It has been a rocky few years for Northern Ireland’s culture sector. No sooner had it come to terms with Brexit – and the societal tensions brought about by the threat of a hard border – than Covid-19 hit. As a result of a series of rolling lockdowns, the six counties’ cultural institutions stayed closed for longer than almost anywhere else in the UK.
A survey released last November by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland showed that the number of people employed by core arts organisations fell 25% in 2020-21, underlining the devastating impact of the pandemic. Stakeholders have said sustained extra funding will be needed to ensure the survival of the culture sector over the next few years.
The survey also found that total income among the 97 respondents dropped by 9% (£4.5m) on 2019-20, while earned income fell by £16m (69%). Unsurprisingly, the income generated from ticket sales plummeted 99% during the pandemic year, while just 59 physical activities took place in 2020-21, compared with 67,000 the year before.
Government support, including emergency funding and the furlough scheme, has been a lifeline during this time, says Elizabeth Crooke, professor of museum and heritage studies at Ulster University, who is leading on an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, Museums, Crisis and Covid-19, in which the Museums Association (MA) is also a partner.
“In 2020, museums faced not knowing how they were going to balance the books,” says Crooke. “Museums that are coming out of the crisis with their budgets fairly intact are now focusing on giving back to the communities that have got them through the crisis. Once we feel the pandemic is coming to the end, the relief that will be felt will soon need to turn into an even greater focus on museum purpose in a challenging economic and environmental setting.”
As attention turns to recovery, some areas are banking on culture to revive their economies after Covid, and there are ambitious plans for the coming decade.
“The Northern Ireland museum sector is focusing on its audiences, with the aim to stay relevant and ambitious for the future,” says Crooke. “When I am in conversation with museum colleagues, we always return to concern with community needs, whether that is respite and restoration after the challenges of the past 18 months, or to museums as places of joy where we can explore local culture, or reflect and be challenged about our histories.”
One significant initiative is the £12m Derry North Atlantic (DNA), a maritime museum and archive being developed near the Peace Bridge in the centre of Derry. The DNA Museum aims to tell new stories via collections about the River Foyle, the port, industry, migration and the second world war.
The museum is part of a £250m package from central government, the Derry City Deal, which will enable the region to progress strategic projects aimed at fostering a set of priorities that include innovation, regeneration, tourism and renewal.
Meanwhile, plans are afoot for a £93m visitor attraction in Giant’s Park, Belfast. The new development is likely to include centres dedicated to leisure and sport, as well as a theme park.
However, these initiatives are taking place against a background of increased community tensions. Over the past year, there has been rioting on the streets of several cities as a result of unhappiness in loyalist communities over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the post-Brexit agreement that has put checks on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
A session at last year’s MA conference in Liverpool asked local councillors on either side of the divide in Northern Ireland to reflect on the question: “When cars are burning on your street, what use are museums?”
Crooke, who organised the session, says: “What was striking was the belief that we have a duty to provide museums as places of reflection, where we can welcome, challenge and, perhaps, discover new ways of engaging with our difficult histories. Despite the sector being challenged in fundamental ways, there is still a demand that we have museums – there is scope for us to investigate further the value of museums in light of those challenges.”
One institution committed to creating space for reflection is the Museum of the Troubles and the Peace Process. The museum hope to tell a “people’s history of the Troubles” that represents all narratives and identities.
‘A long-overdue beacon of hope’
Almost everyone we speak to says “what a good idea” or “why hadn’t we thought of that before?”.
The big challenge is raising the funding required. There is also the challenge of presenting multiple interpretations of something as alive and as controversial as the Troubles. Because of the individual and family tragedies, and the intergenerational transmission of trauma, there are huge issues of sensitivity to be negotiated.
Our inclusion of the Irish Peace Process, and its lessons for other deeply divided societies, is a vital part of the undertaking. We see this as a beacon of hope to divided societies elsewhere.
Irene Boada Montagut is the project manager of the Museum of the Troubles and the Peace Process
In its first phase, the museum is working with St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast’s cultural quarter to create a place of remembrance in the crypt of the cathedral for the almost 4,000 people who died in the Troubles. In the second phase, a building will be created at the back of the cathedral to house artefacts, oral recordings, multimedia exhibits, a peace centre and community outreach work.
“Northern Ireland has learnt an awful lot about peace-building – it has so much to teach the world about reconciliation,” says project manager Irene Boada Montagut. “We want to highlight the resilience of people during the Troubles, most of whom were not directly involved in violence. A museum is uniquely placed to do that.”
Many of these issues are explored in The Troubles and Beyond gallery at Ulster Museum. This opened in 2018 and aims to ensure a diverse and inclusive approach to its subject matter (see p12).
Although the challenges of Covid-19 have reshaped the museum and wider cultural landscape in Northern Ireland, there is a sense of positivity about how the sector can grow in response.
As one respondent to the Museums, Crisis and Covid-19 project said: “If there ever was a ‘time’ for museums, Covid-19 has given us our time.”
- The Museums, Crisis and Covid-19 research project is currently inviting museums, particularly those in Northern Ireland, to take part in a short survey, closing on 2 February.