“This gallery aims to provide a platform for conversation and debate about our recent past. It seeks to explore not only our political history, but also the important social, economic and cultural changes that were taking place here and around the world. We are very aware that this is a challenging subject to deal with.”
The mission statement of Ulster Museum’s The Troubles and Beyond permanent exhibition speaks to contemporary expectations of public history as conserved and curated in the museum space: an interpretive framework for understanding the past in an unresolved present.
As the historian Ludmilla Jordonova said at the inaugural Centre for Public History Conference in 2017 at Queen’s University Belfast: “Public history is the place where the most difficult political, ethical and social issues can be looked in the face.”
Opening its doors on Good Friday 2018, 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, The Troubles and Beyond gallery provides visitors from Northern Ireland, and beyond, with a creative space in which to share the tangible effects of the Troubles on lives, past and present, through artefacts, photographs and personal testimonies. Expertly designed and sensitively curated, this exhibition brings people together on an evocative, emotional journey through the museum and the Troubles.
The show chronicles the period from the civil rights marches of 1968 to Northern Ireland’s early-21st century experiences of power-sharing and post-conflict society. This is an interesting chronological framework.
The familiarity of the civil rights movement as a historical “beginning” – displayed with startling reality in the form of the politician Gerry Fitt’s blood-stained shirt – is brought to an uncertain narrative conclusion in the gallery’s final exhibits, which include a collection of prints documenting the divisive communal issues of flags, the Irish language and Brexit.
The Troubles and Beyond reminds visitors that the future of the past is open to interpretation and allows for reflection on particular periods of this contested history. The gallery is laid out chronologically, with the displays arranged primarily according to decade – the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s are presented as discrete histories of the Troubles.
Each decade is signposted for visitors at eye-level and above. They are colour coded with the black-gold exhibition theme, against the white space used for wall text and labels.
Visitor flow and experience are maintained well by structured graphic panel design. Outward-facing panels contain main section introductions, outlining the international context and significant social, political and cultural changes in Northern Ireland during each decade. A timeline of world events further informs roving visitors. The liberating open-plan design of the exhibition space guides interested visitors into each decade’s display of artefacts, photographs, artwork and detailed label text.
It is a comprehensive exhibition with an impressive range of material, from artefacts, textiles and crafts to prints, artworks and ephemera. A significant number of objects were acquired through a process of collaboration and conversations with local communities and individuals. As a result, the show is a display of great diversity and reciprocity.
Unsurprisingly, political sources are well represented. A civil rights handbill distributed to theatregoers outside New York’s Carnegie Hall reads, “You saw it in Selma… now take a look at it in Northern Ireland”, offering a vivid reminder that the Troubles were a global event; the looming presence of a British bomb disposal robot brings back memories closer to home.
A poppy wreath salvaged from the rubble of the Remembrance Day bomb in Enniskillen strikes at the heart of the visitor experience, encouraging people to stop and think.
There are brighter moments, too. A memorandum to the final draft of the Good Friday Agreement, signed by more than 30 delegates including the politicians George Mitchell, John Hume and David Trimble, is historic. The hands of history are exhibited elsewhere in the form of a satirical chess set of clay sculptures, depicting politicians Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Ian Paisley, among others.
The balance between the Troubles and their times is carefully curated throughout. The destructive effects of political violence are interposed with displays of everyday cultural life.
A leather jacket from the punk band The Outcasts recalls the halcyon days (and nights) of Belfast’s Good Vibrations counter-culture, the futuristic Ulster-built DeLorean sports car appears in a 1981 Ulster Motor Show programme and the gold medal awarded to the pentathlon champion Mary Peters at the 1972 Munich Olympics evidences a lifetime’s achievement.
It is hoped that the Troubles and Beyond will continue to bring Northern Ireland’s cultural and sporting histories back from the past. And finally, the gallery makes the case for telling the Troubles as a social history. The tableau of ephemera forming Helen Averley’s quilt, Weave of Diversity, offers an eclectic snapshot of communities at peace in Northern Ireland.
Other exhibits speak to resonant social issues. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition election poster, “Wave goodbye dinosaurs”, signified a cross-community impetus for electoral change in the 1990s led by women. A souvenir T-shirt from the first gay pride march in Belfast in 1991, meanwhile, situates current debates on equality in Northern Ireland in historical time and place. This inclusive and representative gallery tells a new history of the Troubles.
Taken together, The Troubles and Beyond makes for an immersive experience, a salient feature being museological silence, which should engage visitors in a deep, meaningful interaction with the exhibits.
Despite the vast audiovisual media available to its curatorial team, the gallery steers clear of the subjectivity of soundscape. The exhibition designers have resisted the tendency to subjective curatorial voice – selective news footage, audible interviews, voluble sound effects – to facilitate a more open dialogue in the museum space for visitors. This is a core idea to the display.
Other voices emerge from the silence. Panel testimonials of lives lived and lost introduce visitors to victims of the Troubles: “My name is…”, “Patrick Mooney was…”. It is a personal conversation between past and present. The engagement effected by “silent dialogue”, between exhibit and visitor, is powerfully displayed in the gallery’s closing visual – responses from the public to the exhibition and remembrances of the Troubles.
Ulster Museum has created a participatory space and this experience will be sustained through lectures, workshops and outreach events.
The Troubles and Beyond asks all the right questions: what caused a protracted, internecine conflict in Northern Ireland? How did people live with political violence? When, in the 21st century, can we begin to speak of “after”? These and other debates will continue within, and beyond, the museum. But those seeking solutions will inevitably return to this exhibition. Its voices and visitors, together, have the answers.
Darragh Gannon is a research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. The Troubles and how they are interepreted in museums will be discussed in a seminar at the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Belfast, 8-10 November
Focus on Co-production
In 2016 National Museums Northern Ireland began a new initiative entitled Collecting the Troubles and Beyond, with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The aim of the project has been to widen the scope of the collection, supported by greater academic and community engagement, in order to enhance our interpretation of our recent past.
Our aim with the Troubles and Beyond exhibition was to explore controversial issues through critical narrative and interpretation in order to present multiple perspectives and offer the opportunity for dialogue and debate.
We took a phased approach to the development of the exhibition and spent time working with community groups to establish the significance of events and objects through workshops and dialogue. This brought the important element of co-production to the project.
Audience involvement was also encouraged through events and touring exhibitions that took collections to local venues. This both raised awareness of the project and offered members of the public the opportunity to comment on, or contribute to, the proposed content for the Ulster Museum exhibition. At all stages we collated feedback, and we continue to encourage this open conversation.
In order to align with best practice and promote discourse from a museological perspective, we held seminar days to explore themes of diversity and the sensitivities involved in interpreting conflict.
An Academic Advisory Group was established to advise on overall approach, context, accuracy, inclusiveness and balance.
The exhibition was informed by all of these processes and the result affords new opportunities to stimulate dialogue within the space.
The Troubles and Beyond exhibition is not just focused on conflict, and extends to post-conflict Northern Ireland, though the violence of the Troubles and its impact is left unresolved. As a result, there are numerous entry points to continue an effective conversation on sharing lived experience and building mutual understanding within, and between, communities.
Karen Logan is the curator of history at National Museums Northern Ireland
- Cost £135,000
- Main funders National Museums Northern Ireland; Heritage Lottery Fund Collecting Cultures Programme
- Exhibition design Redman Design
- Graphic design Redman Design
- Exhibition build McLaughlin & Harvey
- Interpretation National Museums Northern Ireland
- Drama production Kabosh Theatre Company
- Audiovisual National Museums Northern Ireland
- Lighting National Museums Northern Ireland
- Display cases ClickNetherfield