Rising to the challenge

Sharon Heal, 23.08.2016
How museums are dealing with divisive events in Ireland's decade of centenaries
One person’s liberation struggle can sometimes be another person’s act of terror. So how do we capture and interpret differing views of historical events in our museums and galleries, especially if they are still contested?

This is an issue that museums and galleries in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have had to deal with for many years. And it’s all the more pertinent now, in what has been dubbed the Decade of Centenaries.

The first part of the 'decade' has focused on the many significant centenaries in Irish history between 2012 and 2016 - the Home Rule Act, the Dublin Lockout, the First World War and of course the Easter Rising.

Some of these are more contentious than others, often depending on which side of the border you live or which community you come from.

I was in Dublin last week and the city is crammed with 1916 events, exhibitions, tours and displays. One of the permanent developments is the refurbishment of the iconic GPO building to tell the story of the Rising.

Although it sells itself as a visitor attraction rather than a museum, its displays and presentation of objects are very museum-like. And it manages to capture the significance of the events without the uncritical tone of some of the more partisan exhibitions, such as Revolution 1916, Sinn Féin’s version of events, which is on display at the city’s Ambassador Theatre.

Telling the story of Ireland’s contribution to and role in the First World War has not been straightforward either. Projects such as Living Legacies have tried to take a critical, creative and diverse approach – and this will be needed even more in the next few years.

The anniversaries yet to come are potentially challenging. How museums on both sides of the border deal with the centenaries of the War of Independence, from 2019 to 2021, and the Irish Civil War, from 2022 to 2023, will put them under the spotlight.

And 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Troubles; a point in time that will be remembered and commemorated in very different ways among different communities.

So how will museum navigate these tricky waters? I think the ethical approach would be to recognise that museums are not neutral and that the way we interpret history and which histories we choose to tell is partial.

What museums can do is work with communities to co-produce displays and interpret anniversaries and to help to create safe spaces for debate and discussion. It won’t be easy but it could make for challenging and stimulating exhibitions with lasting impact.