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Memoria e Ricerca

Quando è in gioco la Public History: musei, storici e riconciliazione politica nella Repubblica d’Irlanda

di Thomas Cauvin
in Memoria e Ricerca n.s. 37 (2011), p. 53


When Public History is at stake : museum, historians and political reconciliation in the Republic of Ireland

The participation of historians to public events has a long history, but it has undergone a major shift through the last three decades. Researcher, writers and/or teachers, historians are now practitioners and experts as well1. Olivier Dumoulin contends that historians arrayed themselves in new costumes ; certain historians are now presented as experts on television, radio, and in special commissions and courts2. Their presence in the foreground of public events contrasts with what has been the norm since the late nineteenth century professionalization of history as a distinct discipline. The constitution and distinction of history as a discipline resulted in gradually separating professional historians teaching in university from amateurs and public practitioners3. Consequently there was a general retreat from public engagement among professional historians.

While there continued to be trained historians working in public settings all along the twentieth century, the spread of Public History (hereafter PH) in the 1970s marked a shift in conceptualizing the work of historians4. Developed in the United States and in Great Britain in the 1970s, PH is now a widely practice with journals such as the Public Historian and an association, the National Council on Public History5. Based on traditional historical methods, the PH has been characterized by its practice out of the academic arena6. Far from the isolated work of history writing, more and more public historians have been part of collective projects in media with large audiences such as historical associations, museums, television or radio broadcasts. The term PH has been yet essentially used in the United States and partly in other English-speaking countries such as Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand7. In 2008, for the Annual conference on PH, North American participants were struck by the fact that few British practitioners identified themselves primarily, if at all, as public historians8. That is the reason why some scholars eschew the term PH outside the United States and analyzed the « public role of historians » instead9. In Europe PH barely exists as independent field. Instead, public uses of history are divided in many different fields such as archives and registration, museum studies or heritage studies etc. This is the situation in the Republic of Ireland10 where no university provides specific degree about PH11. The situation is therefore quite different from the United States and Great Britain where many universities offer their student PH degrees12.

The Republic of Ireland is an interesting case study for its geographical and historical proximity with Great Britain where PH spread since the 1970s. This connection is particularly visible through museum studies. Apart from one recent master in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies provided by the University of Ulster (Northern Ireland), no programme trains museum practitioners on the island13. Lar Joy, who became in 1996 assistant keeper of the Art and Industry Division at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, had to attend the School of Museum Studies in Leicester University (Great Britain) in order to obtain his master in Museum Management14. No similar training existed in the Republic of Ireland. Nevertheless, in spite of the absence of any PH training, Irish scholars working outside academia witnessed some reconsideration of their activity in the 1990s. We should not be misled by the absence of PH as an autonomous discipline. The absence of PH as discipline does not mean the absence of «historians in public life»15.

Perhaps even more than anywhere else, public life of historians in Ireland, North and South, has been tainted with political issues. The outbreak of violence in the late 1960s in Northern Ireland shaped the political, but also economic and cultural Irish context. The wish to solve the conflict between the mainly Catholic Nationalists and mainly Protestant Loyalists led to the reappraisal of the past in less divisive terms. The definition of the national past became the centre of attention16. However, historians were far from being the sole actors involved in re-interpreting the past.

Through several agreements, the Irish government became directly involved in the Northern Irish peace process17. The Irish political willingness to contribute to reconciling communities in Northern Ireland and improving relations between the Republic, Northern Ireland and Britain materialized notably through cultural policies. The commemorations of the Great Famine and the 1798 Rebellion in 1995 and 1998 were occasion to re-evaluate the historical links between the two islands in more conciliated ways. The Irish government accordingly set up a commemoration committee which put forward the past as a model of unity for the 1990s context of political reconciliation. Similarly to what Hoock notices about PH in Britain, the state as a key funder of museums, archives, and other heritage sites thus occupied a central role in supporting the public use of history18.

This article examines the changing public roles of historians in the Republic of Ireland in the 1990s. In order to do so, I propose to dwell upon the relations between academic historians and one media particularly relevant in PH : museums. Museums have been formidable training grounds for public historians19. The production and display of history in museums fit perfectly the definition of PH as being the history proposed to non academic publics. Although the historical interpretative centres flourished in the Republic in the 1990s20, the article deals rather with the National Museum of Ireland (hereafter NMI). This choice comes from the longer existence of the NMI, which allows to examine the new situation better21. Through this case study, we can question the particular public involvement of historians in the 1990s. Due to the absence of any special PH training, and the relevance of the political reconciliation, we question the characteristics of these historians facing wider audiences. What sort of history was produced in the museum, or in other words, how could historians translate academic historical complexity into narratives intended for wider audiences ?


1 ) The Irish « prehistory » of PH ? Museum and historians before the 1990s

In order to understand the shift in the 1990s better, we must pinpoint the previous roles of historians. As Hilliard argues, PH has a « prehistory »22. What is now sometimes called PH was previously simply called history. Does it mean that the absence of PH in the Republic of Ireland hides an older involvement of historians in museums ?

