On 15 June 2017, the historic wings of the Gallery reopened to the public after extensive refurbishment. To mark the anniversary, archivist Leah Benson shares the story of the work she led behind the scenes documenting the major building project.
In 2011, the National Gallery of Ireland closed the doors of its Milltown and Dargan Wings to begin an ambitious and essential refurbishment programme. Many years of water damage, dampness and climate control issues had made these buildings inappropriate to house the national art collection. The objective of the refurbishment was to restore the buildings back to their original beauty, while creating usable and modern gallery spaces.
The Gallery's entrance on Clare Street remained open so visitors could still access the café, Gallery Shop, highlights from the collection, and some curated exhibitions in the Millennium Wing and Beit Wing. A buffer zone between these public areas and the building site meant visitors had no idea that extensive demolition was occurring just a few feet away from them.
With buildings such as this, a substantial amount of space can be taken up with plant, i.e. the heating, lighting, and other machinery and apparatus required to make the place run smoothly. In a city-centre space, this machinery is usually placed on the rooftop. This was not a viable option for the Gallery, however, given the absolute requirement for light to be brought into the gallery spaces through the glass roofs. Instead, the forecourt in front of the Merrion Square entrance was excavated, and a state-of-the-art energy centre was constructed underground to house vital climate, heating, fire suppression and lighting systems. At the time, staff joked that when asked where all the money for the refurbishment went, they said it was buried!
From the public's perspective, the Gallery was encased in scaffolding and it appeared that work was proceeding at a slow pace. Internally, however, the construction workers were undertaking the nail-biting task of removing all of the original structural supports from the building and placing it on temporary pins. This was to enable them to run the plant infrastructure from the forecourt into the fabric of the building.
Internally, it was remarkable to witness how this beautiful Victorian building could be subjected to such demolition while original features remained protected.
From an archival perspective, the refurbishment became a very special project. The building had undergone various changes throughout its 150-year history, but nothing of this scale. We knew it would be a fundamentally different space at the conclusion of the project, and so we wanted to record the process, to the best of our ability, and keep anything that contributed to the story of the institution to date.
National Gallery of Ireland Refurbishment
Over the course of the project, we were allowed to enter the site to periodically photograph the work as it progressed. We also placed time-lapse cameras in strategic locations. These recorded footage of significant events, such as the raising of the roofs, the removal of the floors, and the excavation of the forecourt on Merrion Square (above).
The construction company also worked with us to save any objects they found that tell a story of the Gallery and its building. This included numerous old alcohol bottles and cigarette packages, pieces of coving, small sections of tiled floors, scraps of wallpaper, old conservation materials, and the last small section of pipe that had run gas into the Gallery when the rooms were lit by gaslight many decades ago.
When the Gallery reopened in 2017, photographer Conor O’Leary was invited to document visitors and their reactions in the first ten days after the reopening. He also photographed some of the quirky items unearthed by the builders (above), including a ticket stub for a 1921 dance in aid of the Antiquarian Cycling Society of Ireland.
Now, behind the scenes in the archive, we are busy processing. It’s a little more rustic than the art collections we are used to dealing with, but no less fascinating!
Virtual tour of the National Gallery of Ireland
Take a virtual tour around some of the Gallery spaces