Museum of Free Derry

Matthew Jackson, Issue 117/11, p50-53, 01.11.2017

This redeveloped museum tells the story of the struggle for civil rights during the Troubles in Northern Ireland from the point of view of some of those who were involved in the events.

The Museum of Free Derry, which reopened in February after a £2.4m redevelopment, displays the story of the community during the early phase of the conflict known as the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The redevelopment more than doubles the size of the museum. In addition to the exhibition area, there is a new archive and research facility with space for lectures and temporary exhibitions. The majority of funding for the project was through public bodies, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Northern Ireland Executive

Free Derry refers to the republican area of Derry city, including the Bogside and Creggan districts, which became no-go zones for the Royal Ulster Constabulary and British Army between 1969 and 1972. Central to the museum’s narrative are the events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when 13 civilians were shot dead by members of  the British Army’s parachute regiment during a civil rights march in the city.

The museum is on the site of a once-derelict housing block in Glenfada Park, where two of those who died on Bloody Sunday were shot. At the official reopening, the veteran American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson said: “This is sacred ground – holy ground – set apart to remind and teach future generations what happened here.”

The main aim of the museum is to establish a deeper understanding of Northern Ireland’s turbulent past and to provide space for those affected by the conflict to tell their own stories. It opened in 2007 after a long campaign by a number of organisations – including the Bloody Sunday Trust, which now runs the museum – to prove the innocence of the victims. In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, those killed were labelled gunmen and nail bombers. It was not until 2010, and the publication of the Saville inquiry’s findings that those killed were officially exonerated. The story told in the museum is therefore deeply sensitive and heavily politicised.

Narrative of oppression

Recently, divisions among some of the families of the dead emerged around the ownership of the Bloody Sunday story and the way it was being told in the museum. Several museum staff members are relatives of those killed, and worked on the redevelopment. The dispute centred on a display that listed all those killed in the Free Derry area, including civilians, members of the British security forces and republican paramilitaries. Two relatives of the dead staged a five-day sit-in protest at the venue until the display was taken down.

The museum’s narrative is displayed chronologically with arrows on the walls clearly indicating the preferred sequence of viewing. Museum staff direct visitors towards the exhibition entrance door and advise them to “follow the arrows round”.

The pathways and chronological ordering of exhibits are important, not only because they spatially orientate visitors and make it easier for those unfamiliar with the conflict to understand them, but also because they allow the museum to construct and display a linear historical narrative of victimhood, oppression and discrimination. 

The Troubles are integrated into a historical trajectory going back to the 17th century, with visitors taken on a journey through this story. According to the museum, the historical suppression of Derry’s Catholic nationalist population by unionist political elites, particularly following the partition of Ireland in 1921, was crucial in creating the conditions for the outbreak of violent conflict in 1969.

Selective retelling

Significant emphasis is placed on engaging the sensory and emotional registers of visitors. Voice recordings of the civil rights march on Bloody Sunday are played on a loop, while audiovisual screens display some of the imagery of this period along with testimonies of those who experienced it.

Personal belongings of the Bloody Sunday victims are exhibited, such as the jackets worn by Jim Wray and Michael McDaid when they were shot. Also on display is the iconic handkerchief waved by Bishop Edward Daly in an attempt to stop the shooting. These representational strategies make this contested period of the Troubles come alive; it is something that can be felt and touched, and in conjunction with the siting of the museum itself, re-experienced across time.

As one visitor said: “From the moment you walk in to the noise of the Bloody Sunday protest recordings, the barricades, the flags and protest displays, you feel immersed in the determination and fear that must have been felt during the Troubles.”

At the same time, the aesthetic of the museum space is marked by a sense of minimalism – a representational style that in recent decades has become closely associated with the memorialisation of traumatic events. The museum also functions as a space to remember those killed. Large slabs of grey concrete make up the walls, floor and ceiling of the museum and encourage an air of solemnity, silence and respect.

The Museum of Free Derry’s narrative is, of course, selective. It makes no secret of this, stating that the “story is told from the point of view of those who were most involved in and affected by these events”.

