The author would like to thank Trevor Parkhill, Keeper of History at the Ulster Museum, for his kind reading of the final version of this article. All remaining mistakes are mine.
1Historians don’t make easy tourists, as visiting any monument, site or museum can be a source of joy or frustration. Puzzlement, in this case, led to casting a closer look at the way two Northern Irish state museums choose to represent history in their exhibition spaces.
2It is common knowledge that Northern Ireland is a divided society and that its divisions have been fuelled by a long history of conflict. It is usually traced back to the colonisation of Ulster by English and Scottish Protestant settlers in the early 17th century, whether in the state-sponsored plantation or in other private schemes. The Catholic rising of 1641 was the first major clash in the history of the cohabitation between the settler and native populations, with an enduring impact on the memory and identity of both communities. Later, at the end of the 18th century, Ulster was where both the Society of United Irishmen (1791, Belfast) and the Orange Order (1795, co. Armagh) were created, thereby durably putting the province on the sectarian divide map. Later still, Donegal was the birthplace of the Home Rule Association (1870), which in turn contributed to formalising the Ulster unionist movement at the turn of the 20th century. In 1922, partition was introduced in Ireland because of the impossibility of imposing Home Rule on the whole of the island. More recent years have been dominated by thirty years of sectarian conflict, called the “Troubles”, officially from 1968 to the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Twelve years later, Northern Ireland is a post-conflict society and the peace process is ongoing or over, depending on whether one considers the current situation to be transitional or satisfactory. Yet the divisions in society remain, exemplified by peacelines in Belfast or segregated education.
- 1 Elizabeth Crooke, “Confronting a Troubled History: which past in Northern Ireland’s museums?”, Int (...)
3Because of its ongoing legacy, the island’s troubled history is most vividly remembered in Northern Ireland, often in a contentious way. Diverging interpretations of the defining historical moments outlined above form the basis of two opposed ethno-politico-religious traditions, each with their own version of the past. The absence of a common historical account and the heavy political charge of any attempt at historical interpretation have made it difficult for museums to deal with Northern Ireland’s past. A general avoidance of difficult issues has been observed, particularly in state museums, and explained by the absence of historiographical consensus and the divisive potential of any exploration of history in a society in conflict1.
4This paper looks at what story two state-sponsored museums have chosen to tell about Northern Irish history. It addresses the ideological outlook behind the fluctuating presentations of history and reflects on the role of museums as mediators between communities in a post conflict, yet still divided Northern Irish society. Each case study considers the history of the museum and its approach to history, describes the current exhibition and assesses its impact on visitors.
5The Ulster Folk Museum was created by an Act of the Stormont Parliament in 1958. It was opened in 1965 on the grounds surrounding Cultra Manor, 7 miles east of Belfast, and became the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in 1967. Its creation was the result of intense lobbying on the part of folklife enthusiasts from the 1930s, whose project eventually received formal political support in the 1950s.
- 2 Gwyneth Evans, “Review of Emir Estyn Evans and Northern Ireland: The Archaeology and Geography of (...)
- 3 See for instance Emir Estyn Evans, Irish Heritage: the Landscape and the People and their Work, 19 (...)
- 4 Quoted in Megan McManus, “Some Notions of Folklore, History and Museum Interpretation: A Time for (...)
6The origin of the project can be traced to changes in the late 1920s in the academic and political fields. The main factor was the development in academia of geography as a separate social science, distinct in particular from history. Estyn Evans, Queen’s University’s first lecturer in geography, was appointed in 1928 with the mission to establish a new department of geography, the third one in the British Isles after Liverpool and Aberystwyth2. As a graduate of Geography and Anthropology, Evans introduced an innovative approach to humanities at Queen’s, focusing on people whereas historians largely focused on political and constitutional history. In an Irish context, this meant the political, economic and religious hardships of Anglo-Irish relations, therefore rather divisive material. On the contrary, through field observations and excavations in Ulster, Evans’s own agenda was to find the “common ground” in ways of life and traditions that all the peoples of Ireland could share3. One aspect of the common ground was Ireland’s rurality. To Evans, Ireland was an exception in Western Europe for it “has preserved to a remarkable degree the customs and social habits of the pre-industrial phase of western civilisation”4. Evans’s view of Ireland as essentially a peasant society informed the project for a Folk Museum which would serve to document and cherish Ireland’s traditional rural way of life as well as the relation between land and people. It would also allow for further research in the field.
