Detail of casts on display in the Sculpture Hall, Lower Dargan, c.1900. [Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland]
Established to provide a place where members of the public could enjoy and learn about art, the Gallery strives to continue to foster an appreciation of the arts. In addition to its exceptional art collection, the Gallery has developed significant research resources and stimulating public programmes to support the public in engaging with culture in a meaningful way.
When the Gallery first opened in 1864, visitors entered through a small vestibule filled with antique casts of reliefs, before making their way through the impressive columned sculpture hall, filled with casts of Greek and Roman antique statuary. Two days a week, known as ‘Private Days’, were reserved for students visiting the Gallery to sketch and study from the antique plaster casts. Students from the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Government Schools of Design in Cork and Belfast, and the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, as well as, practising artists, were encouraged to copy and study in the Gallery. They provided their own easels, drawing boards, stools and mats, and the names of those who attended were recorded in an attendance book. The public were still admitted to the Gallery for a charge of six pence. The Sculpture Hall display remained largely unchanged until the 1930s.
Former Director, James White was a firm believer in the educational importance of the Gallery's collection. His conviction that ‘we should kill the museum atmosphere in Galleries’ and ‘make them living places’ inspired an improvement in public programming; regular lectures, tours, events and concerts opened up the Gallery to the Irish public.
Following the foundation of the Gallery, a collection of research material relating to the artworks began to take shape. Acquired by Directors and members of staff, or received as part of donations and gifts, this collection initially developed in an informal manner. Against all odds, funding for a library was secured for the first time in 1917 when the Treasury agreed to provide £120 for the purchase of books for the Gallery. This burgeoning research collection soon required organisation, and Ms. Geraldine Fitzgerald was the first employee hired to work on the Gallery’s library collection.
Robert Langton Douglas was the first great champion of the Gallery’s library collection. The Director believed that the gallery was in need of key art history reference books and insisted that they were indispensable for the staff and the public for the study and full appreciation of the collection. Langton Douglas made quite a number of purchases for the library during his tenure and is thought to have paid for the cataloguing of the library collection from his own funds.