In Person: Patrick Greene, chief executive, Epic
The entrance has just opened for the first time in four months - and Patrick Greene beams a smile of relief as a mother and two children walk through the door to buy tickets.
"My fear for weeks has been that we would open the doors and nobody comes," says Greene, CEO of Epic, the Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin's Docklands. "There was every prospect of opening up and no one turning up - a party with no guests."
It's a bit odd to hear this from the director of what is the World Travel Awards' reigning title holder as 'Europe's Leading Tourist Attraction'. The museum, which explores the impact that Irish emigration has made on the world, beat the Acropolis, Colosseum and Eiffel Tower for the honour.
But these are odd days in Ireland - a nation without overseas tourists.
Epic, a €15m digital interactive museum opened in 2016 by former Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell, is among scores of tourist attractions that opened their doors on Monday for the first time since March. Most heavily rely on strong flows of visitors from Britain, continental Europe and North America.
In Epic's case, 2020 was supposed to be the year when it finally broke even after four years of visitor growth but net losses. Last year's 256,000 visitors paid somewhere between €8 and €16.50 per visit. Traffic this year was projected to top 300,000, three-quarters from overseas - until Covid-19 turned off the tap of tourism.
"If you were standing here before this happened, we would already have a queue of Americans right there," he says, gesturing across the Epic lobby in the landmark CHQ Building to where tour buses normally disgorge customers. Those buses aren't even operating currently because of the lack of potential passengers.
Epic, like visitor attractions nationwide, is banking on building the flow of domestic customers to minimise losses until air links start to deliver tourists again. For now, 55 full-time staff remain on the State's Covid-19 pay subsidy. But he's unsure what may happen in September if that subsidy isn't extended beyond its current end-of-August cutoff.
"Every tourist attraction is asking the same question. It's a major question mark over the future," Greene says.
"But I'm a born optimist, I think we will be fine. We will build our visitation and, when things improve overseas, we can welcome people back. All the research by Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland shows there's a huge market of people who want to come here. That buoys my optimism."
That optimism is combined with an archaeologist's patience for discovery - qualities honed since his Devon childhood.
His Co Clare-born father, John, had emigrated to England in the 1930s to work as a psychiatric nurse and, when war came, joined the navy. While ashore in Chatham Dockyards in Kent, he attended a night course taught by an Imperial College London-educated biologist named Betty. After three years of wartime separation, John and Betty wed. Two sons followed, Patrick and Kevin. Both became archaeologists.
"I got involved in archaeology simply by going on to Dartmoor and down to the coast and finding interesting things," Patrick Greene says.
Although he studied food science at Leeds University, Greene joined archaeological digs during school holidays.
"Soon I was given positions of responsibility on the digs. By the time I left university I'd become absolutely enthralled by archaeology," he recalls.
A University of Southampton archaeologist made Greene his deputy, sending him on digs including to Portchester Castle, the Roman fort at the head of Portsmouth Harbour.
In 1971, aged 25, he received a six-month contract from a state developer looking to build a New Town in Runcorn, southwest of Liverpool. The site included a crumbling structure hidden by trees and ferns.
"I went for six months and stayed for 12 years," he says with a laugh. "There was one completely derelict building surrounded by a jungle of vegetation. When you got inside the building, you discovered it was medieval, a 12th century priory. It had been incorporated after the dissolutions of the monasteries into a Tudor house, then a Georgian house."
He led a team in resurrecting Norton Priory, a monastery founded in 1134 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536. Discoveries filled a museum that opened on the site in 1982.
His achievements gained the attention of the nearby Manchester council, which was opposing British Rail plans to bulldoze a key but neglected cornerstone of its industrial history. The council appointed him to develop of what would become the city's Museum of Science and Industry.
"At first sight it was not very promising, a group of derelict buildings. But as soon as you scraped below the surface, they were fascinating - because this was the world's oldest railway station," he says.
The site was the terminus for the world's first commercial railway opened in 1830, delivering cotton from Liverpool's docks to Manchester's textile mills. The very first building completed on the site was a cotton warehouse that today forms the heart of the sprawling museum complex.
"It was very dangerous. The beams going into the walls were rotten, and it would be easy to fall through the floor. So we set about restoring it very carefully to preserve as much as possible of the original fabric of the building.
