A s the idea of a Tenement Museum at Number 14 Henrietta Street was being teased out a few years ago, independent Councillor Mannix Flynn said that the building should be used to house families and homeless people, instead.

“What could that house possibly do other than house people?” he says still nowadays, of the four-storey faded-brick building.

That debate is now over, and the city has long ago settled on turning it into an heritage institution, which had a soft launch in October last year.

But progress has been slow on the details of what will be shown, explored, and storied when – if all goes to plan – the museum opens fully this summer, says Sinn Féin Councillor Greg Kelly.

“The delay, though, was: who was going to run it?” says Kelly. Which also ties into the question of “what the vision was going to be”.

Coming Soon

Dating back to the 1720s, cobbled Henrietta Street in the north inner city is the only intact example of an early-18th-century street of houses in Europe.

Number 14 was once a grand single-family townhouse for the elite of Dublin, according to council research. It “was turned into tenement housing in the 1880s”, a spokesperson said.

By 1911, there were 17 families crammed into the building, who between them made up 100 tenants. It stayed a tenement for decades, right until the last family left the building in 1979, the spokesperson said.

The brief right now is that the Tenement Museum “will seek to deepen the understanding of the history of urban life and housing in Ireland by exploring the lives of the people who lived at 14 Henrietta Street, with particular focus on those who lived in the building when it was tenement housing”, said the spokesperson, by email.

The museum will look at how and where these tenants lived, and how their lives were shaped by the social changes around them, they said.

Already, some historians have worked to crowd-source memories of those who moved from the narrow tenements to the open suburbs in the mid-twentieth century.

It will be up to the museum manager – a post the council is currently seeking to fill – to “further develop the museum’s exhibition plans and programming over the summer months for the autumn schedule”, said the spokesperson. (It plans to open the museum to the public in June 2018.)

The museum has cost more than €3.4 million to conserve and rework, said the council spokesperson.

In recent weeks, a Tenement Museum board of directors was formed. That comes on the heels of a new Dublin City Council Cultural Company, which is expected to have its office within the Tenement Museum.

Kelly, who sits on the recently appointed board of the cultural company, says he hopes its approach is more progressive than traditional council thinking. That tends to be conservative, he says.

“I was a bit dubious at first about setting up the new company,” he says. “[…] but I think that fact that we’re just about to hire a full-time manager of the building […] that gives the building focus and doesn’t restrict what the museum could be.”

But just what the Tenement Museum “could be” is up in the air, says Kelly.

Then and Now

Today, parts of the north-inner city are packed with homes that suffer from acute, and worsening, overcrowding, as census data has shown.

At a recent housing committee meeting, Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh spoke about a family home elsewhere in Dublin that is so overcrowded that one of the children sleeps in the bath.

Statistics and stories of Dublin today raise questions of how narrow a window of history the  museum can and should be looking at in its tales of tenement living.

Kelly says that the Tenement Museum should also be used as a space for debate around issues affecting the city now. “That is what part of the museum should definitely be used for,” he says. “I think issues around housing would be a great start.”

He points to the Little Museum of Dublin on St Stephen’s Green as an example of a space used in different ways, something to try to emulate. “I’m not saying we’re going to be half a good as the Little Museum, but I’m hoping that we can, as a board, do something different,” he says.

There should be room, he says, for one off plays and talks, alongside the office space and exhibitions. “The talks are going to be a big part of it from what I understand.” That could mean architecture or housing-related talks, but also could involve corporate bookings of the space, too. In that sense, the Tenement Museum might move beyond being simply a repository for artefacts, he says.

A council spokesperson said that the “developing mission” of the museum is to “collect the history of the house and its occupants as well as “educate Dubliners and visitors about the history of the city through the prism of tenement living”.

It is also going to be used as a space to “celebrate the strong community ethos evident in Dublin’s tenements,” they said. It is important, too though, that the Tenement Museum interacts with the present as much as the past, says independent Councillor Vincent Jackson, who also sits on the recently established board.

