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20th century History of Ireland galleries announced

From left, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, An Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Dr Audrey Whitty, Head of Collections, NMI, and Minister Catherine Martin, at Collins Barracks, Dublin 7. Image: Leon Farrell

The National Museum of Ireland was delighted to welcome An Taoiseach Micheál Martin T.D., Tánaiste Leo Varadkar T.D. and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin T.D., to Collins Barracks, Dublin 7, on Tuesday, 27 April, for the announcement of a major new suite of exhibition galleries interpreting 20th century history of Ireland.

The 20th Century History of Ireland permanent exhibition galleries at the National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts & History will offer visitors an opportunity to reflect on significant events in Irish history over the last 120 years.  The NMI’s vision for the project is one that will resonate with a range of audiences.
Work is starting this year and the new exhibition will open in 2023, coinciding with the centenary of the foundation of the Irish Free State. 
Minister Catherine Martin’s Department is contributing €2.2m in capital funding to the project.
The announcement is part of the Decade of Centenaries Programme to mark key events in Irish history leading up to, and including, the momentous events of 1912-1923.

Welcoming the announcement, Catherine Heaney, Chair, National Museum of Ireland, said:

The 20th Century History of Ireland Galleries, announced by Minister Martin today, will offer an important opportunity for a wider public consultation process with communities across Ireland on our contemporary history, ensuring that this new permanent exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History is relevant and engaging to multiple audiences and identities within our communities. The NMI is committed to ongoing engagement and dialogue with the public, and particularly those voices traditionally under-represented in narratives of our recent history.  The historical collections of the National Museum of Ireland number in their hundreds of thousands, and these new, permanent exhibition galleries will represent the largest ever interpretive showcase of Irish political, cultural and social history dating from the year 1900 to the present."

Interpreting objects from the vast collections of the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), the 20th Century History of Ireland Galleries will exhibit objects that have been continuously collected on behalf of the Irish people since before the foundation of the state up to the present day. 
NMI’s vision for the 20th Century History of Ireland Galleries is to produce a compelling visitor experience on the History of Ireland from 1900 to the year 2020, which connects and speaks to a range of audiences. This is particularly pertinent given the synchronicity of this development with the key strategic aims of the Decade of Centenaries (2012-2023). These exhibition galleries will demonstrate the important legacy of the Decade of Centenaries and the manner in which arts and culture in particular have been important drivers in providing space and a platform to reflect on both the positive and difficult elements of our shared history.
The project will involve extensive public consultation and will be an invitation to organisations and diverse communities throughout Ireland to collaborate in the curation of their national collection and join their National Museum in documenting and reflecting on our past. It will provide increased opportunities for greater public and school engagement with our recent history and a platform for the exploration of contemporary Irish identity one hundred years on from the foundation of the Irish Free State.

The project will address two important elements of Government policy in providing a permanent legacy exhibition to bookend the successful Decade of Centenaries and in demonstrating the powerful role our National Museum can have in initiating dialogue and engagement on contentious elements of our past and present. The exhibition will serve as a dynamic and evolving cultural offering that can continue to respond rapidly to questions of changing Irish identity and our contemporary history beyond its initial launch. The powerful impact of the 20th Century History of Ireland’s location in our National Museum and the mobilisation of our national collection in a collaborative and inclusive manner to explore both the difficult and joyful elements of the last 120 years will serve to legitimise a range of narratives and voices often excluded from the standard history books.

This will support and demonstrate the strategic aims of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport & Media that arts and culture unites us, offers us solace and provides space for us to reflect on our national identity and the future we wish for it.

20th Century History of Ireland (1900-2020)

Overview of approach

While still in the initial stage of research and far from final design, the exhibition galleries will explore contemporary Irish identity through the lens of social, political, economic and cultural factors. From the impact of arts and craft movements like the Dun Emer Guild in 1902 through our political struggles and the changing day to day realities of the Irish family to women’s rights and the wider experience of minority groups. The 20th Century History of Ireland Galleries will explore the interplay of politics, religion and culture on our daily lives.

Some specific themes connected to our existing collection are outlined below, but these are just an initial broad brush stroke which will adapt and grow as the public consultation and expert advisory groups commence and feed into the development process.


  • Congested Districts Board

  • Royal Visits – Waterford, Dublin

  • 1904 – Limerick Pogrom

  • International Exhibitions – 1902 Cork, 1907 Dublin, St. Louis World’s Fair 1904, etc., Irish representation at, (such as Balbriggan stockings)


  • Lace

  • Gaelic League, 1911

  • Dun Emer

  • NMI’s Circulation Branch

  • Limerick Soviet

  • Swastika Laundry, Dublin

  • James Connolly in the USA – socialist movement

  • Flag of the Plough and the Stars

  • Needlepoint lace – Queen Mary’s train, 1911

  • Tailteann Games


  • Government of Ireland Act, 1920

  • Stamp Design

  • Seanad Éireann (Irish language, status of women)

  • Belleek Pottery Boundary Commission

  • Coinage

  • Civil War


  • New York World’s Fair, 1939

  • Church & State – Education and Healthcare, control and consequences

  • Blueshirts – international context of Fascism

  • Bunreacht na hÉireann – the Irish Constitution

  • Nellie Gifford Donnelly’s exhibition in 1932

  • 1932 Eucharistic Congress – early Irish Christian treasures and Albert Bender Thangka paintings on exhibition in the NMI

  • Establishing the Irish Free State

  • Industry & Commerce – beginnings of Arklow Pottery

  • Irish Sweepstakes – raising money for building hospitals 


  • The Emergency

  • Emergency & ‘Neutrality’

  • Emergency Wedding Dress Coupons

  • Emergency-grade goods

  • Rationing

  • Imprisonment, 1940s

  • Fethard-on-Sea 


  • State & Children

  • Mother & Baby Homes

  • Gaeltarra Éireann – sponsored developments

  • Noel Browne – Mother & Child Scheme

  • Border Campaign, 1956-1962

  • Women & the State – Magdalene Laundries

  • First Presidential Visit to the United States - Mrs Seán T. O’Kelly’s dress for the White House

  • Tourism – Aer Lingus

  • Emigration and the Diaspora

  • Childhood rhymes and games

  • Leisure – Dance Halls, Sports

  • Marian Year of 1954

  • Waterford in the USA (consumerism of Irish goods abroad) – 1950/60s


  • Córas Tráchtála Irish Weeks in Harrods, etc.

  • Free Education

  • EEC

  • President Kennedy’s Visit to Ireland, June 1963

  • Kilkenny Design Workshops – Migration from Europe to Waterford Glass and the KDW 


  • Contraception – The Contraception Train

  • Diaspora of design

  • Smuggling – The Border Industry

  • The Troubles – The Border – Civil Rights

  • Joining the EEC

  • Bloody Sunday, 1972

  • Pope’s Visit to Ireland, 1979

  • Marriage Ban – Irish Civil and Public Service


  • Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985

  • The Troubles

  • Moving Statues

  • Referenda results – Divorce and the Eighth Amendment


  • Divorce Referendum

  • Decriminalisation of Homosexuality, 1993

  • Peace Process

  • Immigration versus Emigration

  • 1998 Good Friday Agreement


  • The Housing Crisis

  • The Celtic Tiger

  • Ethnicity Rights – the Irish Traveller Community

  • Liberalisation – equal marriage; abortion rights

  • Immigration – The New Irish

  • Multinationals – Google and Facebook (Tech)

  • Recession

  • Anglo-Irish relations - Brexit

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