Museums that tell the stories of tragic world events can be sobering, thought-provoking – and often poignant and uplifting. Nestled in Hamden, Connecticut is an art museum that centers on a defining moment in Ireland’s history – the great famine of the mid-19th century.
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University features paintings and sculptures, both historical and contemporary.
Christine Kinealy is the director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac and spoke to Connecticut Public Radio about the museum.
On the intersection of art and history
Sometimes you can write a lot of words, but one simple image captures what thousands of words can’t convey. A piece of art leaves so much for the imagination because there is so much that is untold in that story. So art is a very powerful, a very intimate way of telling a story and allowing the person who’s viewing that art to fill in the gaps in their own way.
On why a museum would focus on such a traumatic event
In a way, it was very brave because I was student in Dublin, and when I was a student, there was very little written about the Great Hunger. There were only two major books before my book came out in 1994. There were no memorials to the famine. It wasn’t taught in the schools or in universities.
People were traumatized, they were ashamed. They didn’t know how to describe what had happened to them. And then as it went on, it became pretty politicized.
So when I was student in Dublin in the 1980s, there was idea that if you spoke about the famine it was almost reawakening a shameful part of Ireland’s past. And because there was a conflict going on in northern Ireland, it was a way of inflaming anger against Britain and in the context of what was happening in northern Ireland people felt that this wasn’t a good idea. So there was almost by the late 20th century a self-imposed censorship. People didn’t really want to talk about it.
What we try to do is look at the Great Hunger, but use that as a tool for understanding other famines, other periods of hunger, hunger in the world today; and the refugee crisis in the world today. Because there are so many aspects of our story that remain relevant today.