“That’s going to be our challenge,” he says. “Can it be used effectively? It has to be used as a cultural and social space. It has to be interactive. We’ll have to be very specific about what goes in there.”

Looking To London

There are examples of museums that have taken on the challenge of looking at the past of homes and housing, without turning away from a raw present.

The Geffrye Museum was set up in Shoreditch in the East End of London in 1914, and celebrates the history of the home and of home life.

In 2011, it teamed up with Queen Mary University of London to form the Centre for Studies of Home, which does research, which in turn helps to enrich the Geffrye’s exhibitions.

There has been a “great public reaction to events and exhibitions” grown from the partnership, says Director of Collections, Learning and Engagement Eleanor John.

“For example, an exhibition on teenage bedrooms was particularly successful – generating much intergenerational discussion amongst visitors,” said John, by email.

Another exhibition focused on the experience of domestic servants, which is “again an overlooked and neglected area”, she said. “We wouldn’t have been able to cover exhibitions on these subjects without the research generated through the centre.”

The idea for the Centre for Studies of Home came out of one project, after Alastair Owens, a historical geographer at Queen Mary, came across some 19th-century household inventories in inheritance tax records at the National Archives. He asked the museum for a research grant.

“Nineteenth-century inventories were thought to be fairly rare, and this was a great opportunity to gain a better empirical understanding of Victorian homes,” said John.

Queen Mary University was also interested in public engagement, in the impact of research beyond the academy. “That research shouldn’t just sit on a shelf,” said John.

So far, “we have brought in well over £1 million for research supporting doctoral and post-doctoral research projects […] as well as public engagement events and exhibitions,” said John.

With decreasing core funding and rising costs, the partnership between the Geffrye and Queen Mary University has “helped the museum to sustain a rich exhibition programme” and “generated unique archives for the collections through research projects”, said John.

These, in turn, “have added voices and stories to the collection that are often overlooked […]under-represented in museum collections”, she said.

The centre also has monthly seminars that showcase new research, research-in-progress, and specialised conferences.

Here in Dublin, some of those involved in housing activism question how engaged a council-run Tenement Museum could become in the debate, and politics of housing.

Dean Scurry, the housing activist with Home Sweet Home, says he can’t see the Tenement Museum becoming a hotbed of discussion around housing anytime soon. The council’s thinking is often “too thought-out, strategic and planned” in these matters, he says.

But one of the issues for housing activism groups, he says, is the lack of space to meet. Groups tend to work and gather on the outskirts. “But it’d be an interesting space to be in,” he says.

Dave Gibney of the Mandate trade union says that trade unions have provided spaces for activists to meet in recent years. But “there’s so much fragmentation within housing activism that a building like that could bring them together”, he says.

Again, though, whether a local-authority-owned building is the right spot for that is questionable, he says.

There is also, he says, the need for a museum like the Tenement Museum, one that reminds people what living conditions were like in Dublin. Perhaps, the nod to today could be asking visitors for donations to homeless charities as they leave.

Early Days

Jackson, the independent councillor, says he is unclear right now of what will be in the museum, if it does open this June. “It’s a bit light at this stage I have to be honest,” he says. “There’s nothing in there yet. Nothing at all.”

He says he worries that citywide the council is building up a collection of heritage sites that, when it comes down to it, is “more than it can manage”.

It is looking to reopen George Bernard Shaw’s birthplace on Synge Street. It’s preparing a second cultural quarter at Parnell Square, which is due to house a new city library. It also recently refurbished and opened Richmond Barracks in Inchicore.

But both he and Kelly reel in their concerns about readiness, and say they think the council can pull the Tenement Museum together by its scheduled full opening in the summer.

But “we have to re-imagine what these spaces could be used for,” says Jackson. “To make sure they interact in a constructive and positive way with the history of the city and that they’re relevant to the times we’re living in.”

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Cónal Thomas: is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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