Although the collaboration between academic historians and museums is now more common in Ireland and in Europe, the situation was very different a few decades ago23. The status of keeper at the NMI was symptomatic of the disconnection with academia. The NMI’s history collections belong to the Art and Industry Department and have been run by one keeper and assistants keepers. Until the 1990s, only one assistant keeper had been trained as professional historian. Gerard Hayes-McCoy was in charge of the eighteenth and nineteenth century historical collections from 1937 to 195924. However, like many young historians in the 1970s who were at the origin of the spread of the PH, Hayes-McCoy did not find any position in academia and candidated successfully at the museum25. Among other projects, Hayes-McCoy founded the Military History Society of Ireland and strove to create an independent history museum26. Yet, Hayes-McCoy remained an isolated example. When he left the museum in 1959, he was not replaced by an historian. Indeed, most of historical exhibitions arranged at the NMI until the 1990s were under the supervision of keepers or assistant keepers specialist of Celtic studies and literature, and not professional historians. For instance, Oliver Snoody who was in charge of the historical collections from 1963 to the late 1980s was not historian. President of the Gaelic League, poet, and founder of Coiscéim which published Irish books from 1980 onwards, Snoddy symbolized the Celtic studies trope of the NMI staff.

The absence of connection between the NMI and academic historians could be explained by their dissimilar purposes and approaches. Unlike academic historians who mainly use written archives, keepers have to deal with broader variety of materials27. Museums are not books on walls. Furthermore, the NMI had contingently few written materials since most of the collected historical texts belong to the National Library of Ireland (NLI hereafter). The gap between the NMI and academic historians was also reinforced by the museum focus on artefacts rather than interpretations. Apart from commemorative exhibitions, the displays mounted at the NMI were driven by categories of artefacts28. In the early 1990s, the NMI was still more a place of storage and display of artefacts than a site of interpretation. Accordingly, the museum needed connoisseurs more than academic historians. The situation evolved with the general trend of interpretations in museums.


2 ) The National Museum and the new public roles of historians

The collaboration between the NMI and academic historians was facilitated by structural changes. In 1994, new exhibition spaces were allocated to the museum at Collins Barracks where the Art and Industry collections were transferred29. This was the occasion for establishing a new mission statement30. The interim board convoked by the Minister in 1994 also recommended that a museum interpretative designer be added to the team31. In 1996, Sears & Russell Consultants was hired to assist the NMI in planning exhibitions. The firm, based in Toronto (Canada) had « expertise in museum design and in interpretive planning of exhibition »32. This example was revealing of the development of one new category of museum practitioners : museum interpreters33. Howell explains his role of consultant in planning exhibition as « explaining to the visitor the relationship between information and objects »34. Among the objectives of the new 1998 NMI exhibition strategy, it was decided to identify the messages to be communicated35. The NMI was no longer driven merely by storage and artefact display but the staff also attached importance to audiences and interpretation. The 1998 exhibit strategy pointed out that the Museum should tell its stories through objects with a context36. The new relevance given to context and interpretation of objects provided more opportunity for historians to work with the museum. It is interesting to notice that the company hired to establish the exhibition strategy was from Canada, one major space of PH development. Before any involvement from academic historians in the NMI, the PH was materialized by the professionalization of museums in collaboration with consulting companies. The new public roles of historians depended upon the changing exhibiting policy of museums.

The collaborations between academic historians and the NMI also benefited from the multiplication of commemorations in the 1990s37. The act of commemorating was so widespread that some scholars referred to an age of commemoration38. The NMI did not stay aside from this process and arranged an exhibition for the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion39. This 1998 exhibition was financed by the government Commemoration Committee which was initially set up in May 1994 to co-ordinate the commemoration of the Great Famine. In July 1994, the government agreed that the Committee would also deal with the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion40. The inter-departmental Committee and was in charge of supervising and financing the national commemoration planning. The Committee funded various events such as the NMI’s exhibition but also one « national conference », the « Lecture Tour » in the United States and the first stage of the Tour de France41. Two historical advisers worked within the Committee in 1998 : Tom Bartlett and Kevin Whelan. Whelan’s collaboration was older since he was already historical adviser for the Famine Commemoration Committee in 1994. Whelan’s role is particularly salient since he was historical adviser for the 1998 exhibition arranged at the NMI as well. It was the first time one professional historian worked actively in mounting an exhibition at the NMI.

Whelan was the mastermind of the 1998 exhibition. Sometimes defined as « curator of the exhibition », sometimes as « researcher and script writer », Whelan had the fundamental role of interpreting the 1798 Rebellion42. Indeed, Whelan participated in the organization meetings at the NMI and wrote most of the exhibition texts, in particular the eponymous companion volume sold in the museum’s shop43. He wrote the panels of the exhibition and influenced greatly the overall presentation. For instance, the last section of the display was entitled « ’98 after ’98 : the Politics of Memory », similarly to the last section of Whelan’s 1996 book44. The title itself, « Fellowship of Freedom : the 1798 Rebellion and the United Irishmen », demonstrated how Whelan acted as bridge between the NMI and the government Commemoration Committee whose Mission Statement asserted its commitment to « commemorate the ideals of the United Irishmen and the ‘Fellowship of Freedom’ that inspired them in 1798 »45.

