Dr Jill Cousins’ recent appointment to the Hunt was seen as a major coup.
IT was the Picasso sketch in a drawer that convinced the new director and chief executive of the Hunt Museum to come to Limerick rather than Southeast Asia.
Dr Jill Cousins has spent the last 14 years building up the Europeana Foundation, Europe’s digital library, museum, gallery and archive, an impressive project she built from a small team of four to a operational service with 62 people spanning four offices.
She has worked with prestigious institutes across Europe including the British Library, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision and the Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid, to name but a few.
Brought up in Wales and based primarily in The Hague for most of her professional life, she is new to Limerick and was just settling into her fifth week when the Limerick Leader caught up with her.
In November, when the time came to choose between accepting a role at the Hunt and another job offer in Asia, she decided to visit the Hunt incognito, she explains.
“I thought ‘Do I pick that? It is quite interesting but it’s the same as what I’ve done, just in a different area’ or I thought shall I do something that’s really different which is what Limerick is. So I thought, I’ll come and find out,” Dr Cousins explains.
On her visit, she discovered a “treasure trove”.
“I was shown around by one of the docents, they had no idea that I was up for the job, and they opened the drawers upstairs and they just had a Picasso drawing of a horse in one of the drawers which just made me think ‘My God, this is stuff that’s hidden!’ Yet it is so fascinating that it is there. And of course, the Sean Keatings and the Yeats. I think the original motivation would have very much been the paintings.
“I also wanted to get back to the thing I really like which is the entrepreneurial, the smaller, the start-up. I like growing them but I actually like the way you can make a difference and actually see the results of what you do.”
Dr Cousins sees “huge amounts” of potential in the Hunt, she adds. “That’s not down to me, that’s down to what the Hunt has already done. I think its been punching above its weight.
“It is being talked about in the way you’d like a museum to be talked about. And I think the job that Naomi (O’Nolan) has done over the last year and a half, two years has been phenomenal.”
In her new role, Dr Cousins would very much like to see the Hunt play a part in adapting a national digital strategy for culture.
“Most of my working life has been around making things work online, publishing online,” she explains.
“I think we can take advantage of the fact that Ireland needs a digital strategy. From what I understand, is that there has been several attempts at a digital strategy. I think that we can push that forward.”
In her experience, Dr Cousins has seen museums across Europe gain new audiences through successful digital strategies, she explains.
“You don’t lose an audience, you gain an audience and that seems to be the case everywhere. I think that’s what we should be doing here, as a way of putting Limerick on the tourist trail.”
Youth mental health is one area she’d like to see the museum exploring, she explains.
“I think you should give more than you get, in life and in everything. I think the museum can give to the community a lot, from that connection that’s between the museum and the community. Whether that’s through education, which I think they’ve made great starts through, or through programmes like the Art in Conversation dementia programme, or whether its with mental health.
“Just this afternoon, I was thinking how do we connect into this whole area where more and more younger people seem to be suffering from mental health issues, like depression and anorexia, and what is it that you as a museum could do to provide a community or the opportunity to enable them to feel that they are part of something?
“I don’t have the answer but I do think we have a role to play here.”
Culturally, Limerick has the same kind of potential as places like Hull, Glasgow, Hamburg, and Sienna, Dr Cousins argues.
“Places where they’ve used culture as the basis of growing themselves, as a new way of looking at yourself and a new way of creating jobs - it brings in new ways of looking at things, it inspires people who live here to stay here or for people to come back.
“You’re creating an environment that people want to be in and I do think Limerick has those parallels.”