The Chester Beatty Library
To say that the Chester Beatty Library is an extraordinary place might even be a bit of an understatement. Voted European Museum of the Year in 2000, this really unique institution is situated in the gardens of Dublin Castle and is open to the public free of charge. In truth, Dublin has several really significant museums but this one, even though it may be the least visited, arguably tops them all on account of the truly global importance of its collection.
Before we extol the exhibits let us first look at who Chester Beatty was. Born Alfred Chester Beatty in New York in 1875, he went on to graduate from Columbia University in 1898 as a mining engineer. He went on to become a wealthy and famous entrepreneur who opened successful mining enterprises in America, Africa and Europe. Care for his employees, medical research and support of hospitals were hallmarks of this enlightened man. He became friendly with statesmen such as Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover along with major American industrial figures. He later befriended Sir Winston Churchill when he settled in London from 1911. These contacts proved useful to Britain in obtaining war material from the USA at the outbreak of the Second World War, for which service he was knighted in 1954.
Beatty had always been a collector; first of stamps and precious minerals and later of Chinese snuff bottles. He later developed a passion for precious books, Persian manuscripts and Old Master prints. Already a widower, he remarried in 1912 and honeymooned in Egypt where he bought a house in Cairo where he spent many a winter. This opened new opportunities for him to source and collect important Islamic texts. After the First World War he travelled to Asia where he was captivated by the Chinese and Japanese cultures with many of their artefacts finest joining his growing collections. Even his new wife, Edith Dunn, acquired decorative art objects and Impressionist paintings.
In 1945, Beatty was shocked that his old friend, Churchill, lost the British General Election and he became increasingly uncomfortable with the austerity, currency restrictions and policies of the new socialist Labour government. He considered moving from the UK, especially now that his business life was coming to an end. Following a visit to Ireland (where he had some ancestry) in 1949 he accepted an inspired invitation to settle in Dublin with his now world-acclaimed library. A year later he did just that. A purpose-built library was opened, first in his house in Shrewsbury Road and then in an annexe beside it. He became Ireland’s first honorary citizen in 1957 and he decided to leave his great library, in trust, to the people of Ireland. On his death at the age of 92 in 1968, he was accorded a state funeral, the first private citizen to be so honoured.
The library was given its present home in the 1990s, in a former military building, the Clock Tower of Dublin Castle, to which a modern extension to house the exhibits and provide ancillary spaces was added. The complex houses a conservation laboratory, reading room, offices, lecture space and small audio-visual theatre (where you can enjoy a short film on Chester Beatty) as well as three large environmentally-controlled exhibition galleries and a roof garden. A restaurant serving food reflecting the countries represented in the museum, a shop and ground-floor concourse provide facilities for the public and a space for varied activities.
So what of the collection itself? Impossible to adequately summarise, I often explain that the library is a treasure trove to lost civilisations, an exciting celebration of the invention of script, writing material and the development of books and how the written word was influenced by and in its turn itself influenced the development of civilisations and religions. For one thing the library holds over a hundred Babylonian and Sumerian clay tablets with ancient cuneiform writing inscribed over 4,700 years ago.
Then, aside from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Beatty acquired the world’s largest and finest collection of Islamic Qur’ans (Korans), manuscripts and scrolls. These have become a hugely appreciated mine for research and admiration by Islamic and other scholars. Japanese woodblock prints are considered to be among the finest known. One exhibit has a complete samurai uniform with accompanying weapons. One will also be impressed with Chinese jade books, miniature paintings from the courts of India’s Mughal emperors, Chinese snuff boxes, illuminated Persian manuscripts, European medieval and renaissance manuscripts and other objets d’art from across Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. There are also displays on the invention of paper, binding of books & the art of engraving.
One complete floor, The Sacred Traditions Gallery is dedicated to the great religions of the world and outstanding exhibits include artefacts connected to Christianity, Islam and Buddhism with smaller displays on Confucianism, Daoism, Sikhism, Judaism and Jainism.
Perhaps the Christian legacies are among the most treasured of the collections. Beatty purchased some remarkable papyri documents of the Old Testament and his examples of New Testament papyri are among the world’s oldest remaining fragments of the Gospels. Dating from the second to the fourth centuries, these have provided scholars with irrefutable proof of the availability to early Christians of their written genesis. What is even more extraordinary is that Beatty had the foresight to purchase these proffered cardboard boxes full of papyri before their dealers could break them up into separate but valuable items to an emerging generation of less astute, public-minded collectors. We can never be grateful enough to this remarkable man.
A visit to the Chester Beatty Library, a museum that in other circumstances would be the pride of London or Berlin or New York, is nearly enough reason on its own to visit Dublin. For further information see www.cbl.ie.
By Pat Liddy