising; When the museum opened in October 2012, it was universally applauded as a remarkable achievement. The New York Times made it clear why the museum was important: “In the galleries of the Great Hunger Museum of Ireland, we are confronted with what really happened.” Forbes Magazine called the Museum’s collection “powerful”. The Boston Globe made it clear that New England is “a natural place for the country’s first famine museum.” So why no outcry?
I have heard from some that the museum was simply a vanity project of former Quinnipiac President John Lahey. If so, President Lahey has a strange sense of vanity. The museum does not bear his name; it is not the Lahey Museum. To diminish the importance of the museum in this way is both cruel and insensitive.
The university’s decision to close the museum could also be overturned by some as a cost-cutting measure. But the university has misled the public about the “burden” of keeping the museum open; those who are better informed know that, to keep the museum in operation, the cost was around $ 200,000 per year, based on the museum’s 2019-2020 years. The university, in its announcement, said: “IGHM staff and others at the University have invested a great deal of time and resources in seeking philanthropic support” for the museum. It is, at best, gross inflation of the university’s efforts. In fact, the university has done virtually nothing to support the museum; despite this, in the first year after the museum was ordered to become self-sustaining, museum staff raised a considerable percentage of the museum’s operating budget and were on the verge of making the museum a self-sustaining institution, when COVID -19 reduces staff effort. The university then emptied the museum staff, leaving only one employee.
The university’s announcement says they are “in active conversation with potential partners to view the collection.” This is not true. The museum will be dismantled, sold piecemeal and the museum mission will be destroyed.
It is too simplistic to think of the Great Hunger Museum in Ireland as an art museum; it is – as donor and benefactor Murray Lender and President Lahey intended from the start – a memorial. A unique memorial, no doubt, but a memorial all the same. No different from a statue or a park or a monument to a fallen hero, or a tragic event. So is destroying the museum all that different from a financial decision to remove a 9/11 memorial? The outrage that would ensue, if that happened, would be massive and justified. The university’s decision to destroy the IGHM memorial is no different.
As anyone who has visited the museum can attest, the importance of art is heightened by its surroundings. Of all the art in the museum, only two pieces – a stained glass piece called A Gorta Mor by Robert Ballagh, and Taking leave, a bronze sculpture by Margaret Chamberlain – were created specifically for display in this museum. The hundreds of other pieces were created at different times, some contemporary with the Great Hunger, others quite recent. These pieces take on a new look, new and greater meaning when viewed against the backdrop of the Great Hunger Museum of Ireland. For example: A play by James Brenan from 1876 titled The final touch (a painting of a girl leaving her family to travel to the New World) has an entirely new and deeper meaning, hanging on the wall adjacent to Mrs. Chamberlain’s bronze (depicting 17 figures, some climbing a gangway to board a ship for the ‘America) . A work by British artist, Henry Mark Anthony, titled Sunset displays the Rock of Cashel, a place of great historical and religious significance to the Irish. Painted in 1846, Anthony shows not only the historic Rock of Cashel, but below, in the village, the poverty and anguish of people whose lives were already torn apart. In another setting, we could miss the anguish of the peasants barely discernible in the foreground. To break up the museum, to sell it for its parts, is a scandal, a crime and a sin committed against the public, but also against the art itself.
Finally, the message of the Great Hunger Museum of Ireland has a universality that should not be overlooked. Yes, this is Ireland; but it is also about the famine in Bangladesh, Biafra, Eritrea. This is the British decision during World War II to export food from India to feed the troops – the Bengal famine of 1943, when perhaps three million people died. This is the Holodomor, the Great Famine of Ukraine, perpetrated by Joseph Stalin, in which up to 12 million people died. The museum held a traveling exhibit on the Bengal Famine of 1943, an event that I was not aware of until the exhibit arrived. The issues addressed by the museum are not unique to Ireland. Would that be true, but these are matters of universal concern. When the museum sent part of its collection to Ireland, more than 100,000 visitors visited the exhibit; the museum brought the story of the Irish Hunger to the Irish.
For the university, destroying this memorial is an insult, first for the Irish, but also for all those who care about injustice and suffering. When the university says that “we are convinced that our efforts will result in putting the museum’s collection on a bigger stage”, well, we should not let this deception go unanswered. A dismantling of the museum’s collection would show utter disregard for the memory of those the museum honors and those artists who have dug deep to portray such suffering.