“I used to live here”

Feb 2, 2022

From the pennies on the eyes of the dead to the candles flanking their head, the children of Henrietta Street have kept a store of images afloat in lagoons of memory as the seas of time swept on. “If you did get in, you got a biscuit and lemonade, so you were delighted with yourself. But you’d go in to see the dead person. They’d have porter for the adults,” remembers Marie Cooling, a former resident of Dublin’s Henrietta Street.

For former Henrietta Street resident John Winston, the enduring memory is that of community gathering around the grieving families: “Generally the people who had someone who passed away on Henrietta Street, normally they didn’t have an awful lot of money. So people would get together. Their neighbours and friends would do everything for that person. Get the house ready. Get the bed ready. Go collect the person. Sometimes that might have been on a handcart, but that person was brought back, and they had a good send-off.”

These memories and many more are all stored in Dublin’s award-winning 14 Henrietta Street Museum. One could be forgiven for imagining that a museum whose name is a street address might be a museum about a house, but Iseult Byrne, CEO at Dublin City Council Culture Company, emphatically rejects such a description – for her, it’s memories like these that are the heart of the place. “It’s a museum of the lives lived in the House,” she insists, “it’s stories that make the difference, stories of people. You can come and see a restored house but that’s not as interesting as learning about the lives of people.”

A relationship with place

The house serves as an anchor, though not a boundary, in a swelling tide of human experience, elucidates Tracy Geraghty, Head of Project Development at Dublin City Council Culture Company: “It’s the 300 years of the stories in that building. Usually when you look at conserved houses, particularly Georgian, they talk about furniture. They don’t talk about the lived lives and they don’t talk about the women, that birth, marriage, death happened in those places. We’re 300 years of the various people that lived inside that front door.”

Nor is the house simply about people – an integral part of the museum is also that it is by, for and with people. From long before the doors first opened to the public, a huge community of people were brought on board. When the Dublin City Culture Company issued an open call for people to contribute their ideas about the museum, they hadn’t imagined that they would end up with a 94-person strong advisory group made up of previous residents, artist, architects, journalists and academics.

“I still think it’s phenomenal that people give their time. We have a two-year term so that people can walk away if they so wish without feeling obliged. They don’t often walk away though,” Byrne remarks. This group gives constant feedback on the development of the museum. “They come to our event programming, our Culture Club, our teatime talks,” explains Geraghty, “And we ask them, ‘How can we improve? What can we do better? What are we doing well?’ It’s really important to us that we get feedback all the time.”

It was this participatory element that led the museum to be featured as a good practice in Cultural Heritage in Action. Through the project, a new series of visits to cultural heritage sites all over Europe is currently being organised for experts and practitioners within the sector, which you can discover more about here.

An open door

For many people in the area, an open door is as good as an open call. From the minute the renovations began, local curiosity was aroused. “There’s a story of one of the guys who was walking down the street and saw that there was a bustle of somebody doing some work in the building. And he came in the door and went like ‘I used to live here,’” Byrne remembers. “We talk about one-on-one memories with people who come through the door who tell us that they lived there.”

When such a person arrives in the museum, the staff follow three stages: First, they actively seek consent to use the stories, then they record them for use in the museum, then the team engage with the story just as they would with an important painting in a gallery, considering how it fits into the collection.

Many previous residents have become regular visitors, Geraghty boasts fondly: “Peter Brannigan, who was born in one of the rooms in the basement is a regular, much-loved visitor to the house. He says when he’s in the house he can hear the voices of his mother and father. And there are two brothers who, pre-Covid, would regularly turn up with apple tart made by their wives for us to eat.”

In sharing their own stories, these visitors are also helping to preserve intangible heritage that might otherwise be lost altogether. For instance, the tradition of the ‘grushy’ at a wedding, where the best man would throw a fistful of coins onto the street for the local children. “They’d throw the money out and everyone would be diving, falling all over the place trying to get the money off the ground,” former Henrietta Street resident Jimmy Winston cheerfully imparts.

“It’s about the people, stupid!”

While people are at the centre of all of Dublin City Council’s work, this extremely deep and sustained engagement with local people for the production, protection and promotion of local culture is a special feature of the Dublin City Council Culture Company, “the longest name in the history of names,” as Geraghty jokes, a unique entity set up in the framework of Dublin’s ultimately unsuccessful 2015 bid for European Capital of Culture.

