Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Topical Issue Debate

National Cultural Institutions

12:50 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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Our cultural institutions are a shop window to our culture and heritage. We have to note with alarm the concerns being expressed about the National Museum which says it has to cut back on tours and opening hours. The National Library and the National Archives are stretched to breaking point. Their funding compares very unfavourably with that in other countries, for example, Denmark and Scotland.

We all know the great affection people who were not born here have for this country. Some identify with it and that affinity brings a tremendous benefit because they come here as tourists and buy Irish produce, and are well-disposed to Ireland in all sorts of ways. Our cultural institutions must be resourced as part of that. The grant aid to the National Museum has been cut by 40% from €19 million to €11.5 million per annum. The National Museum and the National Library have also lost income from other sources, such as sales in the book shops. We lost our public records in 1922 which should make us all the more careful with our records. Only 1% of the National Library collection is conserved to international standards. In the National Archives there are 70,000 boxes of records that have not even been catalogued and cannot be searched.

These institutions do fantastic work on a shoestring. They are at breaking point, and have been for some time. The amount of money taken from them is disproportionately large in comparison with that taken from some other public services. Their contents belong to the Irish people. The Department’s role is to preserve and protect them. There has to be serious reinvestment in all those institutions. The amount of money needed, relative to the return, is small.

2 o’clock

For example, people queue down the stairs in the National Library each July and August to avail of the genealogy services it runs. The library is trying to maintain such services, which matter greatly to the public. People are prepared to come into the library to engage with the records stored there. I would like to Minister to set out her approach to the budget with regard to all of these institutions. Does she accept that they are at breaking point at this stage? If so, it is obvious what approach she will take at the Cabinet table.

12:55 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy for raising this matter. I agree with her that our national cultural institutions, including the National Library, are doing fantastic work even though they have unavoidably suffered cuts in their allocations in recent years. Every publicly funded body has had to deal with this difficult reality during the economic crisis. I assure the House that the Government has done its utmost to minimise budget cuts to the cultural institutions, in so far as possible, while being cognisant of competing demands on the public finances. Despite these challenging financial circumstances, the National Library has continued to attract increasing numbers of visitors. More than 250,000 people passed through the doors of the library in 2013. In addition, the library has had in excess of 7 million views on its website and its Flickr page and has approximately 10,000 followers on each of Twitter and Facebook. This successful deployment of social media shows that the National Library is a current and vibrant entity that continually reaches out to audiences of all ages.

The National Library's collection has increased in recent years through donations, legal deposits and purchases. There are more than 1 million printed books in the collection. Among the most notable acquisitions are the Fishamble Theatre archives, which is a valuable resource that contains early material from playwrights who went on to achieve great success. The library has also acquired the important Haberer Heaney collection of letters that are of academic interest and of interest to those who wish to obtain a fuller picture of this great man and Nobel laureate. The library recently acquired the Christy Brown archive, which will shortly be made available online.

The National Photographic Archive, which is a key part of the National Library, comprises approximately 5.2 million photographs, the vast majority of which are Irish. The subject matter ranges from topographical views to studio portraits, and from political events to early tourist photographs. The library maintains an active collecting policy. Material is constantly added to the collections, often following generous donations from various sources. If it is said that a picture paints a thousand words, then the comparative collection in the National Photographic Archive is no less than astounding. In addition, the archive has hosted several superb exhibitions on the Google cultural institute portal. This is an indication of how current and relevant its collection is.

The National Library has a varied collection consisting of an estimated 170,000 printed items, including historical proclamations, broadsides, broadside ballads, posters, playbills, handbills, concert, theatre and souvenir programmes, memorial cards, calendars, postcards, flyers and pamphlets. It is sometimes easy to overlook such items, which represent a unique snapshot of the national consciousness at a given time. They encapsulate a point in time in Irish history.

The remarkable progress and work of the National Library is to be commended, particularly in a time of economic challenges. We are all aware of the current difficulties. We are working to resolve them in order to put Ireland back once again on a solid financial and economic footing. This will benefit everyone. The dedication and professionalism of the staff and board of the National Library will continue to ensure this national collection is available for future generations.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I recognise much of what the Minister has said from the National Library report that is on my desk. I did not ask for a synopsis of that report; I wanted to hear what the Minister intends to do about it at budget time. Does the Minister accept that we are at a critical point? The Oireachtas allocation to the National Library was €12 million in 2008, but it is just €6.3 million this year. The upshot of this reduction is that fewer people are employed. It is not the only source from which income decreased. The income from royalty and reproduction has decreased by 84% since 2007. Income has decreased across the areas from which the National Library can get income. I would not like to patronise the various institutions by saying they are doing great work without also calling for that to be recognised through the provision of the necessary resources to enable such work to be done.

The National Library's core responsibility is to protect the actual material for which it is responsible. It is not being given an opportunity to carry out that role. There are ways in which things could be done better while reducing costs. I suggest that there could be a combined look at how material is stored off-site in various locations. If someone has to physically retrieve material from three different locations, it can be quite costly. The front-line services to the public are being protected as far as possible. The cost of that is seen in the inability to properly conserve, catalogue and place in the public arena certain kinds of records. We are not getting to see these treasure troves because this service is underfunded. Given that 400,000 people go to the National Museum each year, the notion that we are going to cut down on guided tours and opening hours is absolutely scandalous. At a time when we are trying to build up our tourism numbers, it seems that certain services could be withdrawn because of underfunding in this area. There needs to be a serious look at this. Investment in this area is necessary. I want to hear what the Minister has to say about her approach to the budget. Does she accept that a critical point has been reached?

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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As I have said, it is unfortunate that all the national cultural institutions, including the National Library, have unavoidably suffered cuts in their allocations in recent years. I accept that it has been very difficult for them. As Minister, I will try do my utmost to minimise any future budget cuts to the cultural institutions. I will do what I can to that end, while being cognisant of competing demands on the public finances.

On the question of storage, I remind the Deputy that the National Archives warehouse project has been approved and will commence in 2015. The National Library is talking to University College Dublin and Trinity College to see whether a combined solution is economically feasible. The amount of genealogical material made available on the Internet by the National Archives has increased in spite of the tight budgets. The 1901 and 1911 census returns have registered more than 1 billion hits. This is a testament to their popularity. I will be pursuing with the boards of the National Library and the National Archives the digitisation of material in both institutions.

Earlier this morning, I spoke to John Harnett, who is the chairman of the Inspiring Ireland international advisory board. I foresee the exciting prospect of making our cultural collections available online. While the cutbacks are acknowledged, positive developments such as the visitor numbers and the acquisitions must also be recognised and applauded. These achievements have resulted from the hard work of the staff.