The Hunt Museum is a museum in the city of Limerick. Holding a personal collection donated by the Hunt family, it was originally situated in the University of Limerick, before being moved to its present location in 1997. It can now be visited in the old custom house, an historic 18th century building by the River Shannon in Rutland Street, in central Limerick. The east end of Limerick's quays began at this area of the river, recently made home to a marina.
As antique dealers and advisors to collectors John and Gertrude Hunt built a thriving business and also began to acquire pieces that reflected their own interests and curiosity rather than for commercial purposes. During the latter stages of John's life, they became increasingly aware of the scale of their collection and wished that it would remain intact. They began to search for a permanent home for their collection. Fortunately they met Professor Patrick Doran of the National Institute of Higher Education (now University of Limerick) and Dr Edward Walsh, the Institute's President, who agreed to house a substantial part of the collection on a temporary basis. The Hunt Museum opened there in 1978 in an exhibition room with the display designed by architect Arthur Gibney.
During this period the Irish Government had declined the offer of the Hunt's collection, so the requirement to find a suitable home and owner to take responsibility for the artifacts became more urgent. The Hunt Museums Trust was established in 1974 to hold the Collection and the property at Craggaunowen (a 16th-century four-storey tower house, typical of late medieval Ireland, purchased and restored by John and Gertrude Hunt) in trust on behalf of the people of Ireland. The trust established The Hunt Museum Ltd. whose sole purpose was the establishment of a permanent home for the museum. Under the chairmanship of Dr Tony Ryan, this company provided the necessary energy to create the museum as we see it today. A public private partnership involving the University of Limerick, Shannon Development, Limerick Corporation and the Department of Arts, Heritage, the Gaeltacht and the Islands, linked with local business interests secured the historic 18th-century former Customs House in Limerick city together with the funds to restore and renovate the building to international museum standards. The museum was officially opened by An Taoiseach John Bruton on 14 February 1997. It was a moment of great celebration for all concerned but, unfortunately, neither John nor Gertrude Hunt had lived to realise their dream. The museum stands as a monument to their enthusiasm, curiosity and generosity.
The Customs House is regarded as the most distinguished 18th century building in Limerick. It is an elegant Palladian-style building designed by the Italian architect, Davis Ducart, in 1765. It was the administrative centre for the Revenue Commissioners (including Customs and Excise) in Limerick and it was also the home of the Customs Collector in the eighteenth century. In the 1840s with the introduction of a new postal system a Penny Post Office was opened in the Customs House.
The Office of Public Works undertook the major restoration and refurbishment of the building completing it in 1996. The Customs House opened as The Hunt Museum on 14 February 1997. The anniversary of the opening of The Hunt Museum is celebrated annually as 'Open Day' with free admission, talks, tours, workshops and other activities.
The Hunt Museum holds about 2000 different artifacts, both from Ireland and abroad. The oldest pieces are from stone-age Ireland and ancient Egypt. The collection includes the Antrim Cross (a 9th century bronze and enamel cross), dresses by Irish designer Sybil Connolly, drawings by Picasso and a bronze horse once thought to be a design by Leonardo da Vinci for a large monument. The Museum's most significant collection is its Irish medieval collection which includes the fifteenth century O'Dea Mitre and Crozier, on loan from the Roman Catholic diocese of Limerick.
In December 2003, the Simon Wiesenthal Center alleged in a letter to President Mary McAleese that the museum's collection contained items looted by the Nazis during the Second World War, although the letter did not refer to any specific items in the collection. The museum has denied the claims.
An inquiry led by former Supreme Court judge Donal Barrington was set up by the museum, but its members resigned in February 2005, saying that the museum's funding made an independent inquiry impossible, and requesting a more appropriate inquiry be created. The Department of Arts then provided €150,000 in funding for a second inquiry led by former civil servant Seán Cromien, under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy. The second inquiry was due to submit an interim report to the Royal Irish Academy in November 2005. This was submitted in February 2006. In October 2005, the museum published a catalogue of its exhibits on the internet, providing full details of all the items in its collection. In June 2006, the inquiry submitted the final report, which was published on the Academy's website.
Also in June 2006, a one-day conference took place on the theme of Contested Cultural Property and Museums: The Case of the Hunt Museum. At this conference, a message was conveyed from Shimon Samuels, who had sent the original letter to Mary McAleese questioning why he had not been invited to the seminar. Later, the terms of reference of the Hunt Museum Evaluation Group were questioned, the Simon Wiesenthal Center believing that more emphasis should have been placed on investigating the purported Nazi links of the Hunt family and the Hunt Museum Evaluation Group believing that this lay beyond their terms of reference, which were to do with provenance research. The Royal Irish Academy issued a press release responding to the statement of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
A 2007 report from American expert Lynn Nicholas, published by the Royal Irish Academy following three years of investigation, called the Wiesenthal Center's allegations "unprofessional in the extreme."
Nicholas found that the Wiesenthal Center had misidentified names in the letters.
"The name used, four times in one letter, is Buhl, not Buhrle, and the individual described, an unreliable dealer who sells forgeries, certainly bears no resemblance to the extremely rich collector and armaments manufacturer Emil Buhrle," the report said.