Chester Beatty Library – Dublin

This post will be the first in a new series – My Favourite Museums. It is by no means intended to be a list of the world’s greatest museums, but is instead compiled from the museums I personally have visited. My reasons for each will be very different, some have made the list because of the quality of collections or exhbits, etc. and others are here for far more personal reasons. Hopefully, one day I will be able to visit all the world’s museums (a bit of a challenge) – then I will be able to create my definitive list.

The Chester Beatty Library, located in Dublin Castle has been at the top of my favourite museums list for a very long time. I was fortunate enough to visit during a mini break to Dublin in Nov. 2006. We were three Canadians and an American exploring Dublin, and none of us had heard of the Chester Beatty Library prior to our visit. We literally stumbled upon it. As a result we went in with zero expectations – and we were blown away.

The Chester Beatty Library is an art museum and library displaying a vast collection of manuscripts, miniature paintings, prints, drawings, rare books and decorative arts. They were assembled by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968), who was an American born business man and avid collector, who eventually settled in Ireland.

[The Chester Beatty Library contains] Egyptian papyrus texts, beautifully illuminated copies of the Qur’an, the Bible, European medieval and renaissance manuscripts are among the highlights of the collection. In its diversity, the collection captures much of the richness of human creative expression from about 2700 BC to the present day.   – The Chester Beatty Library

I have since heard it is considered one of the best museums in Europe (it was awarded European Museum of the Year in 2002).

There are a couple reasons why I think the Chester Beatty archive is such a good museum. It is a combination of an excellent collection and brilliant curation.  The following elements in particular have been done extremely well.

1) Perfect lighting

Despite the darkness, which is necessary to preserve the fragile manuscripts, you don’t feel like you’re in the dark. The lighting is used to direct your eye to exactly what the curators want you to see, which consequently creates a space with virtually no dead space; something we see a lot of museums.

2) Excellent Wayfinding

Wayfinding is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, when it is done poorly (or ignored entirely) museum visitors get lost, miss elements and it generally negates any attempt at a cohesive narrative within the curation. The Chester Beatty Archive curators have created excellent wayfinding,  executed with tricks of lighting and by the deliberate placement of cases. The curators have thus created a narrative circuit throughout the exhibits, that feels very natural and gently guides the visitor through the story they are trying to tell.

3) Perfect text!

Probably the biggest accomplishment in the exhibit is the text. There is just enough not to much, not too little. It is the baby bear’s porrige of museum text. Speaking as someone who:

A) does not have a huge interest in religious manuscripts.

B) does not often read much panel text within exhibits.

I read most of, if not all the text, and I did so enthusiastically.

The Chester Beatty archives should be at the top of any Dublin vistor’s list. Afterwards go to good local pub, with live band playing traditional music and for some deliciously perfect Guinness on tap..

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