Report from our first Visiting Researcher, Thalia Neilson

We’re in the throes of developing a Visiting Researcher programme at The Small Museum, and we’ve asked our very first visiting researcher, Thalia Neilson, to write about her own research and how it compares with the developing practice here. Thalia visited with us from Dublin in July. Thanks to Ross Parry at the University of Leicester for the connection, and if you’re interested in becoming a visiting researcher, please stay tuned as we flesh out the programme.

I’m Thalia, a soon-to-be graduate of Museum Studies. I connected with George Oates and the Small Museum whilst working on my dissertation, when my supervisor pointed out the similarities between the Small Museum and museum I was focusing on – the Little Museum of Dublin. Aside from their names, the two museums have a lot common! They are both exploring new ways of doing things, and were both set up by non-museum professionals. My dissertation explores whether the Little Museum of Dublin represents an alternative model for Irish museums. Essentially, I wanted to put a finger on what exactly the Little Museum does that sets it apart from other museums, and ultimately makes it so successful. (And it has definitely been successful – since its opening, the Little Museum has enjoyed an excellent reputation in both national and international media, having been named “Dublin’s Best Museum Experience” by the Irish Times, and its ‘City of a Thousand Welcomes’ greeter programme (used by some 1,500 first-time visitors to Ireland each year) being described as the “best free thing to do in Europe” by the Sydney Morning Herald. Additionally, the Little Museum is currently ranked at number ten (out of 608) in the TripAdvisor list of the top attractions in Dublin, and at number five (out of seventy-seven) in the list of the top museums in Dublin.) So, without further ado, in this post I write about some aspects of what I have learned, and suggest ways in which this could perhaps be applied to the Small Museum initiative, or indeed small museums in general.

The first thing that struck me about the Little Museum was the fact that it was set up by two non-museum professionals – much like the Small Museum! The Director, Trevor White, is a published author and founder of the Dubliner Magazine, while Simon O’Connor, Curator, is a composer and award-winning designer, and has worked in the arts and creative industries for over fifteen years. It could be argued that not coming from a museum background has been one of the biggest factors in the Little Museum coming to represent such an alternative model for Irish museums. Being from ‘outside’ the museum sector allows you to think outside the box, something that should be embraced fully. You can look at the situation with fresh eyes, as well as having the freedom to break traditional conventions.

When founding the Little Museum, Trevor and Simon considered the ways in which they could be different to other museums in Dublin and Ireland. They noticed that most had small handling collections, provided private reading experiences, contained rare objects, and had disinterested staff. Noting these aspects, and wanting to stand out, they planned that they would have a large handling collection, provide social vocal experiences, focus on material and social rather than elite cultural history, and have the ‘friendliest museum staff in the world’. The museum, then, encourages its visitors to become contributors rather than passive audience members or ‘consumers’. Traditional narratives have been rejected in favour of person, intimate stories of everyday Dubliners from all walks of life.

The Little Museum has a strong focus on cooperation, co-creation, and community. The launch of the museum was facilitated in a large part by a public appeal for the donation of historic objects. Due to the generosity of the people of Dublin, the museum grew from idea into reality in less than a year; the public appeal went out in April 2011, and by October of the same year the museum opened its doors to the public. Approximately 75% of the museum’s collection is made up of public donations. The ability to co-create to this extent is, perhaps, something that is unique to small museums in terms of feasibility. It is also something that should be taken full advantage of. Being able to create your museum so closely with the people you want to reach is something very special.

The Little Museum also approaches its finances in an alternative way – at least within the Irish context. The museum is funded through a number of channels, and has diversified the risks and moved away from relying upon funding from government sources. 50% of its income comes from self-generated revenue from admissions, private hire, and other sources; 40% is derived from a range of corporate sponsorships and partnerships; and 10% comes from the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht. With regards to corporate sponsorships, over time the Little Museum has formed strategic partnerships with a number of varied sponsors and local businesses. This is important – especially partnerships with local businesses. The Little Museum specifically focused on developing its relationships with key organisations and amenities within the city of Dublin. As such, the museum has also formed partnerships with Dublin Sightseeing Tours and Luas Cross City (the Dublin tram service). Such partnerships have been vital in highlighting the role that the museum plays in the city, as well as offering direct benefits for both the museum and the companies involved. Again, small museums have an advantage over larger museums here – they cost less to run, and so it is perhaps easier to establish business partnerships!

There is so much more that I could write here – but I get the feeling this post is plenty long enough already! I will finish up by pointing out one of the main similarities between the Little Museum and the Small Museum, and that is that the two are entities that are constantly evolving and determining what works or does not work. This fluidity in function seems, to me, to be one of the most important factors in establishing a successful small museum. What will be interesting is to see whether this fluid and adaptive approach will endure as the two museums become more established. For the Little Museum, four years on, this approach shows no signs of slowing and continues to bring success. I am very much looking forward to seeing the wonderful things that the Small Museum achieves in the future!