Art of the Troubles, Ulster Museum, Belfast - Museums Association

Art of the Troubles, Ulster Museum, Belfast

The artworks in this exhibition are challenging, haunting and difficult but provide valuable insights into Northern Ireland’s troubled past, writes Oonagh Murphy
During the Troubles in Northern Ireland some 3,700 people were killed and there were about 50,000 explosions. These shocking figures greet visitors as they enter this exhibition, which features artists’ responses to the sectarian violence that blighted the country for so many years.

They figures are a poignant reminder of how raw and sensitive this period of recent history is to people, but they also frame this exhibition as significant and unparalleled in terms of scope and scale for the Ulster Museum. Art of the Troubles features work by 50 artists, and comprises 60 works in a variety of media.

The exhibition was developed in partnership with Wolverhampton Art Gallery and includes work from there as well as the Ulster Museum and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, among others.

It is striking to note that while this exhibition is temporary, Wolverhampton, unlike the Ulster Museum, has a permanent display of works relating to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Wolverhampton, free from political scrutiny and beyond the reach of those directly affected by the Troubles, has developed a collection of contemporary art relating to Northern Ireland within the context of collecting art that addresses the political and social landscape of modern Britain.

The Ulster Museum has had a more turbulent relationship with the collection and display of art relating to the Troubles, a relationship that is noted in the text panels associated with certain key pieces in this exhibition.

In 1978, porters at the Ulster Museum refused to hang Silver Liberties: A Souvenir of a Wonderful Anniversary Year, a mixed-media piece by Conrad Atkinson that critiques the British Army’s actions on Bloody Sunday, one of the most controversial incidents that occurred during this period.

On 30 January 1972, the British Army shot 26 people, 13 fatally, at a civil rights march in Derry. Following a judge-led investigation the British government decreed that the dead and injured were armed combatants.

However, this investigation was found to be a whitewash and following the publication of the 2010 Saville inquiry, the prime minster David Cameron made a full apology to victims’ families in the House of Commons.

Five themes

This is the first time that Atkinson’s piece has been hung in the Ulster Museum since the 1978 walk out and its subsequent removal from the exhibition. The text panel notes that this was not the only piece removed from the 1978 exhibition.

However, it does not name the other pieces, which left me curious. I wanted to know what other works were considered controversial at that time, and if they feature in this exhibition.

Overall, the interpretation is interesting and contextually vivid. One minor annoyance was the small text size, which left me and many visitors squinting to read it.

The exhibition is split into five thematic strands: Conflict, Captured, Community, Circumstance and Continuance. Each section has a short introduction explaining the thematic linking of works within the exhibition.

Continuance was the strand that stood out for me. This looks at Northern Ireland after 1998 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace.

It was interesting to examine the remnants of conflict within society through the lens of art. We see cultural legacies such as Ursula Burke’s ceramic bonfires, which examine the nature of 11th Night Bonfires in Protestant communities. There is also Donovan Wylie’s photographs of the Maze prison complex, which acted as a stage for many key moments in the Troubles.

The physical infrastructure of conflict is still evident in Northern Ireland and this exhibition concludes by taking the everyday, from bonfires to prisons to peace talks, and challenges us to question their place within contemporary society.

Political journalist Eamonn Mallie has said that he had an immediate visceral response to the exhibition, a sudden and immediate feeling of tension. Art of the Troubles is very challenging.

The exhibition features the artistic representation of articles of torture, such as Shankill Butchers’ Knives by André Stitt, Xerox prints of the actual instruments of torture that were used to kill 23 people.

As someone from a Catholic background, I know my community feared this group and I felt uncomfortable standing in front of this artwork, but how would one of their victims feel when faced with this image?


Joseph McWilliams’ Community Door 2 is a mixed-media piece that centres on a door that was firebombed. This is not a hand-crafted sculpture, it is a readymade, an actual door, a remnant of violence that has been removed from the context of the act and placed in the gallery.

The impact of the exhibition was also heightened by a mixed-media piece titled Ballad No 7 by Philip Napier, an accordion that plays a painful drone across the gallery. The artist chose the accordion as one of the few instruments evident in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions.

The piece is so loud that it causes sound bleed, which has an impact on the viewing of a video by Willie Doherty, a work that is already haunting and made even more so by the addition of Napier’s accordion.

The Ulster Museum deserves much credit for this exhibition. Art of the Troubles makes for difficult viewing, but it is also an important reminder of the journey that Northern Ireland has made.

As we enter the summer months, a time of heightened tensions in Northern Ireland, this exhibition should be required viewing for all young people, a reminder of how one stone, one hastily shouted insult, is the first step towards a return to our violent past.

While the tension created an important immediacy to the work, an area for quiet reflection would have been welcome. It needs a space to process this exhibition within the context of a visitor's own experience, be that as a perpetrator of violence, a victim, or as a grieving relative.

Oonagh Murphy is a freelance arts manager, writer and lecturer

Spotlight on... Engagement and legacy

When the Ulster Museum reopened in 2009, plans for an exhibition of artistic responses to the Troubles were already underway in partnership with Wolverhampton Art Gallery, which has an extensive collection of artworks relating to Northern Ireland.

Given the complex, sensitive nature of the subject, we felt it was essential for us to engage with a number of groups, including victims of the Troubles, to explore our approach.

In curating the exhibition the artists’ individual voices were at the fore, and we decided that the legacy of the exhibition should not be a standard exhibition catalogue, but an evolving range of actual and virtual interpretations.

A significant public programme of events was developed, including a series of artists’ lectures, performances and a conference, along with an online archive. This archive includes films of the artists talking about their personal experiences and additional images of their creative responses to the Troubles. Since opening, Art of the Troubles has had an overwhelmingly positive response from the public.

Kim Mawhinney is the head of art at National Museums Northern Ireland

Project data

  • Cost undisclosed
  • Main funder Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure
  • Curator Kim Mawhinney
  • Exhibition ends 7 September
  • Art of the Troubles will be at Wolverhampton Art Gallery from 1 November-28 February 2015

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