Collins Barracks: National Museum

In 1994, Collins Barracks was assigned to the National Museum of Ireland. The buildings were completely renovated and restored to become the Museum of Decorative Arts and History, which opened in September 1997.

The initial building at Collins Barracks began in 1702 and was designed by Captain Thomas Burgh (1670-1730). He was also responsible for the original Custom House (1707), Dr Steeven’s Hospital (1733), and the Library at Trinity College(1732). This is the earliest public building existing in Dublin with the exception of the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham. The complex, which includes eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, housed troops continually for over three centuries.

In 1994, Collins Barracks was assigned to the National Museum of Ireland. The buildings were completely renovated and restored to become the Museum of Decorative Arts and History, which opened in September 1997. This was a successful collaboration between two architect groups,  with the OPW’s Architectural Services dealing with the complex external fabric and Gilroy McMahon being responsible for the internal manipulations.

Three floors of exhibition galleries were refurbished on two of the wings of the best surviving square - Clarke Square. Over 2,500 square metres of space were devoted to the introductory exhibitions, outlining the museum’s chequered history and showcasing some of the prime collections long hidden from public view.

The primary task in this particular project was to convert this barracks into a fully flexible twenty first century museum space,  incorporating highest quality air conditioning, security and communications systems, and to allow for maximum flexibility for the future. The first phase included the conversion of two sides of Clarke Square (the former parade ground), to create a varied but legible and linear main circulation route through the principal new galleries.

Internally, the challenge lay in reconciling the needs of a highly serviced modern museum within the shell of a 300-year-old building.  Evidence of the original structure is complemented by the use of textured self-finished materials such as polished plaster, oak, granite and cable-tray ceilings giving the ‘new’ building a tactile quality entirely appropriate to its role as an interactive museum.

The understated renovation of Collins Barracks concentrates on circulation and the highlighting of exhibits. The entrance enables the visitor to walk through the former parade ground and experience the space made by the original building. The new building elements integrate the display cases with the existing walls and smaller rooms becoming display cases in themselves. The exhibits read as precious objects in a cool and well-detailed interior.

Today, Collins Barracks is the administrative headquarters for the four branches that now constitute the National Museum of Ireland. Since the first phase of exhibitions was formally opened, additional galleries have been added. These include the Riding School, which accommodates temporary exhibitions and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory has also been opened on the western side of the site. When the large second-phase building is completed at Collins Barracks it will accommodate additional historical exhibitions and permanent galleries for both the Ethnographical and Earth Science collections.

The Museum of Decorative Arts and History is home to the Art and Industrial Division of the National Museum of Ireland.  The Division is responsible for over a quarter of a million artefacts reflecting Irish economic, social, industrial, political and military history over the last three centuries. In addition to managing these collections, staff care for collections of Irish, European and Oriental decorative arts which give an understanding of international design and culture as they relate to Ireland.

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