- 5 The current Ulster Museum.
- 6 G. B. Thompson, “The Road to Ballycultra”, in Trefor M. Owen, From Corrib to Cultra. Folklife Essa (...)
7The development of human geography as a new field of interest was not lost on the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, which had long wanted to diversify from its two original domains, natural history and art. In 1929, the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery opened a new building in Botanic Gardens, close to Queen’s university5. With this expansion went a new policy, which marked out ethnology as a new special field to develop.6 Collaboration between the Museum and the University was a logical consequence, thereby giving Evans’s project a place where to exist.
- 7 The idea was similar but the reasoning was different and indeed Evans rejected the orthodox nation (...)
- 8 Mícheál Briody, “Keepers of the Folklore”, Irish Times, 9 Feb. 2008. Retrieved Oct 19, 2010.
- 9 G. B. Thompson, “The Road to Ballycultra”, in Trefor M. Owen, Trefor M. Owen, From Corrib to Cultr (...)
- 10 The Committee of Ulster Folklife and Traditions launched the journal Ulster Folk Life and later be (...)
- 11 Ulster Folk Museum, Report of the Folk Museum Committee. Presented to Parliament by Command of His (...)
8Similar interests in folklife studies south of the border eventually stirred political support for the project. The idea of Ireland as an essentially peasant society was also taken up in the Free State and indeed became one of the core ideas on which the nation and state were built7. In 1935, the Irish Folklore Commission was created and “in its heyday (…) was considered one of the foremost folklore institutions in the world”8. In the late 1930s, in order to keep up with the pace set in the South, Evans and his friends requested the support of the Northern Irish government to promote Folk Studies at Queen’s University and to use part of the Botanic site of the Belfast museum as storage facilities. Official support was granted in 1939, but no funds followed. During the war, the plan took a new dimension thanks to Sidney Stendall, curator of the Belfast museum, with the first mention of the creation of a separate open-air Folk Museum, after the late 19th-century Scandinavian fashion9. The campaign picked up stamina in the 1950s with the creation of a Committee of Ulster Folklife and Traditions10. The Committee used the argument of the impending opening of a similar museum in what is now the Republic of Ireland to hasten political endorsement in Northern Ireland, on the grounds that “the establishment of a Folk Museum in the Irish Republic would tend to accelerate the process by which objects of great interest and significance to all those who value the past of Ulster pass into the ownership of people and institutions outside Northern Ireland”11. The Northern Irish Government was not long in granting support to the project, not to fall out of step with developments in the South, and mainly for fear of Ulster being included in the Southern project, thereby losing its specificity.
- 12 Cahir Healy (South Fermanagh) and Joseph Francis Stewart (East Tyrone), Stormont papers, Volume 42 (...)
9In the space of about twenty years therefore, what had started off as a local idea—the addition of a new branch to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery—had taken a “national” dimension, and sites were competing throughout Northern Ireland to host the project. The museum was created as a National Institution by Act of Parliament in 1958. The Stormont papers show there was a consensus on the Bill across the political board. Yet the Nationalist MPs must have been disappointed with the final result as what they had called for was a place where the “history of the province or the country as a whole” would be made accessible to all12.
- 13 Ulster Folk Museum, Report of the Folk Museum Committee. Presented to Parliament by Command of His (...)
