Niamh McCoy, director of the GAA Museum, explains how improving the visitor experience is one of the key focus areas as the museum attempts to broaden its appeal and make an impact in the overseas market
It’s the most magical time of the year for many — not Christmas, but the beginning of the GAA inter-county championship season.
The 2017 season has begun in earnest, and the superstars of today will be on their way to becoming titans of Irish folklore. They will write their own histories, and thousands of youngsters will be transfixed by legendary afternoons in Semple Stadium, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, or Croke Park. And those Herculean feats will be captured in the GAA Museum in the future.
A visit to the GAA Museum has become one of the highlights of the year for families, never more so than in the throes of summer championship combat.
Director of the museum, Niamh McCoy, feels she is in a privileged position. She is also acutely aware that the museum needs to be a commercial success to be self- sustaining.
The GAA Museum is the national custodian of archives and artefacts of the GAA and funds raised assist in the acquisition of more artefacts and documents, care of collections, and restoration and enhancements of existing displays.
Ms McCoy said: “The museum is self-sustaining. With museums, it is very hard to generate huge profit and a lot of them are run on loss leaders. Anything we have goes back into what we need to do in terms of conservation of items, acquiring items, anything that may need further restoration.”
She added: “We are a fully accredited museum. We signed up to the Heritage Council’s museum standards programme and it takes a few years to achieve full accreditation. With that, it means all our artefacts have to be maintained to certain standards, in terms of environmental controls, in terms of how they are preserved. That is our key function being a museum, to make sure all items are curated to that very high level.
“The museum is its own entity company and we have our own board of directors, who are really excellent. They are truly supportive and give very good guidance and direction. We are standalone but obviously we are part of the GAA. Any of the commercial activity supports the museum, because that is why we are here.”
Irish visitors are the bread and butter but overseas markets are burgeoning. North American visitors are in the museum’s crosshairs.
Ms McCoy said: “The split of homegrown visitors compared to overseas visitors is about 65/35.
“The best example of overseas visitors is that we have a lot of children from France over for a few weeks to do exchange visits with Irish youngsters. We would love to have more overseas visitors, particularly independent travelers. It’s a real live part of our culture.
“We really feel that if you want to get to know us, come here and you will really understand how important it is to Irish culture. We’re trying to tap into the North American market. It is more difficult to tap into that market, depending on their motivations for coming here — perhaps it is to visit family or come on golf trips.
“We feel that if we can convey that if they are of Irish ancestry, we can pretty much guarantee them that their grandfather played one of the games. Here in the museum, you can learn about that Irishness.”
The annual exhibitions have proved a commercial success, while Christmas time also proved a boon.
“Every year our curator puts on a different exhibition. Last year was about Ireland’s Olympians; this year it will be very GAA-focused, which will be very interesting.
“You’re always trying to tap into other markets. One new to us — and quite a departure — was a Santa experience in December. In year one we had about 4,000 visitors; last year we had 6,500. It’s a time of year when we would traditionally have been a bit quieter. We had the capacity to do something like that and encourage families to come here and see the museum as part of their visit.”
The ‘visitor experience’ has been a crucial aspect in maintaining and enhancing visitor numbers, according to Ms McCoy.
“One thing we worked on as a team was our visitor experience.
“We doubled the capacity of our Blackthorn Cafe, because when people come here, they come for the morning or for the afternoon.
“We have a summer school, we are trying to do more events — we want more people to come and we want to tap into different audiences.
“We are doing yoga at the Etihad Skyline Tour in the summer. We want to raise awareness because the Skyline in particular is relatively new, being here since 2012. We are trying to get people’s attention to that,” she said.
Being director of the GAA Museum is a privilege for a woman steeped in GAA culture.
Ms McCoy said: “Like most people in Ireland, my dad and my brother played. It’s really what you did growing up, going to matches.
“I’m from Meath and when I was growing up, Meath was pretty successful, winning All-Ireland titles. They are great childhood memories, with Sam Maguire being brought to the primary school and getting a half day and no homework.
“Like a lot of people, it was a bit of a dream to work in Croke Park, to get such an opportunity.
“That’s not lost on me or any of my colleagues that we have been given the chance to work here, to contribute to an organisation such as the GAA.
“I consider myself very lucky.”
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