- Inspiring Ireland:Building Digital History, Making Shared Memory
Speaking to the challenges that faced historians in commemorating the Irish revolutionary years, Professor Roy Foster's 2015 lecture in honor of Edmund Burke noted that a more complex understanding of history is inextricably bound up with the shifting nature of human memory.1 In developing his theme, Foster quoted memory-studies theorist Pierre Nora, in whose opinion
memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to dialect of remembering and forgetting. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present.2
The interplay of history and memory in the collective effort to document and define the past intensifies during periods of commemoration when the legacy of that past is reviewed, dissected, and analyzed through a contemporary lens. For Ireland the commemorations in 2016 provide a rich moment for understanding how contemporary identity is shaped in relation to the events of 1916. It is in this context that Inspiring Ireland, the collaborative digital cultural-heritage platform by the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI), developed a series of exhibitions to mark the centenary and add new voices and artifacts to the process of commemoration. Inspiring Ireland 1916: Weaving Public and Private Narratives is a novel approach to writing in the digital age because of its approach to the authorship of history: It [End Page 303] combines exhibitions with archival preservation, public and private content, personal memory, storytelling, and expert commentary, and it preserves these digital historical artifacts for future study. Capable of exhibiting a wide variety of content and formats, Inspiring Ireland is a continually expanding resource that makes Ireland's cultural heritage available in digital form, working to uncover hidden stories and ultimately aiming to contribute more complex historical narratives that reflect a rich assemblage of memory.
Inspiring Ireland: The Pilot Phase
Inspiring Ireland 1916 is the second phase in an ongoing project to share and preserve Ireland's digital cultural heritage. First conceived in 2013, the pilot phase of the project was funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht with the enthusiastic support of the minister at the time, Jimmy Deenihan, who anticipated that the project would also help to connect with the Irish diaspora.3 While the stated early purpose of the project was to bring together digital cultural objects from across Ireland for preservation and greater public access, it quickly became apparent that the project's additional achievement was to build a community of interest around the preservation of digital cultural heritage. The pilot phase delivered an aesthetically appealing platform with curated digital exhibitions, but just as importantly, it brought together a significant number of content-holders in the cultural-heritage domain, which has enabled additional collaborations and in general helped to develop awareness and capacity in the preservation of digital cultural heritage. DRI partnered with eight of Ireland's national cultural institutions: the Abbey Theatre, Chester Beatty Library, Crawford Art Gallery Cork, Irish Museum of Modern Art, National Archives of Ireland, National Gallery of Ireland, National Library of Ireland, and National Museum of Ireland.
To formulate the site's exhibitions, a committee comprising curators from each of the institutions selected material for inclusion on the broad theme of "Ireland's cultural treasures." As this was a pilot [End Page 304] project, it was not possible to determine the constitution of the final audience, so in collecting the digital objects and formulating the exhibition themes, the committee envisaged a global audience with an interest in Ireland, but not necessarily a studied knowledge of Irish history and culture. In terms of thematic construction the stated effort was to create visual stories that would provide compelling user experiences without constructing a unified historical narrative about Ireland. Ireland's national cultural institutions are at various stages of development in the digitization and digital cataloguing of their collections, so themes were proposed based on available materials, as time and budgets did not permit further digitization as...