We cannot examine Whelan’s contribution to the commemorations without ignoring that he was one of the specialists of the 1798 Rebellion. By 1998, he had published or co-edited a couple of major works on the subject46. Nevertheless, Whelan’s career did not limit to this issue. He did not have any particular training in PH, yet his career contributed to explaining why he became museum and government’s adviser. In addition to his knowledge of the late eighteenth century, Whelan had the advantage of being an independent scholar with an interdisciplinary and international career47. Not permanently affiliated to any university, Whelan was free to develop his interdisciplinary activity. His activity as historical adviser of the Irish government was part of the various contracts Whelan obtained in the 1990s.

Whelan was initially not trained as historian but geographer. He defended his thesis in 1981 at the University of Dublin (UCD)48. Then, he became visiting fellow at the Memorial University (Newfoundland, Canada) where he undertook archival research in history49. Accordingly, most of his works in the 1980s and early 1990s concentrated on history, more particularly on Wexford, his native region50. However, Whelan was not merely historian ; he was also familiar with geography and cultural studies51. This interdisciplinary approach was one significant asset to work with broad audiences. PH is indeed defined by its public which goes beyond the frontier of academia ; and this necessitates quality of adaptation. Whelan’s training was enriched by a position of assistant keeper at the National Library of Ireland (NLI), between 1983 and 1989, where, according to him, his « real education began »52. Through this position, he had to respond to academic and public used of documents. He was confronted to practical issues scholars working with wide audiences have to be aware of. In Whelan’s career, these audiences were not only Irish. He had indeed been fellow in Canada and in the United States as well53. Whelan did not come from PH training but he owned two of its major criteria : interdisciplinary methods and knowledge of non-academic publics.

In 1998, Whelan was well aware of the relevance of the past. In the companion volume of the exhibition, Whelan explained that « The United Irishmen’s ideas did not die with the events of 1798, but are still potent, valid and unrealised (…) the United Irishmen are very much our contemporaries »54. This statement came from his conception of the links between past and present. In one 2001 interview, he contended that « I am not enthused by a history divorced from the present. Living in Ireland, one lives in multiple times, constantly engaged in a dialogue between past and present »55. Unlike what Lowenthal argues, the past was not for Whelan strictly « a foreign country »56. The definition of the links between past and present was much closer to what Rosenzweig, Thelan or Samuel construed. They argued that the past is a reservoir of alternatives to the present and they invited to draw lessons from the study of the past57. The present use of 1798 was particularly connected to the political reconciliation and the Northern Irish context. Whelan pointed out that « Like the United Irishmen, we face the task today of negotiating an agreed political structure, capable of representing Irish people in all their inherited complexities »58. The public role of Whelan was therefore strengthened by the political demand requesting to produce reconciliation. In the Lecture Tour organized in April 1998 in the United States and sponsored by the government, Whelan gave several talks entitled « The politics of memory : the contemporary significance of the 1798 Rebellion »59. The « agreed political structure » took the shape of the Belfast Agreement signed by the Irish and British governments and most of the Northern Irish political parties in April 1998. The 1798 Rebellion was seen through the prism of the political reconciliation.

In the context of the Belfast Agreement, it was clear from the presentation of the exhibition that the commemorative events should concentrate on the democratic and pluralist ideas of the United Irishmen rather than the military violence and acts of sectarianism60. In order to provide the democratic and pluralist ideas of the United Irishmen as the preferred interpretation of 1798, Whelan proposed to undertake a process of « rememoration », that is to say, « a retrieving of memory which has been deliberately suppressed »61. He wanted to avoid both the hostile unionist interpretation of 1798 as a « sectarian bloodbath » and the Catholic nationalist version for which 1798 was a « struggle for faith and fatherland (…) devoid of political motivation »62. The political reconciliation created a need for re-interpreting 1798 in more harmonized narratives. This « rememoration » of 1798 was part, according to Whelan, of the role of historians. Asked about his involvement in 1998, Whelan responded « I view that commitment as part of my democratic responsibility as an educator »63 (Graham 2001). This responsibility came from the project of changing the public memory of 1798. Whelan pointed out that « while the past cannot be restored, memory can »64.

In order to modify the ways the 1798 Rebellion was remembered, Whelan had to transcend the academic frontiers. Whelan made clear « There is no contradiction between scholarly integrity and reaching as broad an audience as possible » because he « never wanted to limit (himself) to just being an academic »65. He was willing to work outside academia to provide redemptive memory of 1798. Although other actors were involved in the commemoration process, historians remained particularly needed to provide re-interpretations of the conflicting past. This explains why military historians were preferably chosen to express official narratives. Bartlett, the other historical adviser of the Irish government in 1998, had recently co-edited a work on military history in Ireland66. The public role of Whelan resulted from the political need to provide reconciliation through the bicentenary of 1798, but it was also due to the development of new historiographical works.

