Above: The Atrium - ©The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin
The Chester Beatty Library is situated in the centre of Dublin city, on the grounds of Dublin Castle. It is named after the American collector Alfred Chester Beatty and was once his private library, but he chose Ireland to be the home for his astounding and unprecedented collection. That Chester Beatty himself was the first honorary citizen of Ireland, and also received a state funeral upon his passing, indicates the value of his contribution and benefaction to the Irish people. This treasured collection is not only a source of pride for those living in Ireland, but it is also a must-see for those who are fortunate enough to visit.
The library is home to an enriching and unique collection of books, manuscripts and other rare historical items, all acquired ethically by Beatty. This makes for a distinctive experience for the visitor. Unlike other institutions that may receive items from a variety of sources and contributors over time, in this museum you are encountering the work of a single contributor. The content of this library is the product of one individual and a lifetime of collecting. On my last visit there, I was told by a guide that only 1% of the entire collection is on display at any one time and that if I were to visit the museum at regular intervals for the rest of my life, I still would not see every item in this vast collection.
Although the Chester Beatty bears the title of library, the material is very much laid out in a museum format. The atrium holds the reception, café and gift shop (you can also peruse the shop on the museum’s website). The exhibitions can be found on the three floors above. The first and second levels hold the permanent galleries ‘Arts of the Book’ and ‘Sacred Traditions’ respectively. The layout is the same on both of these floors. The area is divided into sections reflecting different locations and world faiths (Islamic, East Asian, Western), and each of these locations is mirrored on the floor above. The displays in these permanent galleries are updated on a regular basis and constitute a visceral and engaging collection. It is important to clarify that many of the items, such as books and manuscripts, are rare originals and not copies.
The galleries themselves are quite visually pleasing. The rooms are dimly lit, and quite atmospheric, but the display cabinets are well-illuminated. This enables you to see the texts and objects in great detail. The majority of these items are in remarkable condition and it is a privilege to be able to examine them so closely as they truly are a window into other cultures and times. In the ‘Arts of the Book’ gallery, we encounter the book in all its forms. Highlights include folding books dating from the 18th/19th century. Originating from countries such as Thailand and Myanmar, they depict courtly life and recount religious tales. There are, of course, much older texts on display such as the cuneiform tablets which contain the oldest written script and are mainly concerned with administrative issues. The collection also includes the first examples of the codex which predate AD 600. There are many examples of papyri also, including Egyptian Books of the Dead. I would highly recommend seeing the ‘Book of the Dead of Lady Neskhons’ (300 BC) which is currently on display. My own interest in ancient civilisations has certainly been fulfilled on trips to this museum, most notably because the collection is not restricted to just one example of certain types of texts or objects from specific time periods, there are in fact multiple items of the same type to peruse.
From the Islamic world, this library holds the works of influential calligraphers such as the Ruzbihan Qur’an and the Ibn al-Bawwab Qur'an, the first of which I was fortunate to see on my last visit. The content of these galleries is not restricted to texts, however, as there are textiles, prints and rare items such as dragon robes from the Qing imperial court on display. Notable also are the rare jade books, which are carved and gilded from jade. Pieces such as this enhance and demonstrate the truly varied nature of this collection.
The gallery on the second floor exhibits text from major world religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, with smaller displays on Confucianism, Daoism, Sikhism and Jainism. A key feature of this exhibition are the biblical papyri, including the earliest known collection of Pauline epistles on book and some of the oldest surviving biblical manuscripts, in codex form. There are also Hebrew texts on display, including the Torah and Esther scrolls.
The third floor is a temporary exhibition space and was most recently home to the ‘Siam’ exhibition, which I had the pleasure of seeing in the summer of 2020. This gallery displayed the photography of John Thompson which captured life in nineteenth-century Thailand.
As well as being one of Dublin’s cultural treasures, the Chester Beatty Library acts in many ways as a focal point for multiple cultures and identities because the items in this collection originate from a diverse range of countries across different continents and were collected by an American only to now reside in Ireland. With such a vast collection that covers such varied historical periods and traditions, there is something in this museum for everyone.
Admission to the Chester Beatty is free and there is no booking required, though I would encourage people to contribute to the donation box in the atrium as a trip to this museum really is always an exemplary experience. The museum is easy to navigate for a self-guided tour, though there are guided tours available (see the website for more details). For anyone who wishes to fill the museum-shaped hole in their life during lockdown, you can take a 3D virtual tour on the Chester Beatty website. What’s more, you can download the museum’s app for free to explore the collections and get a guided audio tour experience.
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Lisa Doyle is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin. She has a keen interest in ancient Greek literature and her doctoral work focuses on scholia; scholarly notes which are found in the margins of manuscripts.
Follow Lisa on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lisalogia_doyle / @lisalogia_doyle