Simon O’Connor is the Director of the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI), an award-winning collaboration between the National Library of Ireland and University College Dublin, situated at the heart of Dublin’s cultural landscape in the austere Georgian buildings of St Stephen’s Green. With rich, captivating exhibitions ranging from James Joyce to Nuala O’Faolain, and numerous empowering outreach programmes that aim to open up the democratic value of literature to all its visitors, MoLI’s innovative approach consistently distinguishes itself as a fine example of what it means to be a literary and cultural institution in the twenty-first century.
MoLI is undoubtedly a different kind of museum. As you’ve said, it’s more than just a place to visit. What makes MoLI such a remarkably different space as to what one might conventionally expect?
Well, from my perspective, MoLI is a very conventional museum — that is, a museum of the 21st century that works with very different audiences in very different ways. For example, I always felt that digital activity should be a primary activity within the museum and not simply a support activity, that we should be equally curatorial in the digital space, and that actually the ‘digital voice’ should always be present when we’re considering curatorial activity on site to create a kind of visual art space. Perhaps what may be unusual about MoLI is that so many different things are happening in the same place, but I think that’s also because we created this museum in the twenty-first century with all of these possibilities of approach coming alive for us as we were developing the idea for MoLI.
MoLI finds itself in the centre of Dublin’s literary landscape, and one can imagine the characters of Joyce’s novels walking right outside of its Georgian facade as they traipse around the city. How significant is the museum’s place in the city’s literary heritage? How would the museum look — and feel — different, if it were located somewhere without this strong literary history?
It’s a really interesting question, actually. I mean, in a way, when you create a cultural institution like this in a place such as this, you’re formally creating what the director Pat Cooke described as a ‘prestige machine’ — something that rubberstamps activities. By having a museum like MoLI in the middle of Dublin, it’s serving to emphasise Dublin’s importance as a literary city — a UNESCO city of literature, right? It adds to what you could refer to as the ‘literary campus’ which is Dublin. Nonetheless, I don’t think this museum would be out of place anywhere in Ireland. You could argue that Dublin, just by nature of being the capital city, gets the kind of lion’s share of projects like this. And that’s a challenge for us as well — how do we reach beyond the really important geography of this city in terms of literary history and get out to the rest of Ireland? We are a Museum of Literature Ireland, not a Museum of Literature Dublin!
MoLI is deeply connected with the academic world. How does it negotiate and balance its role as both a museum and an academic space, accommodating the tourist and the scholar under one roof?
Well, I often paraphrase the Director of the Tate, Maria Balshaw, by saying that you can’t be everything to everybody, but you can be different things to different people, in different rooms at different times. First of all, our concept of who the public is and who our audiences are is really, really broad and very segmented. We would see the presentation of activities that might be perceived as ‘niche academic’ equally as important as the presentation of something that might have a very broad public appeal. We would program, say, for audiences that might be coming from very specific socioeconomic backgrounds or different demographics and communities of interest. Each are equally important, but often we find it more effective to program very specifically for them in different ways. But then at the same time, we’re also trying to make things that are for — though it’s kind of an odd term – the ‘general public’. And it’s really interesting to be running a museum that is directly connected to a university, even though it’s a type of setup that you see more commonly outside of Ireland. It creates this really interesting flow of ideas and projects, and often it’s interesting for long form research projects that can lead you into unexpected curatorial spaces.
After leaving Trinity, you trained as a composer, and one of the museum’s most fascinating spaces is ‘A Riverrun of Language’, an immersive audio experience of Irish writing. Is it important to you to celebrate the qualities of the spoken word, not only the written word, in MoLI’s exhibitions?
Our understanding of the public is something that we seek to broaden all the time, and similarly, our understanding of what constitutes the literary art form is something that we seek to broaden all the time. One of the things that’s a real core part of our mission is, in a sense, to rail against a very limited view of literature. For us, it’s not just the written words — it’s performance poetry, it’s writing that only happens online, it’s rap and hip-hop, it’s journalism, it’s political writing, it’s religious writing, philosophical writing. In a way, it’s anything that’s connected to the word as a transmitter of ideas. Music, writing, storytelling, and communication are all so intertwined, so there’s a real interest here in the proximity of music to literature, and the proximity of sound to literature as well. Joyce was obviously really alive to that in his own writing, as are most writers. We have an installation closing up at the moment, actually, with the writer Claire-Louise Bennett, called Nightflowers, which is primarily an audio-visual installation, even though it was a writing commission. Claire-Louise reads all her writing aloud as she writes, testing the sound of it out loud.