Whelan’s position in 1998 could certainly be explained by his career, but it also revealed more complex historiographical evolutions. Whelan was not an isolated element in the Irish landscape. Since the 1970s, a vigorous historiographical debate has proceeded alongside the Northern Irish Troubles. New historians, called "revisionist historians", proposed new historical interpretations divorced from the cultural nationalism of the Irish State67. Following Moody’s credo, revisionist historians intended to fight the Irish political mythology and any merging of interest between academia and politics68. They were thus very critical with events politically elevated to the status of myths such as the 1798 Rebellion. In 1989, Roy Foster, one of the well-known holders of historical revisionism, defined the 1798 Rebellion in Wexford as « a localized jacquerie (…) leading to bloodletting and massacre on an appalling scale. The rationale was more aggressively sectarian than the United Irishmen theory had ever allowed for »69. Nevertheless, the 1990s historiographical context was very much different. Whelan stressed that « A more generous and engaging public space became available in the 1990s than there had been in the sombre days of the Hunger Strikes and the economic gloom of the 1980s »70. Whelan proposed a more positive version of the 1798 Rebellion which could be used as model for the ongoing peace process. He was well aware of the power of his narratives since he argued that in contrary to the « ‘dreary steeples’ version of the 1790s (…) and the sterile and pessimistic revisionist view (…) (his) perspective offers redemptive potential »71.

Whelan proposed to put forward post-revisionist interpretations which challenged historical revisionism without collapsing back into the old nationalist tradition72. In the 1998 exhibition companion volume, he associated his work with « the upsurge of fresh writing undertaken by many gifted historians has led to a thoroughgoing reinterpretation of the Rebellion, which is (broadly speaking) post-revisionist in its conclusions »73. Through post-revisionism, the 1798 Rebellion had to become a model of modus vivendi. In a more confident and triumphalist Irish socio-economic context, Whelan’s version exemplified how Irish « have finally shrugged off this monstrous weight of the past »74. Time had changed since the 1980s Northern Irish context of sectarian violence. In the late 1990s, the Irish government was much keener to support optimist re-interpretations of the past. In this perspective, historians worked and were used as « authorities of recognition »75.

The advantage of Whelan’s approach was not restricted to the political field. Indeed, the staff of the NMI, in particular the keepers and assistant keepers of the Art and Industry department, were sceptical with revisionist theories. In 1991, Snoddy – who had been in charge of the historical collections until the late 1980s – published Two Godfathers of Revisionism: 1916 in the Revisionist Canon in which he castigated revisionist historians’ works about the 1916 Easter rebellion76. Likewise, Kenny, who organized the 1991 commemorative exhibition of the 1916 Easter Rising, confessed that he did not share the revisionist pessimistic account of the 1916 Rebellion77. To some extent, we may understand the lack of enthusiasm from the staff of a national institution to depict key events such as the 1798 Rebellion and the 1916 Easter Rising in a harsh critical manner as some revisionist historians did78. The more optimistic message from Whelan matched the national narratives from the NMI much better.

Similarly to what Dalley contends for the spread of PH in New Zealand, government-sponsored events were fundamental in developing history in the public sphere79. Commemorations and political need for particular reinterpretations of the past boosted the work of « governmental historians »80. Since no PH training was available in Ireland, North and South, public activity was mainly undertaken by a certain type of historians. During the peace process, PH was mainly provided by military historians convinced that the past could be used as model in the present and familiar with interdisciplinary methods and the practical issues of dealing with larger audiences.

3 ) Displaying history in museums, which history for which public ?

Examining Whelan’s intentions is not enough to explore the public life of historians. We must analyze more in depth the characteristics of the history provided at the NMI where Whelan contributed to mounting the 1998 commemorative exhibition of the 1798 Rebellion. The major difficulty in producing PH comes from the risk of sacrificing complexity and sophistication in order to reach wider audiences. Whelan had to be clear without oversimplifying.

In relation with PH, one revealing aspect of the exhibition was its consideration for memory. The last section was devoted to « ’98 after ‘98 », so to say, to the memory of the Rebellion. Memoirs, songs, novels, poems, monuments and films were on view in the twelfth section81. The companion volume stressed that « the 1790s remain as a vision and inspiration for the 1990s »82. The focus on the memory of 1798 was brand new in the NMI, and directly related to Whelan’s work as historical adviser83. He intended to provide historical narratives giving room for many different sources, including popular memory of 1798. Through movies, songs, novels, the public could access more easily the popular representations of the Rebellion. Although history and memory of 1798 coexisted in the display, Whelan was yet careful not to mix them up. Whelan did not forget his role of historical adviser and every representation was submitted to his texts.

