Over the past 10 years, we have been developing our approach to curating conflict, and we continue to learn and adapt. There are no easy answers when it comes to such sensitive work, and we certainly don’t claim to be the authority, but we feel it is an essential and valuable part of our process to share our approach with others, and to learn from dialogue and critical feedback.
The Troubles, as it is commonly known, was a period of civil and political conflict, beginning in 1969 and ending with the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It was characterised by political and sectarian violence that impacted directly on families and communities. Tragically, more than 3,600 people lost their lives, of whom 2,087 were civilians.
As museums, we believe we have an important role to play in the social peace process, through facilitating dialogue and building greater mutual understanding. Our programme is called The Troubles and Beyond – the “beyond” both recognising that the conflict and associated legacy issues were not fully resolved in 1998, and that to be truly inclusive of the experiences of living here at the time, we need to look further than stories of conflict and combatants.
Unsurprisingly, the work poses particular ethical challenges. Key wording shared in the introduction to our The Troubles and Beyond gallery states that: “The ‘Troubles’ affected almost everyone who lived here and many others from further afield. Inevitably, the interpretation of this period of our history is contested in terms of significance, meaning and responsibility. While we have a shared past, we do not have a shared memory.”
This is a reminder of how there is no consensus within Northern Ireland, not only on the causes and events of the Troubles, but about how we should acknowledge what happened and seek to move forward today. The conflict was a recent one, meaning we are dealing with lived histories and experiences – we have to be sensitive to the pain and trauma experienced by individuals, and support those who share and engage with this difficult history in our museums.
In politics and society, we continue to grapple with legacy issues, many of which have been exacerbated by recent debates and policies associated with Brexit. They have stoked division and reminded us that as museums we have to be careful not to foster such discord, even unwittingly. It is paramount that we fulfil our responsibilities in terms of “good relations”, through promoting mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.
So how do we navigate such difficult waters? With ethics as our essential touchpoint, we’ve developed an approach expressed as a continuous and developmental cycle of collections development, interpretive planning, consultation and engagement, feedback and review. We minimise bias by practising narrative hospitality; that is opening up our collections and spaces to a wide range of experiences and perspectives.
We are proactive in involving communities, committing to address gaps in our understanding and interpretation and helping people feel welcome and represented. We seek and learn from the advice of critical friends, including community leaders and academic advisers, and we openly acknowledge the ways in which they contribute to our collections, our understanding and the story of our shared past. Ultimately, our hope is that we can support people to reflect on that past and also play an active and informed role in helping to shape a better future.
While our museums are certainly not neutral, they are safe and shared spaces for inspiring but also difficult conversations. We believe that they should encourage transformative change by challenging perspectives, helping people to understand the complexity of their heritage and supporting reconciliation.
Hannah Crowdy is the head of curatorial at National Museums NI