The Struggle Over The Past in Museums in Post-Conflict Northern Ireland

The Struggle Over The Past in Museums in Post-Conflict Northern Ireland

Matthew Jackson (Queen’s University Belfast) writes about how the legacy of the Northern Irish Troubles can be seen in museums, and how this reflects an ongoing struggle over how to remember the past

The legacy of the ‘Troubles’ (1968-1998) continues to polarise the contemporary political landscape in Northern Ireland. Questions over the legitimacy of violence, responsibility, the motives of the conflict’s principle actors, the meaning of victimhood, and the pursuit of ‘justice’ and ‘truth’ by families of the bereaved, are deeply contested.

While the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland, it evaded many of the questions above. As the Irish historian Tom Dunne has pointed out: ‘…the complex negotiations and interventions that nudged the peace process forward faced resolutely away from attempting to confront or understand the past and towards the fantasy of a clean slate through vague but uplifting and often ingenious linguistic formulations that allowed all sides to feel good and claim victory…’[1] The clean state has indeed turned out to be a fantasy. Since 1998, all sides in Northern Ireland’s bloody conflict—republicans, unionists, loyalists, and the British State—have been engaged in a struggle to define and remember the past in ways that align with their own interpretations and experiences.

As in other divided societies like Bosnia and Lebanon, this struggle is strongly felt, and in some cases, most visible, in public spaces such as museums. Displays of the Troubles deeply reflect Northern Ireland’s contested past and its present political juncture. In this sense they affirm the conventional view within museum and heritage studies that the past, as it is materially organised in museums and heritage sites, cannot be disentangled from the political, social and economic contexts in which it is displayed.[2]

In many ways, the Troubles Gallery in Belfast’s Ulster Museum (the foremost cultural institution in Northern Ireland) encapsulates the struggle over how to remember the past. As a publicly funded institution, the museum has a duty to be equitable to Northern Ireland’s various constituent communities. The exhibition opened in 2009 and was the first permanent exhibition to engage with the Troubles as a whole. However, it was blighted by institutional problems, a lack of resources, and most importantly, a deep-seated commitment to impartiality and fear of causing offence or controversy.

Troubles gallery, Ulster Museum

Its dense factual text, black and white images, and absence of objects, did little to promote any deeper understanding of the Troubles period, its root causes, the experiences of those affected by it, or is enduring legacy. This effectively amounted to a depoliticisation of the conflict and a concealment of its horrifying realities. Efforts are currently underway to redevelop this exhibition.

Much differently to the Ulster Museum, other museums and exhibitions present narratives of the Troubles that are selective, partial, and political. Such displays can be explained, at least in part, in the context of the commemorative vacuum produced as a result of the absence of more formalised or officially sanctioned forms of remembering the Troubles. This vacuum has been filled by republican and loyalist groups who have sought to articulate their version of the conflict years, the concerns of their communities, while also drawing attention to, as they see it, the Troubles’ most controversial and unresolved issues.

To a much greater extent than the Ulster Museum, these displays have proven popular with tourists in cities such as Belfast and Derry—both of which were key theatres of violence during the Troubles. The ‘Troubles Tourism’ industry (which, importantly, is not sanctioned or promoted by official tourism agencies in Northern Ireland) offers opportunities for interested visitors to encounter sites of death, memorial gardens, commemorative wall murals, and some remaining peace walls.[3] A small number of museums form part of this burgeoning industry, and are credited with an inherent authenticity, a result of their location and of the fact that the personnel associated with them have direct lived experience of the conflict.

The Museum of Free Derry is arguably the most visited of these museums. The museum focuses on the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 and the subsequent campaign for justice and truth. Established in 2007, the museum officially reopened in June 2017 after a major redevelopment and is located on the site where two of the victims of Bloody Sunday were shot dead.[4] A staunchly republican museum, the onset of the Troubles is placed in the context of the denial of civil rights to nationalists and repression by the unionist Stormont authorities.

Museum of Free Derry exhibit

Similarly, the Irish Republican History Museum, located just off the Falls Road in west Belfast, presents the story of the ‘struggle for Irish freedom.’ Here the Troubles are located within an historical trajectory of heroic struggle against ‘British oppression’ that includes events such as the 1798 Rebellion and the 1916 Rising. According to this reading, the republican armed campaign during the Troubles was entirely legitimate and continued the physical force tradition of earlier republican campaigns to forcibly remove British rule from Ireland.

By contrast, the ACT Museum (Action for Community Transformation) on the Shankill Road in west Belfast, attempts to reconfigure perceptions surrounding loyalist combatants, particularly members of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and their role during the Troubles. The museum rejects a glorification of loyalist actions and instead, depicts former combatants and prisoners as ordinary human beings who turned to violence in what their perceived to be the defence of their communities.

In conclusion, the examples briefly discussed here demonstrate how the contested nature of Northern Ireland’s past has increasingly manifested itself in public spaces such as museums and exhibitions. With narratives of the Troubles more diametrically opposed than ever, there is little to suggest any reduction in the intensity of the struggle over how to remember and represent the past in Northern Ireland.

[1] Tom Dunne, “Commemorations and ‘Shared History’: A different role for historians?” in History Ireland, no. 1 (2013), p. 11.

[2] Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London and New York, 1995), p. 129.

[3] Sara McDowell, “Selling Conflict Heritage through Tourism in Peacetime Northern Ireland: Transforming Conflict or Exacerbating Difference?” in International Journal of Heritage Studies, no. 5 (2008), pp 405-421.

[4]Belfast Telegraph, 16 June 2017.

Matthew Jackson is a PhD candidate in Public History at Queen’s University Belfast. He is currently finishing his thesis ‘Representing the Troubles: Contested History, Critical Museology and Conflict Exhibitions’ which is funded by the Northern Ireland Department of Employment and Learning. Matthew’s research interests include twentieth century Irish and American history, public memory and commemoration, and race and civil rights. He can be contacted on:

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