There is a clear distinction made between “self” and “other”, and between victims and perpetrators. The British state, in particular the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the army, are presented as an oppressive and sectarian force, while the provisional IRA is seen as a heroic defender of an embattled community, with the museum ignoring the wider campaign of violence perpetrated by republican paramilitaries over the course of the conflict.

In this sense, the museum is reflective of the wider commemorative terrain in Northern Ireland, where contested narratives of the past are remembered and articulated in the present in ways that are both partial and political.

Matthew Jackson is researching his PhD at the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast
Focus on: diverse views
You might ask why we need the Museum of Free Derry. Our answer is, because we want to give our history the importance and prominence that we think it deserves.  

It is not a history that should remain hidden in dark corners, but be out there and available and feeding into the debate about how we deal with the recent past in the north of Ireland, and how we resolve issues arising from it.  

Dealing with our recent past is proving difficult. There are some who would prefer that the history we tell, and other parts of the recent story of the north, be quietly forgotten, or at least ignored until we can reach an “agreed” version of it. I disagree, as do many of us at the museum. 

There is no escaping the fact that we have diverse perceptions of history here. We see the same events in drastically different ways. 

But do we need to have, or want to have, one view of history that is shared by all, one that ignores the diversities that exist? A single “official” history? 

I don’t think we will ever have a consensus view, nor do I think we need one. We all have our own perspectives and are entitled to have them. They are part of who we are.

Our aim must be to reach a stage where this diversity is accepted, acknowledged and hopefully understood. Where we agree to disagree, and the diversity of perception becomes a subject for debate rather than division.

Adrian Kerr is the manager of the Museum of Free Derry
Project data
Cost £2.4m
Main funders Tourism Northern Ireland; Department of Social Development; Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure; Heritage Lottery Fund; Derry City and Strabane District Council
Architect Brennan Associates


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Jonathan Gammond
Access , Wrexham County Borough Museum
26.11.2017, 18:11
If you are visiting Derry/Londonderry, I would recommend combining a visit to the Museum of Free Derry with one of the guided tours of Free Derry, which are usually led by Republican ex-prisoners. However much you thought you were informed about the Troubles, the tour is still a complete eye-opener. Obviously I was hearing one side of the story, but it is side that we didn't hear and should have heard. Then you can walk up the hill, through one of the gates in the city walls and visit the Apprentice Boys' Museum.
Generally in Northern Ireland, the republicans have cornered the heritage market for tourists because fundamentally they are at ease with their past. I know that reads a bit glib, but they have a coherent story. In contrast it is much more difficult to learn about the loyalist/unionist side of the story from real people. The loyalists' story is a tougher sell and when the British don't even know what it means to be British in the 21st century, it makes it all the more difficult for the unionists to create a positive identity, especially when there are a lot of skeletons in their cupboard. I visited the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast and as mentioned the Apprentice Boys' Museum, but still left with little more than a cardboard cut out version of history. The displays were professional but lacking human emotion; in contrast the Museum of Free Derry wasn't so 'professional' but its stories came from the heart. Everyone else on my tour of Free Derry seemed to be an American on a golfing holiday, which was unfortunate, because if there is one people who need to know more about Northern Ireland, it's the people of Great Britain.

There were at least two other museums I wanted to visit in the city but with only two nights there I ran out of time. It is a fantastic city, an important city (great people, restaurants, bars and music) and is far more interesting than any 'walled city' on this island.

After all this heavy politics, I would recommend a visit to the Ulster Museum in Belfast, which manages to combine the quality of collections you expect in a national museum, but with the visitor focus and visitor experience of a regional museum. It also has a great cafe and the Botanical Gardens outside.

If you are still keen to know more about the province's history then the black taxi tours are very thought provoking. Mine lasted two hours and the visit to just one of the so-called 'peace walls' has to be the most depressing place I have ever visited as a tourist, especially when I read (through the graffiti) the poems written by children in one of the few cross community projects that were posted on the walls. Ulster may have an open air museum outside Belfast, but there is history on the streets almost everywhere you go.