10The museum opened in 1965 along the principles defined in the report of the Committee of Ulster Folklife: “the museum would consist of buildings, implements and other articles which have survived from the past, displayed in a natural setting and under living and working conditions. Buildings of traditional type would be rebuilt or copied on the chosen site, and would, as far as possible, be put to their original purpose. Thus a water-mill would be shown at work, while practising rural craftsmen would demonstrate their crafts in the type of building appropriate to them”13. The aim of the museum is to illustrate life in Ulster at the turn of the twentieth century, essentially through habitat and material culture displayed in an “authentic” way. The Folk part of the museum—the Transport section will not be dealt with in this paper—is currently made up of two distinct parts: the museum galleries and the open-air museum. The galleries host traditional permanent and temporary exhibitions. The two permanent exhibitions—“Food and Farming” and “Meet the Victorians”—provide technological and historical background to the rest of the museum. They are located near the entrance to the park and can easily be overlooked by visitors. Indeed, the main part of the grounds is taken up by the open-air museum, divided into Town and Rural Areas. The Town area is a fictive typical Ulster town, called Ballycultra, complete with shops, a bank, a picture house, post-office, police-station, schools, craftsmen’s workshops and places of worship, which represents life in Ulster at the turn of the twentieth century. Each building was collected in various parts of the nine counties of Ulster and rebuilt on the grounds, brick by brick. The variety of architectural and occupational heritage of the province is thus displayed. For instance, small working-class terraced houses from near Sandy Row in Belfast dating from the beginning of the 19th century were rebuilt not far from the Old Rectory, dating from 1717 and coming from rural Antrim. Beside the Town Area, the Rural Area offers a great walk through fields and displays various farms, a flax mill, a spade mill, another school, an Orange lodge, etc. As announced in the 1954 description of the project, members of staff are present in most shops, houses or buildings. They are dressed in period costume and happy to re-enact traditional activities, such as basket-weaving, printing, shovel-making, etc.
11One of the merits of the museum has certainly been its success in preserving buildings that would have been demolished had they not been transferred to Cultra. A display sign for each building tells about its characteristics, original location and former dwellers when they are known. What is noticeable, however, is the little information given about the historical context of the period supposedly recreated in the museum. Because the turn of the 20th century saw important historical and political developments that undoubtedly informed a large part of people’s everyday life, the visitor might expect to find references to how communities interacted during events such as the Land War or Home Rule as they walk around the park. Yet very few are to be found in the signs telling about the history of the buildings.
- 14 Display sign in the Ballyverdaugh National School in the Town Area.
- 15 Display sign in the Ballydown National School in the Rural Area.
12One example is that of the national school system. There are two schools in the park, one in the town area, one in the rural area. The display signs about the buildings tell the visitor about the schoolmistress in one case, and about the school’s principal in the other. The education system is briefly described in the following terms on either sign: “The National School System was established in 1831 to provide education for all children between the ages of 6 and 12 years. The schools provided an excellent basic education, but perhaps their greatest achievement was the significant increase in literacy during the 19th century”14 and “The National School system was established in 1831 with the joint aims of making literate the mass of the population and of educating together children of all religious denominations”15 . The description is very neutral and stresses literacy as one of the positive aspects of the system in place. Yet another object may catch the visitor’s eye as he/she sits on one of the classroom benches in the Ballyverdaugh School. The following double-sided sign hangs on the wall:
13On one side is written: “RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION To be hung up in a conspicuous place in the SCHOOL ROOM, only during the time or times devoted to Religious Instruction”
14On the other: “ SECULAR INSTRUCTION To be hung up in a conspicuous place in the SCHOOL ROOM, only during the time or times devoted to Secular Instruction”
15Such signs were to be used by the teacher to signal the beginning and end of the religious education lesson, yet nothing is said about the religious education mission in the National Schools system. Religious and non-religious educations were separated and religious education could be provided by various local clergymen. Parents could remove their children from religious education periods if they so wished, and state funding could be withdrawn from schools that refused to abide by the rule. By the late 19th century, the situation de facto was that schools were denominational, as churches took over specific schools according to the community where they were set and parents chose to send their children to the schools where the majority of pupils were of their own denomination. That religion has been a divisive element in the history of the province is common knowledge. Visitors from Ireland or from abroad may expect to find a reference to it in a Folk museum. Yet none is to be found. In the same way, details are given about the three churches in the park—Church of Ireland, Catholic, Presbyterian—yet nothing is said of the relations that existed between the congregations.
