The Troubles engulfed Northern Ireland in conflict for nearly 30 years, at times spilling over into England, the Republic of Ireland and continental Europe.
Over the decades, 250,000 British soldiers served in Northern Ireland and more than 3,500 people died. It remains a contentious period, with roots going back centuries.
The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, yet many aspects of the conflict remain unresolved and are contested by those who experienced and participated in it.
This, coupled with the fact that it is a relatively recent conflict that took place within the UK, adds to the unique set of challenges in how we chose to address the subject in the exhibition Northern Ireland: Living with the Troubles at IWM London.
The Troubles was a complex and multi-layered conflict that so many struggle to understand, to know what caused it and who the key players were. Removing this barrier of entry to understanding the Troubles is key to why IWM is staging this exhibition.
The Troubles also forms part of IWM’s remit to uncover the causes, course and consequences of war, from the first world war through to today. In recent years, much consideration has been given to the subject at IWM with small, permanent displays, and the Troubles has been touched on in previous exhibitions. Yet, this us our first exhibition dedicated to the subject.
The exhibition (until 7 January 2024) is the culmination of five years of research and building contacts in Northern Ireland. I wanted the people to tell the story, rather than the museum.
There is often no agreed narrative around the events of the Troubles, and allowing those who experienced the conflict to remember things in their way has allowed peace, of a sort, to endure. It would be presumptuous to think IWM could offer a definitive version of events.
The idea of building the exhibition around contested versions of events came from a walking tour I went on in east Belfast that revolved around an incident at St Matthew’s Church on 27-28 June 1970.
What happened is contested by those from the republican and loyalist communities. The incident, which saw three killed and others injured, forms the introduction to the exhibition. It is there to help cement in visitors’ minds that what they will hear and see throughout the exhibition is contested.
The voices of those who experienced these events are the framework on which this exhibition hangs – supported by a small but significant number of objects with their own contested stories.
The voices are woven throughout the four sections of gallery that deal with the descent into violence and explore how people lived and viewed each other during these turbulent years.
The exhibition closes with the voices of the participants offering their hopes and fears for the future of Northern Ireland. For the first time, “curator’s voice” panels have been included in an IWM exhibition. These give an insight into my own thoughts behind curating the exhibition, and acknowledge the difficulties of telling this history.
I hope visitors will leave with the realisation that this period of our shared history remains unresolved and contested. Accepting this is, perhaps, liberating, as it leaves you free to do your own research and draw your own conclusions.
Everyone I spoke to for this exhibition has their own lived experience of how they saw and remembered events: it is their truth, and I have let them tell it, without judgement.
Craig Murray is a curator at IWM