For the bid, a group within the council launched a series of consultations and informal chats with around 500 Dubliners to get their input and ideas around local culture and heritage. This process led to Dublin City Council’s new Cultural Strategy, which held the value of local engagement at its core – “it’s about the people, stupid,” as Byrne succinctly phrases this prized modus operandi. Unwilling to bring the local-people-led momentum to a halt, despite not having scooped the Capital of Culture title, the city decided to develop a formal structure that could keep its cultural pilot projects in full swing. This became the Dublin City Council Culture Company.

“We are citizen-led. We’re inside and outside of the Council,” explains Geraghty, “but we work very closely with our allies and colleagues in different sectors of the Council.” This company limited by guarantee has its own independent board and seeks to take a citizen-led approach to placemaking and community. “It gives us an agility,” says Byrne, “like operating 14 Henrietta Street, a building that needs to open at weekends and night times and all of those things that aren’t second nature to municipalities.” This work includes collaborating with citizens, communities, cultural organisations, and businesses to embed cultural experiences and increase cultural participation throughout Dublin’s neighbourhoods.

The Dublin City Council Culture Company, according to Byrne, has gone from an experiment to a proven model that makes it easier for the municipality to ensure people-led momentum and agility “with all the Council support and involvement and credit,” but minus some of the bureaucracy that might hamper innovative approaches like that taken at 14 Henrietta Street.

A human connection

Many of the people leading the momentum at Henrietta Street are not previous residents or those with memories of the 1940s and 50s city, but those who complete the human connection with visitors; the tour guides have always been an integral feature of the museum.

Byrne credits much of the museum’s success to a realisation that came to her during the restoration of the building. “There was just this kind of realisation for me that audio tours won’t work,” she says, “that this is not a digital process, and this is not a book, this is not anything other than a human-to-human place.” Even during the pandemic, Byrne stuck to the principle that they would not migrate the tours online. “Some places uniquely are one thing,” she confirms, “and all of the accolades that have come since for our tour guides and museum all really credit that point.”

Geraghty pushes home the point: “When people finish the tour, they know the tour guide’s name. They’ve had a conversation with them. If you come to 14 Henrietta Street, it’s not about you following someone around and nodding and then you go home.”

The tour guides are often the first point of contact for people who end up sharing memories with the museum, and at the guides’ discretion, visitors may get to see more of the house than is usually on show. “You’d be working away quietly,” Geraghty recounts, “and there’d be a little knock on your door and it would be somebody saying, ‘would it be OK if this lady comes in? Her granny lived in the corner of your office.’ And then you get 20 minutes of somebody telling you about their memories, the smell, you know, the sensorial, the texture of something in their head. And that’s a privilege.”

This unique feature of their workplace has two sides to it. “You make it sound really lovely,” Byrne quips, “I was in my office and these six women came in and they proceeded to have the biggest fight about where the cabinet was and where the bed was.” Unable to resolve the dispute, they turned to her accusatorially and asked, “Have you moved the windows?” Eventually, she succeeded in convincing the bickering women to let her get back to work.

Not a museum

Key to establishing human relationships with visitors from all backgrounds is speaking in a clear way without sectoral jargon. Byrne laments how complicated museums have become, and how laden terms like ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’ can be. “We’re undoing everything in terms of outreach and engagement and connection and relationship and relevance by using words like that,” she claims. Instead, across all its activities, the Dublin City Culture Company uses ‘universal access’ language (otherwise known as ‘plain English’) so that anyone at all can pick up their publications or take part in their activities without fear of being dashed against the rocks of incomprehension.

Geraghty also stresses the importance of being well attuned to visitors: “It’s about the welcome. It’s about removing invisible obstacles, like where would I put my umbrella if it’s raining? And reading the room and encouraging people to ask questions. Encouraging people to take ownership of their experience.”

For Byrne, a point of pride is that many people who have visited 14 Henrietta Street still say afterwards that they’ve never been to a museum. “I don’t mean that in a disparaging way to museums,” she reassures, “but it says something to us as a Culture Company about participation and the barriers to participation in culture. They don’t think we’re museum because they enjoyed themselves or because it was kind of something that they understood had some sort of relevance.”

The 14 Henrietta Street Museum may not be the museum of a house, and may not even be a museum, but it is unquestionably a place that anyone on the path of restoring local cultural heritage has a lot to learn from.

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