16Interestingly, the place where history is referred to most is certainly the police station, which hosts an exhibition on Police Forces from the 19th century to the present. The evolution of the name of the Police Force in Ireland and Ulster, from the Irish Constabulary to the Ulster Constabulary and now the PSNI, obviously refers to political and constitutional changes that shaped the life of people and their relations to the police. The exhibition does not play down community divisions, with panels on recruitment in the police service and on the police and the Troubles. Interestingly, the only mentions of the Land War and the Home Rule movement are to be found under the heading “civil unrest”. It means that these events, which certainly informed the lives of the people portrayed in Ballycultra, are only presented as disrupting the maintaining of order in the country. Moreover, if visitors skip the exhibition on the police, they will read nothing at all about the political circumstances of the time which the museum invites them to step back to.
- 16 Trefor M. Owen, “The Role of a Folk museum”, in Alan Gailey (ed.), The Use of Tradition. Essays pr (...)
- 17 J. Geraint Jenkins, “The Use of Artefacts and Folk Art in the Folk Museum”, in Richard M. Dorson ( (...)
- 18 G. B. Thompson, The Ulster Folk Museum. Its proposed function and purpose, as indicated by existin (...)
- 19 Anthony Buckley and Mary Kenney, “Cultural heritage in an Oasis of Calm: divided identities in a m (...)
- 20 Alan Gailey, “Conflict-resolution in Northern Ireland: the role of a folk museum”, Museum 44.3 (19 (...)
- 21 For the successive strategies used for the presentation of culture and their adaptation in the Uls (...)
17Avoidance to address issues of political history can leave the visitor with a strange impression. The reconstitution of traditional habitat, activities and folk life may be successful, but the story told is not grounded in the complexity of history. The charge of “cleaned-up” history is often levelled at folk museums, and the Ulster Folk Museum is no exception. Yet museum curators will justify themselves by pointing to the impossibility of fully recreating the past16. Avoiding explicit contextualisation is even presented by some as a rule to guarantee the authenticity of the museum experience, as the visitor must believe in the illusion that he/she has stepped back in time17. More pragmatic but no less ideological considerations may have been at stake too in the divided Northern Irish context. Evans’s idea of looking for “the common ground”, to be found in agriculture, crafts or textiles, and displayed as such, seems to have informed the outlook of successive directors of the museum. Its first director considered that “a Folk Museum within a community is not a cultural luxury; it is a social necessity”18. His successor developed another principle, that the museum should be an “oasis of calm”19. In an environment where “exploration of the realities of the traditions of groups other than one’s own in the non-museum setting is fraught with psychological (occasionally even physical) danger, the museum provides a ‘neutral’ place where social discovery is ‘safe’”20. Only in the 1980s and 1990s did the museum get involved in social and educational activities, under the Education for Mutual Understanding programme. For the first time too, because the political context had eased up, the museum moved away from the “common ground” approach to explore the diversity of Ulster’s cultural heritage with exhibitions on “Brotherhoods”, “Marriage” or “Remembering 1690: the Folklore of a War’21. The museum should of course be credited for such endeavours. Yet little, if anything, of these temporary exhibitions filters into the open-air museum that remains the main attraction for visitors. The impression that a core element of the story of Ulster has been purposely shunned—albeit with understandable justifications—prevails. John Hewitt, a famous Belfast poet and former Art Assistant in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery encapsulated this impression of “a missing element” in the Ulster Folk Museum in a poem entitled “Cultra Manor: The Ulster Folk Museum” (1974):
After looking at the enlarged photographs
of obsolete rural crafts, the bearded man
winnowing, the women in long skirts
at their embroidery,
the objects on open display, the churn,
the snuff-mill, the dogskin float,
in the Manor House galleries,
we walked among the trees to the half-dozen
re-erected workshops and cottages
transported from the edge of our region,
tidy and white in the mild April sun.