You have a curatorial preference at MoLI for engaging living artists as guest curators on exhibitions. How do you think this impacts on the way in which members of the public understand your exhibitions as moving more into a space of artistic creativity and expression?
It was a real core strategy from day one, coming out of an acknowledgement that the literary art form has always been a really strong influencer in Ireland on other art forms, that the museum should really try and amplify the cross-disciplinarity of literature in Ireland. Any time we’re presenting something to the public, we’re always trying to think where the opportunity is to make something new. For instance, where is the opportunity to commission a new piece of writing or artwork, or to invent a new way of making an exhibition? In that sense, it’s a little bit of a playground for us. We’re always trying to do things that are unexpected — and this is an unexpected museum, in a sense. We’re constantly trying to find new, inventive, creative ways of presenting and framing the literary art form for visitors. Of course, literature is a mass produced art form, and visitors will buy it themselves in shops and read it in private — they’re not coming to the museum necessarily to experience the art form. Our role, rather, is to recontextualise the art form for them, and to encourage them to come into it a bit more.
Joyce’s presence in the museum cannot be understated. His bust just across the road in St Stephen’s Green always seems to be watching! Still, how do you open up spaces for the voices of those lesser known artists, in particular women writers, those who haven’t found a place in the canon?
The museum’s permanent exhibitions are very focused on Joyce, so we’re kind of holding up this massive pillar of the canon here as the ‘central access’ to the Pantheon, if you want to call it that. But this makes us ask the question, where is the anti-Pantheon, where are the other things that will balance out that amount of focus? It was really deliberate early on that, with our temporary exhibitions, we should send a clear signal that we were going to do things differently. The first four temporary exhibitions were on female writers, and our programming has always been, I would actually say, nearly imbalanced away from the canon. And that then becomes something that we need to address — I’m starting to think about what a really interesting Oscar Wilde or Bram Stoker exhibition would look like in MoLI. For these figures that actually have really broad public interest, what are the aspects of their histories and art practices as writers that we could dig around in? For instance, we developed an exhibition on Brendan Behan this year where we brought in the writer Pat McCabe to work with us on making an art installation that was just truly surreal. But again, it felt like it was really focusing on aspects of Behan that were left out of the canonical story, trying to fill in gaps and shine light into shadowy corners, looking into places that you might not expect us to look.
At Trinity, I’d studied the canonical names like Joyce and Beckett, but beyond that, not a huge amount. So the real joy for me of working in MoLI is actually working with Irish literature. It feels like being back in college again, doing a lot of the courses that I skipped, getting the pleasure of reading through the historical works of Irish literature that had passed me by, the works of people like Edna O’Brien or John McGahern. I suppose the Trinity degree probably confers some kind of validity on me, or something. “Well I actually studied literature” — but that’s not getting a word in edgeways in this museum. And that’s fine!
Paul Lynch’s recent win of the Booker Prize for his novel ‘Prophet Song’ is one of many clear signs that the Irish literary scene is continuing to thrive. How do you keep the museum in touch with new faces in the country’s literary tradition?
Well, I think that it’s actually really simple. It doesn’t really pose any difficulty as soon as you start having a completely pluralistic view of the art form. When you stop thinking about the art form in silos of quality or validity, it becomes really easy to do very different things in tandem with each other, and often you’ll find that the relevance of something that’s quite far into our literary past can sing beside something that’s really new, really immediate. All art forms are permanently in flux, and they’re all permanently expressing this core thing out of humanity at different points in time.
You place a particular emphasis on engaging with younger kids, especially those from socially-disadvantaged backgrounds. Why do you consider this such an important part of the museum’s vision?
The two things that motivate me most in terms of my own work and composition practice are aesthetics and ethics. If you’re creating a museum in 2019, connected to a university, about an art form that’s really hallowed and almost evangelised about in the country, access to that art form is going to be a real challenge. So I always felt that we should be, from the get go, really good at access and education, prioritising access to the art form for age groups and communities that might not otherwise get it. We sometimes think about these things in terms of what you might call the ‘loyal audience’, the audience who are really into the literature side of things. But that’s only ever going to be about ten per cent of who comes into a place like this — if it’s successful. So that other ninety per cent, that’s who I’m really interested in, especially that chunk who would never come here if we didn’t otherwise reach out to them.
To finish up, what excites you most about where the museum is going?
I’m very excited about the increasing amount of international collaboration we’re doing in the digital space, and how that internationalism can start finding its way into our exhibition making and programming. And I’m really interested in seeing how much more we can have communities of artists take ownership of this museum, to use it and treat it as their home, in the way that so many writers already do.