"It's timber on the inside and brick on the outside. When you're inside, it feels as though you're on board a ship, because of all the timber. I just love it. It's a magnificent building."
Greene spent 19 years in Manchester as museum director, overseeing more than €150m in investment and expansion to cover every element of the city's industrial and engineering heritage.
Then, in 2002, a phone call came from Australia. Recently opened Melbourne Museum was facing low attendance and lacklustre content. It was supposed to be the centrepiece of Museums Victoria, a family of attractions including an Immigration Museum in Melbourne's former Custom House; a Scienceworks museum and planetarium, and an Aboriginal Culture Centre.
"My task was specifically set by the government to turn it round and make a success of it," says Greene, who recalls his discovery of "a gaping hole" in finances that risked bankruptcy within the year.
As CEO of Museums Victoria for 15 years, he oversaw 400 staff and two million annual visitors while driving revenue above €40m a year, always ending the year in surplus.
"The museum had missed the trick, really," he recalls. "Australia and Victoria have fascinating histories and the indigenous story is amazing. We needed to bring all this together, plus the scientific expertise within the museum doing ground-breaking research. We put this all together and made something special."
Greene led exhibitions on contemporary issues, including a First Peoples exhibition with stories of the indigenous experience of colonialism and marginalisation.
When the Black Saturday bushfires ravaged Victoria in 2009, the museum "worked with communities to rescue what we could of cultural value, especially to rescue their stories of this disaster".
"There was a strong feeling in the communities: don't let this be forgotten. We built exhibitions around that," he says. "Museums can play an important role in helping communities understand their roots, but also the challenges they face and the magnificent things they can create."
Once Isdell bought the CHQ Building in Dublin and put his stepbrother and entrepreneur Mervyn Greene in charge of developing it and Epic, they started picking the brains of Patrick Greene from 17,200km away, partly because of his oversight of Australia's Immigration Museum - the flip side of the story Epic was starting to tell.
Epic stands for 'every person is connected'. That emigrant's adage is demonstrated well by Mervyn and Patrick Greene - cousins with links back to that same Clare farm.
In the Epic CEO's chair since September, Patrick Greene feels liberated by Epic's focus on digital interactive displays, which tell stories of Irish triumph and tragedy spanning centuries and the globe.
"We had 17 million objects in the museum I ran in Melbourne. This is a museum of ideas and of stories. It doesn't have physical objects," he says.
"We want to make interactive content with such richness and depth that you could visit many times and you still will find more stories."
Epic's next plans include a new gallery due to open in December focusing on how technology has transformed emigration. It's being made possible by a €200,000 grant from Fáilte Ireland.
Noting the replica Famine ship Jeanie Johnston docked next door on the Liffey, Greene says: "If you got on that ship in the 1850s, and went to Canada or the United States, you wouldn't be coming back. Whereas when the Celtic Tiger died, the Irish again emigrated in their tens of thousands. But unlike in the 19th century, many have come back again. Migration is far more flexible. That coming and going will be the theme of the new gallery."
For now, Epic's goal is to woo as many domestic visitors as possible under strict social distancing and hygiene rules.
This means a maximum 15 visitors in 15-minute blocks, or 420 visitors in a seven-hour day. They're given their own stylus pens to operate touch-screens throughout the museum's 20 exhibition rooms.
So far, with 87 visitors the first day, social distancing has hardly been an issue.
He's confident they can stay open - unless the pandemic forces another national lockdown.
"You can't take anything for granted. Who knows what the trajectory of the disease is going to be. We all hope that Ireland will eliminate it. It would be really dreadful if we found ourselves having to close again and lock down. That would be disastrous, quite frankly."
When asked to identify his fondest accomplishment, the 73-year-old Greene says he can't pick one from a 50-year career involving four distinct chapters.
He simply describes the good feeling each time he walks through any of the museums he helped shape at Norton Priory in Cheshire, Manchester, Melbourne and Dublin.
"There's lots of jobs where nobody sees what you've done, where your work is not tangibly appreciated," he says. "In a museum, you can see people all the time taking pleasure in what you've created. That gives me a heck of a kick."