Passing between the archetypal round pillars
with the open five-barred gate,
my friend John said:
‘What they need now, somewhere about here,
is a field for the faction fights.’
18Another way of dealing with history can be seen at the Ulster Museum. Again, a look at the history of the museum and the material exhibited is needed to understand the museum’s approach to history.
- 22 On the history of the museum, see Noel Nesbitt, A Museum in Belfast. A History of the Ulster Museu (...)
19The Ulster Museum was originally the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery. It was made a national museum by the 1961 Museum Act (Northern Ireland), a few years after the Ulster Folk Museum. The building where it is set in Botanic Gardens was opened in the late 1920s. The museum was initially a Natural History museum, created in 1821 by the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society. An Art Gallery was added in 1890 and those two fields were the only sections in the Municipal Museum until the 1970s22.
- 23 Gemma Reid, “Redefining Nation, Identity and Tradition: the Challenges for Ireland’s National Muse (...)
- 24 Jonathan Jones, “Belfast's Ulster Museum and the trouble with the Troubles”, The Guardian, 19 May (...)
20From its creation, the museum had to deal with the reputation of being strongly Protestant/Unionist-biased. It has been described by anthropologist and former curator of the Ulster Folk Museum Anthony Buckley as a “rhetorical statement of the ideals of the new protestant semi-independent state [representing] the somewhat aggressive triumph of Protestantism, Capitalism and the British Empire”23. Several elements are quoted to support this view: in the mid-19th century, the Belfast Natural History Society was composed of Presbyterian businessmen; in the 1920s, the site in Botanic Garden was criticised for being too far away from the city centre and in a leafy Protestant suburb, which would not attract working-class visitors; closer to us in 1978, some of the museum’s porters refused to hang a piece of art commemorating Bloody Sunday and were supported by the museum’s trustees against the Arts Council24.
- 25 Noel Nesbitt, A Museum in Belfast. A History of the Ulster Museum and its Predecessors. op. cit.: (...)
- 26 ibid 53, 67.
- 27 Gemma Reid, op. cit.: 215.
- 28 Elizabeth Crooke, “Dealing with the Past: Museums and Heritage in Northern Ireland and Cape Town, (...)
21For a long time, history was not a priority of the museum. Only temporary commemorative exhibitions were held in the 1950s and 1960s, to mark the 400th anniversary of the accession to the throne of Elizabeth I (1959), the 350th anniversary of Belfast’s first charter of incorporation (1963), the 50th and 25th anniversaries of the outbreak of the two World Wars (1964) and the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme25. The Department of Technology and Local History was created in 1965 and the local history section opened in 1978 only, with exhibits covering the history of Ulster from the 17th century, military and police history and the changing face of Belfast 26. Gemma Reid, who wrote on the role of National Museums in shaping identity, north and south of the border, describes it in unflattering terms: “It was a dark, unappealing and dense display that began with the Tudor invasion and plantation of Ulster. This gave the impression that local history started with English occupation and Catholic and Nationalist visitors tended to view the exhibit as Unionist biased. However, many loyalists also felt excluded, feeling that the display was elitist.”27Prior to the complete refurbishment that started in October 2006, the history department had put on a series of displays that were hailed as more daring and respectful of both traditions and which were interpreted as tests of various approaches to history and in particular to the recent past28. These included:
“Up in Arms: 1798 Rebellion in Ireland Bicentenary” (1998),
- 29 For details on these two exhibitions, see Elizabeth Crooke, “Museums, Communities and the Politics (...)
“Icons of identity”, exploring the myths and realities behind nine Irish icons, from the Virgin Mary to King William III to Edward Carson and Michael Collins (2000),29
- 30 See the catalogue of the exhibition. Trevor Parkhill and Marian Ferguson (eds), Conflict: The Iris (...)
