When Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Conn., opened to the public on October 11, Grace Brady was thrilled with the turnout: more than 100 people.
"It was amazing," she said. "I didn't know what to expect."
Ms. Brady, who had worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than 20 years, was recently named the new museum's executive director.
The only one of its kind, the hunger museum holds the world's largest collection of Irish art, artifacts, and printed materials relating to the starvation that occurred throughout Ireland from 1845 to 1852 and the resulting waves of emigration from that country.
Pieces include a small version of John Behan's bronze sculpture "Famine Ship," which depicts the bodies of starved passengers suspended between the vessel's masts, and a small selection from the university's collection of British Parliamentary Papers on 19th-century Ireland.
The purpose of the museum held a personal connection for her because of her Irish heritage, she says. "I knew it would be a good challenge for me, working at a start-up, small museum with such a specified mission."
The collection began because of the interest of Quinnipiac's president, John L. Lahey, and a donation by alumnus Murray Lender, a former chief executive of a bagel company, and his brother, Marvin. Their gift supported the creation of the Lender Family Special Collection Room in the Arnold Bernhard Library, which holds Irish art, research, and educational materials. Murray Lender died this year, but the Lender collection continues to grow. The university realized it needed more space to display the valuable art and other pieces, and so created the museum, which now averages about 30 to 40 visitors a day.
Since starting at the museum, Ms. Brady has been busy inventorying material, developing a lecture series, reaching out to local high schools for visits, and getting the word out locally, nationally, and internationally.
Several challenges she foresees include continuing to expand the collection and maintaining a strong turnout. Hamden is a city of only about 60,000 people, but it lies between Boston and New York City, both of which house strong Irish communities.
"I think it will become a destination for some people," she said, "especially from the Irish community in Ireland—we've gotten great press over there."
The key thing, Ms. Brady says, is to keep the institution vibrant and meaningful. "It has a dual mission: to educate about the Great Hunger but also promote exceptional Irish art," she said.
The topic should be of interest to more than just Irish-Americans, she says. "It's a really human story. And today, there's still hunger in the world. It's a relevant story that crosses ethnicities and religions."