It’s not often a new museum opens in Connecticut, much less one with a world-class collection dedicated to specific theme. When Quinnipiac University asked Leonard Wyeth AIA of Wyeth Architects LLC to work on renovating an existing building to house the collection for the new Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, he was excited to take on the project.
Wyeth was particularly inspired by Quinnipiac University President John Lahey’s vision and passion for the project. Lahey has long promoted awareness of the Great Hunger, as the famine is also known, and over time, amassed the world’s largest collection of art related to the topic. It was a natural step to provide a museum to showcase the art, and tell the story of this significant and often overlooked event that had a profound impact on Western culture and history.
“The challenge for us as the architect,” said Wyeth, “was to create an environment that supports the story, that allows the art to bring the story to life.” The firm, based in Chester, Conn., collaborated with Clodagh Design of New York City for the initial concepts, and led a team of consultants and builders to complete the project.
To help tell the story, the design team developed a palette of natural materials reminiscent of Ireland. Light grey stone walls form the museum’s facade and hearken to building materials and forms found in the Irish countryside. The museum’s entry brings the visitor into an intimate space of dark wood and slate flooring, conjuring a sense of the Irish cottier’s typical living spaces. As one views the art, there is a palpable sense of how the Irish lived.
Light coming down from the main gallery space above invites the visitor up a dramatic central stair of timber and bronze-colored floor-to-ceiling rods. Once in the main gallery, the high ceilings and long open space give a sense of volume, punctuated by two free-standing structures that provide more art display walls as well as more intimate “galleries” within the larger volume. Wyeth notes that providing smaller spaces “humanizes” the experience, giving people different ways to discover the exhibits and learn about the history.
The building itself began its existence in 1890 as a library, and up until last year, had been a bank and professional offices. Renovating it into a museum not only required the designers to consider the museum’s mission, but also solve more mundane challenges. The lighting of the artwork needed to be flexible and easy to access as the museum’s curators planned to change the exhibits over time. To address this, the designers specified a wood slat ceiling that combined the aesthetic of natural materials with the ability to easily access and move lighting fixtures.
Gutters were required to bring water away from the building, and Wyeth Architects designed an elegant solution by running an open copper channel in the entry walls. “It’s not only visually interesting, but during a rain, you get a pleasant sound of water flowing down the channel,” said Sara Dodson, an architect at Wyeth Architects. The architects also like to include handmade touches to their projects, and in the bathrooms, they created a band of tile mosaic that provide interest and texture to the walls. Flecks of white in a dark field are meant to evoke bone and the death and destruction of the famine.
The Great Famine of Ireland occurred from 1845 to 1852 and was one of the worst manmade tragedies of the modern era. It was socio-political forces, namely British policies and inaction, that drove up what could have been a much smaller human toll, to more than 1 million deaths drawn out over seven years. Additionally, 2 million more immigrated for opportunity elsewhere. By the latter 1800s, Ireland’s population had been cut in half. America was a primary beneficiary of the waves of immigration and the resulting profound influences to our arts and culture.
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University is located at 3011 Whitney Avenue in Hamden, and opened to the public on October 11, 2012.