“Conflict: The Irish at War”, covering the history of conflict in Ireland in the last 10,000 years and including the 1912-23 period, the two World Wars and the Troubles (2003-2006).30
22After three years, the refurbished museum reopened in October 2009, with new displays. Its collection was organised in three learning zones: Natural History, Art and History.
23The History Zone occupies most of the 1st floor and part of the ground floor. The exhibition is varied and very rich in artefacts and signage. It covers the history of Ireland from the early settlement to the present, with a focus on the fate of one of the late 16th century Armada ships, whose excavated remains belong to the Museum’s collection, as well as a “Discover history” room for a hands-on approach to history, mainly designed for children. The sections relating to Irish history per se are called “Early Peoples”, “Saints and Scholars”, “Plantation to Power Sharing” and “The Troubles”. Local history therefore no longer starts with the early modern period, as was the case in the old exhibition. Unlike in the Ulster Folk Museum, divisive elements of history are not ignored in favour of more conciliating ones. In fact, references to conflict and divisions appear in nearly all the rooms and are a clear legacy of the “Conflict” exhibition. They suggest that conflict was part of Irish history from the early times and did not start in the area with the Ulster plantation, as is often believed. A few examples can be given from the titles or contents of display signs: “A divided society” in the Early Bronze Age section (4500 years ago), “Upheaval and Disruption”, “Conflict” in the Later Bronze Age section (3500-2500 years ago), “there was more than one culture clash in late medieval Ireland” on a sign called “In the balance” in the Medieval Ireland section.
24The “Plantation to Power-Sharing” section forms the bulk of the exhibition and could easily be its most controversial part as it covers the most contested episodes of Irish history. Not only does the exhibition not shy away from addressing them, but they are presented in a remarkably balanced way. Two examples could be given here, if only to contrast them with what was said of the Ulster Folk Museum. The first refers to the bloody 1640s, which started with the 1641 rising and culminated in the Cromwellian reconquest of Ireland. A panel called “Rebellion” tells the following story: “The 1640s began and ended with orgies of merciless killings. Rebellion in Ulster in 1641 led to the deaths of some 12,000 planters and native Irish. Massacres at Drogheda and Wexford in 1649 resulted in over 4,000 deaths. Few events have contributed more to the cultural tensions on the island of Ireland over the last 400 years”. The last sentence is certainly a euphemistic statement about the long-lasting impact of the 1640s on society, but the figures given are those currently accepted in the most recent historiography, and both traditions are accounted for. The other example served as an introduction to the 19th century, on a panel called “Law and order’: “following the shock of the 1798 rebellion, the bloodiest for more than a century, successive governments regarded Ireland as an exceptionally lawless island”. This sentence in itself explains why the Land War and the Home Rule movement are presented as disruptive events in the Ulster Folk Museum, except that it does not, as we saw, appear there.
25Throughout the rooms, the exhibition offers a good balance between facts and historiographical interpretation. Artefacts are numerous and commented upon. They include the usual collection of paintings, clothes, jewels, armours, plates, scale models, flags, pamphlets, letters etc. More objects can be handled and looked at in the Discover History Interactive Area, which provides a pause between the “conventional” exhibition of Irish history and the principal new feature of the new museum—the Troubles Gallery. It picks up from where the previous exhibit stops and complements it. Since conflict is highlighted throughout history, the Troubles Gallery fits in the exhibition perfectly. However, the treatment of history in this section is quite different from the rest.
26The exhibition starts with a chronology and a warning sign. It is worth quoting as it reveals the museum’s uneasy approach to this period:
27This text and the picture on which it is displayed, showing an elderly traffic warden carrying a child visibly injured by a blast as the crowd watches, set a different atmosphere from the historically-balanced and emotionally-detached main Plantation to Power-sharing exhibition.
