There’s something about Ireland that causes many people with Irish heritage to celebrate it more than those with other roots. The Irish Emigration Museum aims to tap into this massive potential market. On the edge of Dublin’s docklands, it’s EPIC.
Back in 2013, there was a slump in the Dublin property market. Irish-born former Coca-Cola executive Neville Isdell was looking for an investment opportunity. The CHQ building that his step-brother Mervyn Greene found for him is beginning to pay dividends.
Walk through the glass-fronted facade of this former dockland warehouse any weekday lunchtime and you’ll see many workers from the nearby International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) feasting on offerings from its promenade of food outlets. As they eat and catch up with colleagues, they can admire the magnificent 1820 John Rennie designed structure that surrounds them. And whilst they do that, beneath their very feet, tourists and school groups will be enjoying the Irish capital’s newest museum and visitor attraction.
EPIC – the Irish Emigration Museum opened in May 2016 and tells the tells the story of the 70 million worldwide who claim Irish descent. Its location at Custom House Quay is fitting, since this was the departure point for many of those who migrated from Ireland in the 1800s. A large percentage would have travelled by boat to Britain.
The individual stories of over 300 emigrants are highlighted at EPIC. From Grace Kelly to JFK and Barack Obama, many American connections to Ireland are well documented too. Less well known is that Che Guevara, the Argentinian revolutionary, had ancestors traced back to County Galway in the early 18th Century.
The museum’s founders have lived and worked in many countries yet, “neither of us would consider ourselves anything except Irish,” says Greene, who is managing director of both EPIC and CHQ. “We are not the only ones that preserve our nationality when we go away. There are Italian Americans just as there are Irish Americans. But there aren’t actually that many people who would call themselves Welsh Americans, for example.”
It is this affinity to the ‘homeland’ as well as a few other factors that Greene believes gives EPIC broad appeal. “Now look, we wouldn’t be trying to compete head on with the likes of Trinity College, which has 425 years of history, or the Guinness Storehouse and Guinness as a global brand,” he says. “Yet neither of those two has a huge penetration into the Irish market. And Guinness obviously wouldn’t be trying to attract kids. We have the same potential audience as them, plus the local market and school groups too.”
The family-friendly facility provides a comprehensive account of the Irish diaspora. On arrival, visitors are presented with a passport they can stamp in each of 20 galleries. Along the way they become acquainted with the influence of the Irish. This has been brought to bear worldwide in the areas of sport, culture, art, politics, activism, charity, science and more. Visitors may even discover previously unknown personal connections.
The young museum has a long way to go before it reaches the creamy-headed heights of Guinness Storehouse (consistently ranked Ireland’s top tourist attraction). But it’s already EPIC in name, and it isn’t short of compelling, ever-changing content. That content may reflect the past, but it does so using a lot of digital, interactive technology.
EPIC is not an acronym. “We have joked it stands for Every Person Is Connected,” says museum curator Jessica Traynor. “But really it’s an acknowledgement of the epic journeys Irish emigrants have made.”
The exhibition covers 3,700 square metres of the CHQ building’s vaults. It was designed by London/Dublin-based Event Communications, who impressed Isdell and Greene with their work at Titanic Belfast. Isdell invested €12 million of his own money into the attraction after the Irish Government abandoned earlier plans to establish a national diaspora centre. Whilst there are immigration museums elsewhere around the world, or attractions based on individual stories of emigration, Greene believes this is the first permanent attraction dedicated to people leaving their native land.
“I would not be surprised if other countries with a strong history of emigration – you could think of places such as Scotland, Germany, Croatia, Italy and Greece – might see what we are doing and want to try something similar,” he says. “We would be thrilled if they did.”
Shattering the stereotypes
“One of the messages we want to establish in people’s minds is the scale of Irish emigration,” continues Greene. “The content of the exhibition is definitely catholic with a small ‘c’. We are not all fiddle players, pop stars, politicians and priests. We deliberately went to town with the Discovering & Inventing and Creating & Designing galleries. These are areas that the Irish aren’t necessarily world renowned for yet we have made a huge contribution. A personal hero of mine is Peter Rice, the guy who engineered the Sydney Opera House.”
Both Mervyn Greene are Neville Isdell have their own stories of emigration. Isdell migrated from County Down to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in the mid 1950s at the age of 10. He went on to enjoy a successful corporate career including a spell as CEO of the largest Coca-Cola bottler in Africa. Greene has a background in private equity and venture capital and still holds directorships of companies in Australia and Namibia.
In setting up EPIC the pair wanted to address what Greene describes as “Ireland’s sometimes negative relationship with emigration. We wanted to to explain that Irish people had to leave in some cases but wanted to leave in others. I was brought up in Africa, I worked in the States for 10 years, I worked in London for 10 years. Then I came back to Ireland with my family; more experienced, more knowledgable, and more employable in some ways. Irish emigration is not all famine, doom and gloom.”