Doing history for broad audiences requires adaptations which might end up in oversimplifications. In order to eschew this pitfall, Whelan made Albert Einstein’s aphorism his own : « as simple as possible but no simpler »84. The 1998 exhibition and Whelan’s companion volume were not criticized for any lack of historical methodology. Indeed the show and published materials were arranged according to strict historical methodology. In particular, reproductions, paintings and objects associated with the memory of 1798 were all subject to textual explanation. Cruikshank’s depictions of the Rebellion in Wexford were carefully put in historical context. Very critical of the rebels, Cruikshank provided illustrative drawings for Maxwell loyalist interpretation of the 1798 Rebellion85. In particular, Cruikshank focused on the execution of prisoners by rebels at Scullabogue and Wexford Bridge in June 1798. Whelan made clear these images were « non contemporary » and gave more information about « the early Victorian emergence of racial stereotyping with the rebels portrayed as simian Celts »86. The images were not shown as evidence of 1798 but for the mid nineteenth century context of remembrance. This historical precision was evidence of the scientific method of display and engendered the use of textual explanation.

The proportion of visual and textual materials varies very much in exhibitions and appears fundamental while dealing with the collaboration between historians and museums. While most of academic historians write dissertations, articles, reviews and use texts as their main source to access the past, museum staff often preferred other visual materials such as paintings, costumes, private items, weapons, etc. The 1998 exhibition was impacted by this discrepancy. Reviewing the display, Turpin – art historian – concluded that the exhibition was « an illustrated book on walls »87. According to him, images were merely « tangential illustrations to a textual treatment »88. The two rooms which served as exhibiting space were covered by eight panels (47 boards) mixing reproductions and texts89. In the second – and largest – room, 38 boards covered 4/5 of the total perimeter90. Three dimension artefacts, surrounded by panels, were merely on view in the central gallery. Historian specialist of museum studies, Crooke posited in her review that « the style of the presentation, relying as it does on a lecture and slides format and the occasional use of certain concepts and terminology on the panels, would have distanced those not equipped with prior knowledge of 1798 »91. The importance of text was due to Whelan’s work as historical adviser and script writer. In comparison, the permanent historical exhibition which focused around the 1916 Easter Rising included much less text92. In 1998, Whelan was clearly much more involved in changing the public representations of 1798. In his 1996 book on radicalism and Catholicism from 1760 to 1830, Whelan confessed his wish to see the United Irishmen « rescued from the manipulative manœuvres of their post-rebellion interpreters »93. Texts served as preferred reading for the various visual artefacts.

Whelan, as historical adviser of the Irish government, was not attacked for his lack of scientific method, but for his political involvement in « rescuing » the past. Edna Longley defined Whelan as the « Comoradh scriptwriter and translator of 1798 into peace-process language for the Irish government »94. Roy Foster, well-known figure of the revisionist current, engaged in a vivid dialogue with Whelan whom he blamed for repacking 1798 to fit the 1998 political context rather than considering the intentions of the 1798 actors95. It was indeed true that Whelan intended to reclaim « the political vision and moral choices » of the United Irishmen and « not the physical defeat of the revolution on the bloody battlefield of ‘98 »96. This was totally in line with the government Commemoration Committee’s mission statement which stressed that « Attention should shift from the military aspects of 1798 and be directed towards the principles of democracy and pluralism which the United Irishmen advocated »97. One consequence was the inclusion of every scenes of torture and killing of prisoners not in the section dealing with the history of 1798 but in the final section devoted to the memory of the Rebellion. Through a particular space organization, and related to Whelan’s intention to « rescue the United Irishmen », violence against prisoners was merely considered as post-1798 fictions rather than historical truth. Although it was true the nineteenth century representations of atrocities – such as Cruikshank’s images – were tainted with Loyalist particular interpretation of the Rebellion, the acts of violence were not merely due to post-1798 politicization of the memory of the Rebellion.

To conclude, this case study confirms that although PH did not exist as discipline in the Republic of Ireland, historians had a public life. As Sherman argues about the participation of historians in museum exhibitions, they are happy to be solicited for public history initiatives since such work confirms their authority and social utility98. The collaboration of professional historians in public events requires yet structural adjustments between supply and demand. The 1990s witnessed increasing cultural and political demands for historical works. Wide audience media such as museums were converted to interpretive projects and became less reluctant to work with historians. On the political side, the boom of state-sponsored anniversaries in the 1990s opened new fields of activity for historians99. This political interest for historians was reinforced in Ireland, North and South, by the need to build up reconciliation projects. Divisive interpretations of the past had to be reappraised by historians who became political source of authority.

The supply, so to say the response from historians to the cultural and political demands, was marked by the absence of PH as training. We saw, however, that certain characteristics enabled historians to participate to public events. Whelan was convinced of the beneficial effects of drawing lessons from the past. This conviction is not always the rule. In France in June 2005 a collective of historians established the “Committee for Vigilance with regard to the Public Uses of History” particularly devoted to fight the political interference100. Furthermore, Whelan had certain characteristics which facilitated his public involvement. He had inter-disciplinary and international training which enabled him to go beyond the academic frontier. He was, while mounting the 1998 exhibition, not engaged permanently in any academic teaching. This is a fundamental, although not sufficient, quality since Whelan had been through many fellowship and contracts which forced him to develop his capacity of adaptation. This criterion is all the more important when academic market is oversubscribed as it was in the United States in the 1970s when PH was born.