28The gallery is organised around a succession of thematic gable walls—a distinctive feature in Northern Ireland, especially for mural painting. One area is devoted to further exploration, with a selection of recent books on the conflict and two computers with direct access to specialised sites such as CAIN, the Troubles Archives, etc. There was also, in the early months of the exhibition, a comment box where visitors could leave a feedback form, but it seems to have disappeared after a few months—forms were available in February 2010 but not in June or October of the same year.
29As announced in the warning sign, the curator’s will was not to upset anyone. So every group who took part in or was affected by the Troubles gets a mention or can relate to one of the walls:
- Civil Rights 1968
- Political developments
- Ulster Defence
- Summer Violence 1969
- Peace Initiatives
Regiment and Ulster
- The bombing campaigns
- Omagh 1998
Royal Irish Regiment
- The Republic of Ireland
- Bloody Sunday
- The British army
- 31 Fionola Meredith, “Minimal Troubles at Ulster Museum”, Irish Times, 24 October 2009.
30Each theme or event is dealt with on a separate gable wall with an introductory text, pictures or—in three instances—slideshows. The pictures show street scenes, air photos of the Maze, political figures, soldiers, victims. What is striking is the complete absence of artefacts, but for a reproduction of a “comm”, i.e. a smuggled message written on toilet paper used by political prisoners in the Maze. The choice of the museum to treat the Troubles differently from earlier historical periods is deliberate. The visitor is taken into a different zone, where interpretation is tentative and events remain emotional and sensitive through lack of distance. The difficulty in representing the period is understandable, because of the lack of a consensual historical account and the culture of denial at work in Northern Ireland. Yet giving it an emotional treatment sets it aside from the rest of Irish history, therefore reinforcing its enduring sensitive nature. More than ten years after the Good Friday Agreement, a treatment similar to the rest of the exhibition, with balanced texts and well-chosen artefacts, might have helped to make the Troubles history. That was not, however, the choice made by the museum, as explained by Tim Cooke, director of the National Museums of Northern Ireland: “The new Troubles Gallery is tentative. We are trying to give a headline sense of the key issues here. But you can’t resolve this stuff. People might expect a definite exhibition. The impact of the Troubles in unresolved—so the gallery is unresolved”31.
- 32 Ibid.
- 33 Fionnula O’Connor, “Troubles display highlights problems of contested past”, Irish Times, 24 Decem (...)
- 34 James Morrisson, “A brush with violence”, Belfast Telegraph, 16 June 2009. Also published as “Batt (...)
- 35 Trevor Parkhill, “Can a contested history be exhibited to a divided society?”, Social History in M (...)
31The revamped Ulster museum has been the busiest tourist attraction in Northern Ireland since its reopening in 2009. It has since won the Best Permanent Exhibition in UK Award, the prestigious Art Fund Prize and the Sandford Award for Museum and Heritage education. Yet the reaction to the new Troubles Gallery has not been very enthusiastic. One article in the Irish Times reports the comment of a visitor: “It’s a cop-out. It’s clearly a case of ‘don’t mention the war’”32. The controversy over the exhibition is caused by its excess of caution. Fionnuala O’Connor talks about “good intentions inhibited for fear of giving offence”33. What transpires in the press articles is that the exhibition is a far cry from what was intended. In June 2009, four months before the reopening, the Belfast Telegraph announced what the exhibition would include: “Amid relics of the fighting itself, such as bullet-strewn boots and the shirt worn by founding Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Gerry Fitt when he was bludgeoned by a police baton at a civil-rights rally, will hang yet more artwork. Iconic photographs of Bloody Sunday marches will be juxtaposed with paintings such as Ulster Crucifixion - a triptych by Troubles ‘war artist’ Ken Howard, depicting a boy dangling from a lamppost, sandwiched between walls daubed with loyalist and republican graffiti”34. The disappointment in such a minimalist exhibition is all the greater as the previous temporary exhibitions in the Ulster Museum had displayed troubles-related artefacts. The “Conflict: The Irish at War” exhibition in particular, was praised at the time for its British army bullets, RUC shield and helmet damaged during riots in Derry, etc. It won the “Best exhibition” at the Museum of the Year Award in 2004 and the Irish exhibition of the Year 2005/2006. His curator attributes some of its success to the involvement of the community in the selection of specimens, for it created “a shared responsibility” of what was on display35. More work needs to be carried out to study the role of the advisory panel for the new Troubles gallery as well as the feedback it had from visitors. Although one of the merits of the gallery is simply to exist as part of a permanent exhibition in a state museum for the first time in history, its representation of contested contemporary events in a post-conflict society remains a difficult endeavour.
