Decolonisation in Northern Irish museums: how does it feel? - Museums Association

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Decolonisation in Northern Irish museums: how does it feel?

Briony Widdis
ESRC-funded Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Public History and Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast

Northern Irish museums are looking closely at the recently published Museums Association’s Supporting Decolonisation in Museums guidance. As the guidance points out, decolonising museums requires a courageous commitment to standing up for justice; and a preparedness to identify and communicate uncomfortable truths.

Making colonial legacies explicit demands meaningful partnerships, meeting people where they are to listen to their memories of the colonial past and their perspectives on its material representation in museums.

While the topics of imperialism and colonialism have not been totally avoided in Northern Irish museums, until recently they have only been explicitly tackled in a handful of cases. This has included, for example, mentions in publications and exhibitions at the Ulster Museum; and in regimental museums’ displays on actions in imperial and global wars.

This is, in part, because the subject of Ireland’s role in the British Empire (and vice-versa) has been at the centre of political polarisation, and because its public discussion has the potential to incite further division.

As recent announcements have shown, museums are approaching decolonisation through their experience of dealing with the legacies of conflict on the island of Ireland, and view decolonisation as a means of building community pride, and of supporting reconciliation on both a local and global basis.

Museums can enable the discovery and sharing of emotions and the launch of the decolonisation guidance at the MA conference included a striking discussion of the emotional labour required in examining colonial legacies. In this discussion emotions were centred as a form of knowledge; a way of understanding the past that produces distinctly different outcomes for the people museums work with than the telling of purely historical narratives does.

When considering colonial histories in Ireland, ‘feeling knowledge’ has a role. To understand how people in this place relate to the themes of colonialism and imperialism, and what they believe museum decolonisation needs to entail, we need first to comprehend their experiences of colonialism outside of Ireland; and listen to memories of and perspectives on Ireland’s past within the British Empire.

As my current ESRC-funded research on Museums, Empire and Northern Irish Identity is showing, asking people how they feel about the topics of colonialism and the British Empire; and about objects acquired through processes of colonial collecting, offers the potential to de-marginalise narratives that fall outside traditional ‘community’ boundaries; and has the potential to make space for voices that haven’t yet been heard.

Briony Widdis is an ESRC-funded Postdoctoral Fellow in the Centre for Public History and Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. Museums, Empire and Northern Irish Identity is being delivered in partnership with National Museums Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Museums Council; Irish Museums Association; and Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates at the University of Maynooth.

Image caption: Canoe from the Solomon Islands, Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, showing the “boat room” being built around the canoe. c.1925. © National Museums NI