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Treasures of Early Irish Art’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

David H. Wright (“Shortchanged at the Met,” NYR, May 4) is entitled to his views about the Metropolitan Museum; he is not entitled to misrepresent completely the story of how the “Treasures of Early Irish Art” exhibition came to appear there. He is right in saying that the idea came from the then Irish Minister for Education, Richard Burke, but wrong in saying that “his principal ally in Dublin has been Frank Mitchell, who is President of the Royal Irish Academy.” The Minister began to discuss the project in the second half of 1975, when I was President of the Royal Irish Academy, and those with whom he talked were the Provost of Trinity College and myself. The Provost and I went together with Tom Hoving to meet the Minister and Mr. Cosgrave, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), who gave his unqualified approval to the project; at the point at which the “package” was put together Professor Mitchell was completely unaware of what was happening. He first heard about it as a member of both the Board of Trinity College and the Council of the Royal Irish Academy, when the Provost and I put the matter before our respective governing bodies. By the time that the proposal had been accepted, and detailed negotiations were beginning, the Council of the Academy had decided to nominate Professor Mitchell as my successor in the Presidency, to which he was elected on March 16, 1976. It was I who suggested that, in view of his interest in the subject, and his standing in both institutions involved, he should be the administrator at the Irish end; this was agreed to, and Peter Brown, Librarian of Trinity College, and I were appointed as the other members of a “triumvirate” charged with supervising the day-to-day planning, and responsible to a larger committee which met at irregular intervals. All Professor Mitchell’s actions, including the lay-out of the catalogue, were approved by the triumvirate and, at a later stage, by the main committee. Having made my own responsibility clear, I have no apology to make to Professor Wright for what has been done.

Nor will I apologize to him for the fact that the planning was done at the top level, and the final decisions taken, before the curators were informed. It is hardly necessary to say that the Council of the Academy consists entirely of working scholars, but it may not be known to your readers that the same is true of the Board of Trinity College. The Minister’s decision to issue the invitation was a political one, but the decision to accept it was taken by responsible academics who are the trustees of the treasures involved. The curators were consulted when it came to the selection of the items, and nothing which they thought unfit to travel was included. In the case of the manuscripts, they laid down such strict requirements for temperature and humidity control that the Metropolitan Museum had to construct what Professor Wright quaintly calls “a lunar module”; I am inclined to agree with his suggestion that they are safer there than in their home in Dublin, though I will be happy to see them back again.

He tells us that “most of the curators in charge in Dublin and many specialists in Europe and America were outspoken in their opposition” to the project. There were objections from some of the curators, but “outspoken” they were not. That may have been because the decision had already been taken over their heads, but academics in such a position know very well how to organize opposition from outside; there was in fact little or none from those competent to speak on the matter. Nor, indeed, have any of the curators concerned shown themselves unwilling to take part in the junketings associated with the exhibition in New York or San Francisco. They are, after all, Irish, and are proud of what Ireland has been able to show your country.

David Greene

Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

School of Celtic Studies

Dublin, Ireland

David H Wright replies:

I am grateful to Professor Greene for clarifying the early history of the Irish Exhibition. One of the sad aspects of that history was the secrecy which gave rise to rumors and objections among the international community of concerned specialists. In all the public record previously available to me, including accounts in the Irish newspapers, publicity releases from the Metropolitan Museum, and the acknowledgments in the Exhibition catalogue, Professor Mitchell was invariably identified as the principal organizer of the exhibition. Professor Greene’s letter, however, makes it clear that Professor Mitchell was not involved in any of the initial planning with Mr. Burke, then the Minister of Education, and that Professor Mitchell became aware of the proposed exhibition only in January 1976 when he participated in approving the project in principle as a member both of the council of the Royal Irish Academy and of the Board of Trinity College. He thus could not have been Mr. Burke’s “principal ally” or the “principal entrepreneur” of the exhibition at the time it was approved. Subsequently, as Professor Greene writes, Professor Mitchell became “the administrator at the Irish end.” But I apologize to him for implying that he had any earlier involvement in the planning of the exhibition.

A question has arisen whether certain important objects from the Royal Academy collection normally exhibited in the National Museum of Ireland, including the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice, actually “belong” to the Royal Irish Academy as I wrote. In fact the Academy did, in 1890, enter into an agreement to “give, grant, assign, transfer, convey, and make over” to the State its collection of antiquities; but the agreement also specified that the “charge and custody of the said collection…shall remain with the said Royal Irish Academy, subject to such regulations and directions as may from time to time be prescribed by the [State]…but so as to leave the Royal Academy as unfettered in the charge and management of the Museum [collection] as circumstances will allow.”

In this ambiguous situation it is understandable that Dr. Raftery, the Director of the National Museum, should recently have been reported as saying that my statement about the objects belonging to the Academy raised an “awkward legal point,” and that Professor Greene should refer to the members of the Academy Council as “trustees” of treasures in the Exhibition. The decisions and arrangements Professor Greene describes show clearly the government’s concern to have formal approval of the Exhibition by the Academy as well as Professor Greene’s concern, as President of the Academy, that his successor, Professor Mitchell, “in view of his standing” in both the Academy and Trinity College, have a major responsibility for the Exhibition. It was incorrect, however, to say that Professor Mitchell could himself “assure” the availability of the objects for travel and I regret any implication that he was legally in a position to do so.

It is useful to have Professor Greene’s statement that the planning of the Exhibition was supervised by a triumvirate including Professor Mitchell, Mr. Brown, and himself. I greatly admire Professor Greene’s scholarship in philology, and Professor Mitchell’s in geology, and I fully respect Mr. Brown’s position as Librarian of Trinity College, but the fact remains that none of them is a specialist in the care and handling of early medieval manuscripts or of early medieval art. Absent from the triumvirate, I must point out, were the Keeper of Manuscripts of Trinity College, the Director of the National Museum of Ireland, any other appropriate curator and any of the Irish scholars internationally recognized for their work and publications in early Irish art and archaeology. Had such professionals in the field of Irish art been given larger and more direct responsibilities for the selection and scholarly presentation of the objects than those described by Professor Greene, I doubt I would have been obliged to criticize the Exhibition as I did in my review.

I repeat my conclusions (which I know are shared by other concerned specialists) that:

  1. A few objects in the Irish Exhibition are too fragile to be appropriately subjected to so much handling and travel over a two-year period.

  2. A few objects, particularly the Book of Durrow, are exceedingly fragile and of such unique international cultural importance that they should not have been sent on what is admittedly a politically motivated trip.

  3. While it may be reasonable for political purposes to send one of the four volumes of the Book of Kells for popular veneration, the art of manuscript illumination could have been more effectively shown in good photographic reproductions.

  4. The catalogue, aside from the short essays by Dublin specialists on four of the five periods into which the Exhibition is divided, is seriously deficient both in content and design and does no credit to Irish scholarship.

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