Breaking the glass ceiling of the National Gallery

Ella Sloane sits down with Dr Caroline Campbell, the National Gallery of Ireland’s first ever female director

In November 2022, Dr Caroline Campbell made history when she was appointed as the National Gallery of Ireland’s first ever female director. Just over a year later, I joined Campbell in the gallery’s iconic courtyard to reflect on her personal journey: from finding a safe haven in her adolescence within these walls as a Belfast-native growing up at the height of the Troubles, to becoming a trail-blazing, internationally renowned art curator taking the reins. Bathed in sunlight and the familiar ambient chatter of tourists, I got to know the woman at the helm of this long-standing institution and much-beloved feature of Dublin’s cultural landscape.

As a young girl, Campbell had fond memories of day trips down from Belfast to Dublin. She described her first visit to the National Gallery of Ireland as a formative moment, one which seems to have helped shape the strong sense of public purpose that is the main motivating factor in her role as director today. “This was one of the places that really made me begin looking at art and loving art”, she said wistfully, recalling her first encounter with the gallery – a welcome break from dress-hunting for her school formal. 

Visiting the gallery, for Campbell, acted as a form of escapism at a time when security and tensions were extremely heightened in Northern Ireland, and it was almost inconceivable to her teenage self that she could freely enter such a public space without being stopped and searched: “When I came here first with my mum when I was sixteen, my overriding impression was: ‘Why is nobody asking me to show anything or to say who I am?’” 

“I always felt from my very earliest visit here that this was a very welcoming place. So when the job came up, I thought ‘My goodness, I have to give this a go!’” The influence of this experience clearly stuck with Campbell for years to come, helping to form her aspirations as director today: “I want this gallery to still be a place that’s welcoming and open, where a teenager can walk in and just think ‘Yeah, that’s a place for me’”, she added. 

Taking a tour around the gallery, Campbell shows me some of the pieces her mother introduced her to on that very first visit; Sir John Lavery’s The Artist’s Studio remains a firm favourite. This year is a momentous occasion for the National Gallery of Ireland, which is celebrating not one, but two, significant anniversaries. January 30 marked the 160th anniversary of the gallery’s official opening, which was commemorated through a series of special tours and talks. On August 10, it will be 170 years since the gallery’s establishment under the National Gallery of Ireland Act 1854. 

“What I loved about museums then and what I love about museums now is that everything is for a public purpose and for a public goal. You’re never in an ivory tower – if you are in an ivory tower, you should get out.”

Expanding on her ideals, Campbell emphasised the importance of fostering an accessible space for the gallery’s public collection. “What I loved about museums then and what I love about museums now is that everything is for a public purpose and for a public goal. You’re never in an ivory tower – if you are in an ivory tower, you should get out.” This, she says, is “the thing that really excites me about working in this area and has done” since she first began to work in museums and galleries over 20 years ago.

It is reassuring to know that, like most eighteen year olds, Campbell wasn’t sure what direction she would take in life. At that time, a career in politics or public service was on the cards for her. It was only whilst completing a “stage”, or traineeship, with the European Commission in Brussels that Campbell truly first got a glimpse into her future, but not in the ways she expected. “I came to the end of it and I thought, I have really enjoyed this but the thing I’ve really most enjoyed has been visiting museums”, she said, her face lighting up. Campbell described spending every free moment she could get “travelling around Northern Europe, visiting museums.”

On returning from the continent, Campbell expressed her newfound desire to study art history to her parents – who were quite taken aback. She reenacted the conversation: “Honestly, why on earth do you want to do that?” they asked incredulously. Campbell’s parents’ main concerns about pursuing a career in the art world were two-fold: firstly, art history had, and still has to an extent, a reputation for being a very elite subject; and secondly, would their daughter ever be able to find a job? Campbell’s decision to pivot towards art history came as no surprise to her tutors at Oxford, where she was completing her undergraduate degree in history: “We could have told you this two years ago!”

After graduating from Oxford, Campbell obtained an MA and a PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, gaining some work experience by volunteering there alongside her studies, as well as on her old turf at the Ashmolean in Oxford and Belfast’s Ulster Museum. Despite being highly qualified, Campbell’s career journey was by no means smooth sailing; she spoke candidly about facing multiple rejections when job searching after college, even considering abandoning her dream job in favour of a more stable career in law at one point. Eventually she landed her first museum job in the prints and drawings study room at the Ashmolean, where she had been volunteering. As a very public-facing role, this solidified Campbell’s keen interest in “the idea of art for public purpose”.

Campbell went on to enjoy great success as a curator, working for her other alma mater, The Courtauld, as well as the National Gallery in London, where she held the position of Director of Collections and Research prior to her appointment as director of the National Gallery of Ireland. Speaking of how it felt to become the first female director of the gallery, she said the feeling was one of astonishment “to have this opportunity to lead a gallery that has meant an awful lot to me over the course of my life.” 

“Campbell comes from ‘a family of incredibly strong female role models’ who constantly inspired her to persevere and believe in her own abilities.”

“I feel there’s a real onus on me to really, really succeed and do the best that I possibly can”, she continued, telling me that she comes from “a family of incredibly strong female role models” who constantly inspired her to persevere and believe in her own abilities.

As we reached the end of our tour around the gallery, I wondered if Campbell had any words of welcome and wisdom to impart on students hoping to visit the gallery for the first time. Her main piece of advice is that “you don’t need to look at everything at one moment”. If you’re a first-time visitor, why not take a leaf out of the director’s book and focus on appreciating a few pieces at a time – as she does each morning – returning when you please to view a different aspect of the collection. After 160 years the gallery remains as public a space as ever and can look forward to welcoming new visitors for many generations to come. Who knows, maybe one of the gallery’s future directors has just walked through its doors.

Ella Sloane

Ella Sloane is the current Assistant Editor of Trinity News and a Senior Sophister student of English Studies. She previously served as Life Editor and Student Living Editor.