The result of this encounter between the cultural and political demands and the supply provided by Whelan was an exhibition marked by written political narratives. Whether Whelan was familiar with interdisciplinary methods and willing to go beyond the academic frontier, he was issued from an academic training. Unlike the United States where PH is praised as a solid discipline, the public life of history in the Republic of Ireland came more from the collaboration of distinct specialists, historians and museum practitioners. Although the 1998 project gained in scientific precision, it had some difficulty in transcending the academic barriers.

Finally, Whelan’s work as political and cultural adviser raised questions about historians’ independence. Collective works are at the basis of PH. The danger for historians is to be manipulated for broader interests. Thus, Jordanova claims that « departments of government (…) frequently buy in the services of historians, who become dependent, losing a measure of intellectual freedom »101. The risk is indeed for historians to become civil servants in charge of using the past to justify government policies. Whether it was clear that Whelan’s works were used by the Irish government to provide more optimist interpretations of the past, we cannot ignore his role in bringing more scientific narratives into the public limelight. The public activity of historians is full of promise but has to be contextualized. Instead of debating about the legitimacy of PH, we have to deconstruct the wider context of knowledge production it is at the top of. Whelan’s public activity did not merely raise the question of political involvement ; it mirrored a much wider shift in representing the past in museums, in historiography and in the political sphere.




1 F. Metzger and F. Vallotton (eds.), L’historien, l’historienne dans la cité, Lausanne, Editions Antipodes, 2009.

2 O. Dumoulin, Le rôle social de l’historien. De la chair au prétoire, Paris, Albin Michel, 2003.

3 I. Tyrrell, Historians in Public: the Practice of American History, 1890-1970, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 209.

4 J. Tarr, Public history, state of the art, in «The Public Historian », vol. 2, n. 1, 1979.

5 The Public Historian was founded in 1978, the NCPH in 1979. See J.B. Gardner and P.S. LaPaglia (eds.), Public history: essays from the field, Malabar, Krieger Pub. Co., 2006.

6 J. Evans, « What is public history ? », 8 mai 1999, www.publichistory.org [accessed December 2010].

7 S. Noiret, ’Public History’ e ‘Storia Pubblica’ nella rete, in « Ricerche Storiche », n. 40, maggio-agosto, 2009, p. 298.

8 H. Hoock, Introduction, in « The Public Historian » Aug 2010, vol. 32, n. 3, p. 8.

9 Ibid.

10 Member of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland since 1801, the southern part of the island reached independence in 1921 and became the Irish Free State, while the North remained in the United Kingdom. The Irish Free State was renamed Republic of Ireland in 1948.

11 A few programmes focus on archives and registration, see the University of Dublin (UCD), in particular the School of History and Archives. (www.ucd.ie/history/, [accessed December 2010]). The only programme which deals with PH as such is provided in Northern Ireland, at Queens University in Belfast.

http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/SchoolofHistoryandAnthropology/ProspectiveStudents/PostgraduateMADegrees/MAHistoryModules/MHY7077PublicHistoryInternship/ [accessed December 2010]

12 In Great Britain, for instance Bristol University offers masters in history with unit option in PH. Ruskin College (Oxford) where Raphael Samuel initiated his History Workshop Movement, offers masters in PH. See the Public History Resource Centre [website accessed in January 2011].

14 Archives of the National Museum, registration department, Dublin, A1/98/135.

15 M. Stevens, Public Policy and the Public Historian : The Changing Place of Historians in Public Life in France and the UK, in « The Public Historian », xxxii, n. 3, 2010, p. 122.

16 C. Brady (ed.), Interpreting Irish History : The Debate on Historical Revisionism, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 1994.

17 The Irish and British governments signed the Downing Street agreement in 1993 and the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

18 H. Hoock, op. cit. p. 13.

19 W. Leon and R. Rosenzweig (eds), History Museums in the United States: a Critical Assessment, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1989.

20 See for instance the Famine Museum in Strokestown and the 1798 Visitor Centre in Enniscorty.

21 The Dublin Museum of Science and Art was created in 1877 and became the National Museum of Ireland after the independence in 1922.

22 C. Hilliard, « A Prehistory of PH : Monuments, Explanations and Promotions, 1900-1970 » in B. Dalley and J. Phillips (eds.), Going Public :The Changing face of New Zealand History, Auckland, Auckland Univ. Press, 2001, pp. 30-52.

23 A fascinating example is the 1992 creation of the Historial de Péronne devoted to the First World War. Initiated by the County Council, the Historial works in collaboration with its research centre which groups prominent specialists of the First World War. See www.historial.org

24 He graduated at the University of Edinburgh where he defended his thesis in 1934. His research dealt with Scottish mercenaries in sixteenth century Ireland. J. McGuire and J . Quinn (eds.), Dictionary of Irish Biography, vol. 5, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009, p. 875.

25 For an overview of the academic situation in the United States in the 1970s, see P. Novick, That noble dream : the « objectivity question » and the American historical Profession, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 576.

26 See the correspondence between Hayes-McCoy and the Department of Education, NMI’s archives, registration department, Dublin, A1/140/001.

