Conflict resolution - Museums Association

Conflict resolution

Kris Brown says Northern Ireland could be ready for a museum about the Troubles, but it is vital that community involvement is at the heart of the project
Kris Brown
One of the most casually used cliches to describe the conflict in Northern Ireland is that society here is 'trapped in the past' and that the injuries of past generations continue to fuel distrust and antagonism. But, as with other cliches, there is a grain of truth in it.

If the history of generations past still has an enduring resonance for Northern Ireland's society, then the recent history of conflict is particularly difficult to come to grips with. There are plans to develop a museum about the conflict, but it is not straightforward.

The sensitivities, grievances and anxieties of individuals, and local communities, can still be particularly acute. Some have suffered directly as a result of the conflict, but almost everyone in Northern Ireland have been touched by it.

This presents a certain paradox: on the one hand, the need to deal with the past seems imperative; on the other, the acute sensitivities of dealing with a long, bloody, close-quarters conflict are still live, and the political and social space to grapple with these issues is limited. While some wish to forget, others feel an obligation to remember.

But turning away from our recent history of conflict is not an option. While many of the conditions of conflict have subsided, divisions are still acute - issues of identity and political culture are often antagonistic, children are educated mainly in schools with a communal affiliation, and many citizens live in clusters of residentially segregated areas, a kind of voluntary apartheid, stoked in part by a sense of physical insecurity.

Myopia about the causes of the recent conflict is, therefore, imprudent. The Northern Ireland schools curriculum, for one, is recognising this by including the study of recent political violence and communal division in its history and citizenship syllabuses.

Timing may be everything. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 ushered in a degree of optimism about Northern Ireland's future, and it may seem unusual that steps were not taken to deal with the history of conflict in a divided society in the agreement's aftermath. But a museum devoted to the conflict was an idea that wasn't quite right at the time. Violence was still ongoing. Paramilitary groups were still involved in bloody, if fitful, campaigns, and serious disorder occurred at parades and the interface areas between communities.

Although political and cultural wrangling will doubtless continue in Northern Ireland, it does seem that the 'facts on the ground' could now allow a museum, or indeed museums, to grasp hitherto thorny issues. There is ample precedent for this. In the past, it was easier for Northern Ireland's museums to take the safe option and avoid controversy, but now there is a growing acceptance that the conflict should be reflected.

The Ulster Museum's Conflict: the Irish at War exhibition ended this month and included a well-received section on the modern conflict. And after the museum's refurbishment is completed in 2009, it will feature a display on the Troubles in its permanent history exhibition.

Many other museums, archives and libraries in Northern Ireland have been collecting material related to the conflict, in greater or lesser degrees; and many campaigning organisations and private collectors have been diligently accumulating material.

In Northern Ireland, heritage projects can start off with the best of cultural intentions, but then find economic margins extremely tight, threatening sustainability. The Navan Fort Centre, which reopened last year after a four-year hiatus, is a case in point.

But experience of political and conflict-related exhibitions in Derry/Londonderry, at the council's Tower Museum, or in local initiatives such as the Museum of Free Derry in the nationalist Bogside area and the Heritage Tower in the unionist Fountain estate, give real hope that exhibitions will not only survive, but will also kindle a sense of ownership.

All these initiatives offer different perspectives on the conflict, but have one thing in common - they have developed strong links to communities from the outset, facilitating a sense of trust and ownership. Community involvement has to be established at an early stage in any prospective museum of the conflict.

The cross-community Healing Through Remembering project, which is examining ways of dealing with a past marked by violence and division, has issued an Open Call for Ideas about what shape a new museum could take. Touring exhibitions, or even virtual museums in cyberspace, could be considered.

Of course, these could all be appendages to a physical museum, which would perhaps provide the historic 'sense of place' often associated with memorialisation. But in Northern Ireland, where territory is often contested, sites can be charged with political value. Getting to grips with history is one battle, finding it a physical space is another.

Kris Brown is a research fellow working with the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast and the Healing Through Remembering project. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and may not reflect those of the above institutions

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post a comment.