32The two case studies show how two national museums have taken different options to present Northern Ireland’s contested history to local and international visitors. Both museums have avoided confronting history in different ways: the Ulster Folk Museum by skirting it and focusing on common grounds rather than diverging points, the Ulster Museum by offering a surprisingly sanitised version of the recent past, where it has previously shown its ability to offer challenging displays.
- 36 Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, A Shared Future. Polic (...)
- 37 Ibid, 33.
33Yet both museums might be expected to adapt their exhibitions in the future as the educational and social roles of museums have recently been reasserted as part of the official “A Shared Future” Policy Framework, published in 2005 by the Northern Irish Assembly. One of the aims of the policy is to “encourage understanding of the complexity of our history, through museums and a common school curriculum”36. Museums are expected to “contribute to the good relations policy by ensuring that the collections are representative of the diversity which both have been and are present in the geographical area from which local visitors come […]; ensuring that both permanent and temporary exhibitions represent and examine the interests of all the communities that the museum chiefly serves; devising exhibitions and supporting educational programmes/outreach work which address issues pertinent to the cultural diversity of the geographical area served”37.
- 38 Max Ross, “Interpreting the New Museology”, Museum and Society, 2.2 (July 2004): 84-103.
- 39 Trevor Parkhill, “Can a contested history be exhibited to a divided society?”, Social History in M (...)
34The new code of ethics for state museums, by committing them to engage with communities, means they have to shake old habits and move away from the vision of “museum as a neutral place”. This new vision of museums is, to some extent, a local declension of a more general “new museology” movement whereby museums have gradually shifted their priorities from collections to visitors38. The “new museology”, placing service to visitors at its core, is a challenge to curatorial independence, further complicated in the Northern Irish context by the expectations for museums to deliver mediation between communities to achieve “a shared future”39. Another challenge is to articulate the respect for cultural diversity with the absence of an uncontested historical account. Political goodwill may be there, but museums are ill-equipped to implement it, for the balance between various historical accounts and cultural traditions is hard to achieve. This was exemplified in May 2010 when the Northern Ireland Minister for Culture publicly asked for some aspects to be reconsidered in the Ulster Museum’s permanent exhibitions, including giving more prominence to creationist views on the origins of the universe, the Ulster Scots tradition and the Orange Order
- 40 Examples of such community-run exhibitions are given in Elizabeth Crooke, “Putting Contested Histo (...)
35A final difficulty, in the case of the Troubles Gallery, is how to represent the contentious recent past in a post-conflict society. The distance and balance that are displayed in relation to contested events in the 17th century cannot yet be achieved for recent events. In Northern Ireland, the only permanent display of artefacts from the Troubles period is in the Tower Museum in Derry/Londonderry. It holds a section on “The Story of Derry” from monastic times to today, therefore covering the Civil Rights Movement and Bloody Sunday. A controversy erupted when the exhibition opened in 1992 with artefacts, including a machine gun, but the exhibition has remained. The difference of treatment between a city and a national museum also points at the difficulty of presenting a “national” or at least balanced narrative in Northern Ireland. Yet such a narrative is sorely needed and should be displayed in state-museums, if only to counterbalance the often biased use of history made in the thriving heritage sector run by community-based groups, whose main agenda is to defend the interests and express the values of specific communities rather than to promote a shared future in Northern Ireland40