27 D. Taylor, The archive and the repertoire : performing cultural memory in the Americas, Duke University Press, 2003.

28 See the following exhibitions : Penal Crucifixes in 1958, late eighteenth century glasses in 1983, or 500 years of Irish silver in 2005.

29 For a clear analysis of the consequence of the transfer of the collections to the new building, see N. Monaghan, Exhibition Planning and the Role of Interpretation: The National Museum of Ireland Experience, in « Museum Ireland », n. 12, 2002, pp. 20-26.

30 Recommendation made by the Report of the Interim Board of the NMI presented to the Minister for Arts, Culture and Gaeltacht, unpublished report, May 1995, NMI’s archives, registration department, Dublin, p. 2.

31 Ibid. p. 14.

32 N. Monaghan, op. cit., p. 20.

33 M. Howell, "Interpreters and Museum Educators: Beyond the Blue Hairs", in J. Gardner and P. LaPaglia (eds.), Public History. Essays from the Field, Malabar, Krieger Publishing Company, 2006, 141-157.

34 Ibid. p. 143.

35 N. Monaghan, op. cit., p. 21.

36 Sears and Russell, Exhibit Strategy, Draft Report, April 1998, pp. 5-6.

37 Non exhaustively : the tercentenary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1990, the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in 1991, the sesquicentenary of the Great Famine in 1995, the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 1996 and the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion in 1998. For a general overview of the increase of commemorations, see C. Delporte and I. Veyrat-Masson, Entretien avec Pierre Nora : la fièvre médiatique des commémorations, in « Le Temps des médias », 2005, n. 5, p. 191-196.

38 See particularly the introduction in E. Bort (ed.), Commemorating Ireland : History, Politics, Culture, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2003.

39 Fellowship of Freedom : the United Irishmen and the 1798 Rebellion was on view at the NMI from 25 May to 31 December 1998. The 1798 Rebellion opposed rebels, led by the Society of the United Irishmen with the French military support, to British troops. Fighting for Ireland’s independence, the rebels were defeated in September 1798. The repression was followed by the 1801 Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain.

40 Commemoration Committee, End of Year Report, 1995, Department of the Taoiseach’s archives, Library of the Taoiseach, Dublin, 1995, S110/05/10/0007 (Famine Committee).

41 Commemoration Committee, briefing note, November 1997, Department of the Taoiseach’s archives, Library of the Taoiseach, Dublin, 1995, S110/05/22/005.

42 K. Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom : the United Irishmen and the 1798 Rebellion, Cork, Cork University Press, 1998, and, Credit Panel, Fellowship of Freedom, 1998, NMI’s archives, A1/98/051, Registration Department, Dublin 

43 K. Whelan, op. cit. For the organization meetings, see the NMI’s archives, A1/98/038 and A1/98/047, Registration Department, Dublin.

44 K. Whelan, The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism, and the Construction of Irish Identity, 1760-1830, Cork, Cork Univ. Press, 1996.

45 1798 Commemoration Committee, Mission Statement, April 1997, Department of the Taoiseach’s archives, Library of the Taoiseach, Dublin, S110/05/03/011.

46 K. Whelan, « The Role of the Catholic Priest in the 1798 Rebellion in Wexford », in K. Whelan and W. Nolan (eds.), Wexford History and Society, Dublin, Geography Publications, 1987 ; K. Whelan, D. Dickson and D. Keogh (eds.), The United Irishmen: Republicanism, Radicalism, and Rebellion, Dublin, Lilliput, 1993 ; K. Whelan, The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism, and the Construction of Irish Identity, 1760-1830, Cork, Cork Univ. Press, 1996.

47 Whelan was appointed director of the University of Keough-Notre Dame Centre in Dublin in 1998.

48 His thesis dissertation was entitled « A Geography of Society and Culture in Ireland Since 1800 ».

49 T. Graham, The Colossus of Clonegal : Interview with Kevin Whelan, in « History Ireland », ix, n. 4, winter, 2001, www.historyireland.com/volumes/volume9/issue4/features/?id=113588, [accessed December 2010].

50 Wexford is an Irish South-Eastern county where most of the 1798 fighting took place.

51 K. Whelan, « The Bases of Regionalism », in P. Ó Drisceoil (ed.), Culture in Ireland: Regions, Identity and Power, Belfast, IIS, 1993.

52 T. Graham, op. cit.

53 In addition to the Memorial University, Whelan was Newman Scholar at UCD (Dublin, 1989-1992), 1798 Bicentennial Research Fellow at the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin, 1992-1995), visiting Scholar at Boston College (1995-1996). He had also been assistant professor at UCG (1994), visiting professor at NYU (1995), Notre-Dame University (1997) and Concordia University in Montreal (1997).

54 K . Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom, op. cit., p. ix. The Society of the United Irishmen was founded in Belfast in 1791. Led mainly by Protestants such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and William Drennan, the United Irishmen movement « had, as its central aim, the demolition of a political system rooted in sectarian privilege and its replacement with a secular democratic politics, founded on universal ideas of equality and justice ». K. Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom, op. cit., p. ix.