Creating the content
A mix of Irish and British companies were used to create the museum’s content including Rockbrook Engineering (AV displays), ISO Design (software), SCENA (hard graphics), Digital Post Productions (software), Elbow Design (interactive tables & AV), Echo House (floor graphics), Graham English (AV content), Peter Kay (AV content), 767 AV Consultants Ltd.(AV system design), DHA (lighting design) and Graphical House (design consultants).
A lot of the bespoke set pieces were provided by All Shapes All Makes, based in County Wicklow, including a striking metal ship sculpture that is a centrepiece of Leaving The Island gallery. Greene highlights the interactive tables within the Conflict and Playing the World (sports) galleries as some of the best uses of technology inside the exhibition.
“We call the Conflict table the biggest iPad in Ireland. The Sports table uses what I call Minority Report technology. You put a disc on the table and then content displays around it. Some of the other technology is relatively simple, it’s just point and expand.”
As a start-up attraction, Greene says a decision was made early on to use proven rather than leading edge technology. Once the museum is more established he sees scope for experimentation with “augmented reality, holograms and things like that. We could perhaps do it in conjunction with a technology company, because many of them have their European headquarters here in Dublin. I suspect they would like to have a beta site here close to their development teams.”
Refreshing and personalising the experience
What was never in doubt was that EPIC would be, save for that snazzy ship sculpture and a few wall displays, a digital only museum. Traynor notes that artefacts related to emigration are few and far between: “It would tend to just be things like battered old suitcases,” she says.
Digital also provides flexibility when it comes to refreshing exhibits and upgrading the experience without making physical changes to a building with significant historic status. Greene sees scope for offering personalised content too.
“I took the foreign minister of Australia around the museum a while back,” he says. “I had in my head all of the Australian characters and was pointing them out as we were going from gallery to gallery. Now I knew those and had learned my lines. However, it wouldn’t be that difficult to come up with an app that curates all that content for each visitor, wherever they are from.”
He is also hoping to work with some commercial partners as a cost effective way of adding new content. “I think the Eating & Drinking gallery would be a great place to bring in some iconic Irish brands.”
A team is being formed to target the corporate market, and bookings are looking good for Christmas. School trips are picking up too. The majority of group bookings so far have been from the “active retirement” market.
Putting EPIC on the tourist map
“Clearly it takes a while for the tour operators to get used to you and put you in their programmes,” says Greene. “Both Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland have been enormously supportive of us. We are getting traction now though because of word of mouth. We are finding EPIC is starting to be referred to as the place you come first. It makes you understand the Irish or your own roots a little bit better.”
So far around 45% of visitors are from Ireland. Many of the remainder are suspected to be of Irish descent, with 20-25% calling themselves Irish-American or Irish-Canadian. By the end of 2017, the museum’s first full year in business, attendance is forecast to be over 100,000. (It surpassed 80,000 in July). That’s some way short of pre-opening targets. However, Greene remains confident that EPIC’s symbiotic relationship with the wider CHQ building will be good for both businesses.
“I’ve done a lot of starts ups and turnarounds,” says the younger of the two founding step-brothers, who came out of early retirement to provide CHQ with some TLC. “I fell in love this building and Neville followed suit. What was missing was a strategy to take it forward. We have worked very hard to turn it into a destination. There is a micro brewery about to open. There is also a very nice restaurant and we have planning permission for very classy fitness centre. So suddenly we are starting to get that cluster effect.”
Dublin Docklands development
A brisk walk along the north bank of River Liffey from the heart of Dublin city centre brings you to the CHQ building, a Grade One protected structure. It also provides conference, event and co-working space. It was sympathetically restored by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority in the early 2000s.
Its location suits Greene just fine: “All of the development that is happening in Dublin is happening east of us, alongside the docks. We are becoming more and more central. Year on year, footfall is up 35%. With EPIC we have put in what we think is going to be a very successful museum that over the next five to 10 years will drive footfall outside of lunch times and at weekends, when of course the workers are not around.”
While Greene and his team strive to nurture a leisure, dining and enterprise ecosystem within the CHQ building, one of their upcoming challenges at EPIC will be how to tackle ‘the Bono question’.
People who stayed in Ireland and the Bono question
“We’ll probably have to put him in because people keep asking for him,” sighs Greene. “But he’s not actually an emigrant. It’s the same with Brian O’Driscoll, the most famous Irish rugby player of last 25 years. He still lives in Dublin. We don’t have a hard and fast rule who we include in the exhibition. However, in most cases it’s people who emigrated and never returned, or descendants of emigrants. One of the options would be to create a new exhibit. We could call it, “100 people who are world-famous but actually stayed in Ireland”. That would be the way to deal with it.”
There are already exceptions: “There are people like Mary Robinson. Although she came back to Ireland to become our president, her world view and why she inherited such reverence would be when she was working outside the country as UN commissioner of human rights,” says Greene.
It would have been rude not to include the country’s first female president. Especially since Robinson herself was there at the opening EPIC last year. Perhaps if Bono choses to swing by, when he’s not too busy campaigning for human rights, touring around the world, or developing his own U2 museum in Dublin, they can make an exception too.
All images kind courtesy EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum