Museums in Northern Ireland have long focused on politics, history and civil conflict, so organising temporary exhibitions and permanent displays, and developing collecting policies, is often sensitive and disputed. The parameters of accepted interpretation have been made and remade by curators and academics, and are visible in national collections and special-interest museums.
It is this context, that makes CultureLab all the more exciting, risky, challenging, funny, thought provoking and revolutionary. The exhibition moves away from foregrounding the “accepted” parameters of interpretation of the recent conflict and instead provides a platform from which to explore and engage with the everyday lived experience. CultureLab provides a platform from which to explore common stereotypes, such as “are your eyes too close together?” or “do you kick with the other foot?”.
This isn’t the history we read about in books; this is the slang, the folklore and the assumptions that frame life in Northern Ireland. Things have changed, but stereotypes remain. Indeed, these stereotypes are perpetuated by a religiously separated education system – only about 7% of young people go to religiously integrated schools in Northern Ireland.
In this exhibition, we see reference to green and orange, or Catholic and Protestant culture, but it is placed in conversation with subcultures that developed during the recent conflict, and beyond. This exhibition seeks to introduce the idea that you can be more than one thing, challenging sectarian stereotypes through humour and introducing intersectionality as a more accurate model of understanding identity in contemporary Northern Ireland.
The exhibition opened with much hype around one of its objects and social media quickly began referring to it as “the blackboard exhibition”. The blackboard – a prop from the hit Channel 4 television series Derry Girls – is arguably the exhibition’s “star object”. It featured in a scene that asked Catholic and Protestant students to list their similarities and differences on two blackboards. The joke was that while the similarities board remained blank, the differences one quickly filled up.
The differences board highlights some common stereotypes about Catholic and Protestant culture and attitudes – these comical observations caused a flurry of social media posts – and when the episode first aired, texts flew between my friends and family mocking each other and debating the accuracy of the observations.
The Derry Girls drama took a unique look at life in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, putting youth culture, music, comedy and teenage drama at the foreground, with conflict as the omnipresent background – an approach that CultureLab successfully echoes. The blackboard was originally on loan from the production company behind Derry Girls, but it has now been acquired by Ulster Museum.
The exhibition uses audio accompanied by still images to challenge stereotypes. Visitors are invited to listen to a series of clips about life in Northern Ireland today – people talking about food, faith, education, family, sport and hobbies. Hung opposite the audio interactive is a series of portraits of average-looking people, and the visitor is tasked with matching the audio to the portrait. The exercise raises questions about how voice and experience relate to a person’s appearance. Does she look Catholic? Does he look sporty? Do they look like a teacher? The lesson, of course, is that you can’t judge a person by their appearance.
Alongside contemporary collecting, loans and the creation of new digital content, the exhibition engages creatively with the wider museum collection. Subcultures are introduced through ephemera including pin badges that reference contemporary LGBTQ equality campaigns, a Dior t-shirt that decrees “we should all be feminists”, and a medal awarded to a suffragette in 1914 (Lillian Metge, a hunger striker and alleged bomber).
Exhibition labels provide provocations (before the descriptions of objects), such as “Not all nationalists are Catholics” in relation to Alice Milligan, a leading literary figure in the Irish cultural revival, a Methodist and unionist, who became an active nationalist after the 1916 Easter Rising. “Symbols are simple, people are complex” helps to frame the discussion around republican hero Roger Casement, a former British civil servant who was knighted for his human-rights work (and then executed for treason for his role in the Easter Rising).
CultureLab is able to push boundaries and challenge existing curatorial approaches because it exists as a “project”. It is experimental, it is a lab and it is not meant to be the definitive interpretation or accepted narrative of identity in Northern Ireland today. The exhibition is part of the Making the Future programme that is funded by a €1.82m EU grant. The multi-partner project brings together National Museums NI, the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Linen Hall Library and creative arts organisation the Nerve Centre to “empower people to use museum collections and archives to explore the past and create a powerful vision for future change”. The project raises questions, rather than providing answers, positioning the museum as a “verb” – a place for making, thinking, growing, conversing and developing ideas, people and places.
The blackboard may serve as clickbait, but anyone that “clicks” or, more specifically, visits will find depth, criticality and a clever use of objects from across the National Museums NI collection. The exhibition is as interdisciplinary in its use of objects as it is intersectional when it comes to interpretation around identity. The exhibition looks at big issues, from abortion rights to LGBTQ equality, feminism and human rights. It exists in parallel to, rather than in competition with, accepted models of curatorial practice around the Troubles and gives voice to those who identify beyond the linear Catholic and Protestant tradition.
Oonagh Murphy is a lecturer in arts management at Goldsmiths, University of London
Focus on | Live history
Much of the history that we deal with at National Museums NI is very much a live history. While this provides us with the opportunity to find contemporary relevance through our engagement activity, it also presents many challenges in working with sensitivity and inclusivity, but also courage to challenge.
We have enhanced our skills and reputation in this area over the past decade through our Modern History and Troubles and Beyond projects. But Culture Lab presented an altogether different challenge for our team. Not only were we dealing with the sensitive issue of cultural identity in this part of the world, we also wanted to be future-focused and to appeal to the tastes of people who do not typically visit the Ulster Museum, particularly youth audiences.
There were many pieces to the puzzle: how we provoke and challenge using our collection; how we offer opportunity for interactivity and involvement in the debate; and how we build in real voices from the community participation aspect of the project. The creative glue that held the puzzle together was the inclusion of the infamous Derry Girls ‘Differences’ blackboard as the anchor point to the exhibition, which plays a critical role in dictating the tone – a mix of provocation, originality and humour.
The impact of the exhibition to date speaks for itself. Critically, it has enough mainstream appeal to “go viral”, but also has enough credibility to cause serious reflection of the cultural state of play in Northern Ireland.
William Blair is the director of collections at National Museums NI