55 T. Graham, op. cit.

56 D. Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985.

57 R. Rosenzweig and D. Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, New York, Columbia Univ. Press, 1998, p. 205 ; Raphael Samuel is quoted in P. Ashton and H. Kean (eds), People and their Pasts : Public History Today, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2009, p. 46.

58 K. Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom, op. cit., p. ix.

59 Commemoration Committee, Lecture Tour, Department of the Taoiseach’s archives, Library of the Taoiseach, Dublin, S110/05/22/0002.

60 K . Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom, op. cit., p. ix.

61 Ibid. p. x.

62 Ibid. pp. 123-124.

63 T. Graham, op. cit.

64 K . Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom, op. cit., p. x.

65 T. Graham, op. cit.

66 T. Bartlett and K. Jeffery (eds.), A Military History of Ireland, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997. Similarly, in the national museum of Northern Ireland (Ulster Museum), one historian was hired in 1997 to work as Outreach Officer in charge of the community relations for the Bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion. Jane Leonard was specialist of military history, more precisely, of the First World War and its subsequent commemorations. She started a PhD dissertation entitled « Legacies of the Great War in Ireland : Political Constructions and Social Realities » under the supervision of Professor Paul Bew, Queen’s University, Belfast. www.qub.ac.uk [accessed January 2011].

67 C. Brady, op. cit.

68 T. Moody, Irish History, Irish Mythology, in « Hermethena », cxxiv, 1978, pp. 7-24.

69 R.F. Foster, The Oxford History of Ireland, Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press, 1989, p. 182.

70 T. Graham, op. cit. Indeed, since the mid-1990s, Ireland was experiencing a rapid economic growth and was rebaptized as the Celtic Tiger.

71 Ibid.

72 K. Whelan, The Revisionist Debate in Ireland, in « Boundary 2 », Spring, 2004, p. 203.

73 K. Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom, op. cit. p. x.

74 K. Whelan, Emmet, Mint productions, unpublished interview, 15th April 2003.

75 S. Feuchtwang, « Loss: Transmissions, Recognitions, Authorisations » in S. Radstone and K. Hodgkin (ed.), Regimes of Memory, London, Routledge, 2003.

76 O. Snoddy, Two Godfathers of Revisionism: 1916 in the Revisionist Canon, Dublin, Fulcrum Press, 1991

77 S. Bhreathnach-Lynch, Ireland’s Art, Ireland’s History : Representing Ireland, 1845 to Present, Creighton Univ. Press, 2007, p. 247.

78 R. F. Foster, op. cit.

79 B. Dalley, « Shades of Grey : Public History and Government in New Zealand », in P. Ashton and H. Kean (eds), People and their Pasts : Public History Today, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2009, p. 75.

80 Ibid. p. 83.

81 Outline of the exhibition, NMI’s archives, registration department, Dublin, A1/98/045.

82 K. Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom, op. cit., p. 121.

83 Memory was not mentioned in the 1996 published guide of the NMI 1798 collections. M. Kenny, The 1798 Rebellion: Photographs and Memorabilia from the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, Country House of Dublin, 1996.

84 T. Graham, op. cit.

85 W.H. Maxwell, History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 with Memoirs of the Union, and Emmet’s Insurrection in 1803, London, Baily, 1845.

86 K. Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom, op. cit., p. 137.

87 J. Turpin, Three 1798 Bicentenary exhibitions compared, in « Eire-Ireland », vol. 32-33, 1997-1998, p. 265.

88 Ibid., p. 264

89 1798 layout, archives of the Office of Public Works, Dublin.

90 Each board was 1.2m wide, so to say , the boards covered 45m out of a 55m perimeter.

91 E. Crooke, Exhibiting 1798 : three recent exhibitions, in « History Ireland », winter, 1998, p. 43.

92 Apart from captions, texts were limited to seven short introductory paragraphs. NMI’s archives, A1/89/045, Registration Department, Dublin.

93 K. Whelan, The Tree of Liberty, op. cit. p. 175.

94 E. Longley, « Northern Ireland: Commemoration, Elegy, Forgetting » in I. McBride (ed.), History and Memory in Modern Ireland, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001, p. 234.

95 R.F. Foster, « Remembering 1798 », in I. McBride (ed.), History and Memory in Modern Ireland, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001, p. 85. For another harsh criticism of Whelan’s political involvement, see T. Dunn, Rebellions: Memoir, Memory and 1798, Dublin, Lilliput Press, 2004.

96 K. Whelan, Fellowship of Freedom, op. cit., p. ix.

97 Mission Statement, 10th April 1997, Department of the Taoiseach’s archives, Library of the Taoiseach, Dublin, S110/0503/011.

98 D. Sherman, Objects of Memory: History and Narrative in French War Museums, in « French Historical Studies », xix, n. 1, 1995, p. 73.

99 W. Johnston, Celebrations : the cult of anniversaries in Europe and the United States, New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers, 1991.

100 M. Stevens, op. cit. p. 123.

101 L. Jordanova, History in practice, London, Oxford Univ. Press, 2000, pp. 159-160.