Teenage kicks | The Derry Girls Experience, Tower Museum, Derry-Londonderry - Museums Association

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Teenage kicks | The Derry Girls Experience, Tower Museum, Derry-Londonderry

This tribute to a popular sitcom also provides social and political commentary
Karen Logan
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Visitors are invited to take a trip around a character's bedroom using an iPad Courtesy of Derry City and Strabane District Council

The award-winning television series about a group of girls from Derry and their wide-eyed “wee English fella” has become a hit around the world and will, I’m sure, continue to have a lasting legacy, particularly here in its city of origin.

The Derry Girls Experience at the Tower Museum opened in July and features original items from the show, including costumes, props and set pieces, courtesy of television production company Hat Trick Productions and the show’s creator, the playwright and screenwriter Lisa McGee.

Although grounded in local humour, Derry Girls has achieved a global audience through Netflix and has a wide fan-base. However, what about those who have never watched the series – does this experience cater for them? The short answer is yes.

A good way to start

Cleverly, the introduction begins with, “In case you’ve never heard of Derry Girls”, while simultaneously acknowledging that it is the most-watched series in Northern Ireland.

The exhibition opens with a section on McGee, who grounded the series in her own lived experience as a teenager in the 1990s and includes a feature wall introducing the main characters in the show.

A photo of the entrance panel to the Derry Girls exhibition, showing a photo of the girls
A feature wall guides the uninitiated through the show's main protagonistsCourtesy of Derry City and Strabane District Council

As you enter the exhibition, the first objects you see relate to two of the show’s main characters – Clare and James. On display is Clare’s school uniform, complete with rainbow badge, and James’s camcorder, which is captioned in the context of making and watching home videos.

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It makes it clear from the outset that this exhibition is about more than a television series, it’s about memory and identity and all the things that shape us growing up. There is an important parallel here with the show itself which, at the same time as being incredibly funny, challenges us to reflect on our cultural identity in a place where it remains sensitive and disputed.

Step into the 1990s

Having been given an overview of the characters, the first we encounter in detail is Erin, the main role in the show and the one McGee admits is based on herself. A small display case includes personal items, her diary and jewellery.

An interactive screen allows us to flip through pages of Erin’s diary and using an iPad we can “open” the door to her bedroom and explore the objects inside.

The Derry Girls Experience app provides an audioguide that gives more context to the characters and further information from the series. The app also includes a map of the exhibition, a virtual tour, visitor information and news stories.

Four women sit on a sofa together in a Derry Girls set while another woman takes a photo of them
The Derry Girls sets are open for visitors Courtesy of Derry City and Strabane District Council

This interactivity and multi-layered approach adds greatly to the engagement, and in that sense makes this stronger as an experience than an exhibition.

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The interpretive tools used improve its accessibility, and the interactivity caters for a range of ages and creates a more active environment within the space, which when I visited was busy and lively.

In the central area are two set installations, the Quinns’ Homestead and the Quinns’ Kitchen. These are openly accessible allowing visitors to interact with them and be photographed sitting at the kitchen table or on the sofa. The installations are rich with props that evoke memories, both of the show and of people’s own lived experience.

A simple “Did You Know” board on the table allows further interactivity as visitors lift the flaps to discover, for example, that Ma Mary’s “bacon and egg” jumper was custom-knit for the show. The jumper is displayed on one of three mannequins in the set installations, which are important in representing characters in the space.

A trip down memory lane

A large display case presents a lovely range of objects to represent the Quinn household and again provides a talking point for visitors as they recall much of its 1990s-themed content. Examples range from Kellogg’s Pop Tarts to Fatboy Slim concert tickets, to Smash Hits magazine.

There are serious elements. “We got the gist. They ran out of spuds, everyone was raging.” Michelle gave this eloquent summary of the Irish potato famine in her haste to prepare for an exam.

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Fortunately, the curators at the Tower Museum gave much greater consideration to the context and legacy of the Derry Girls series and included a section on “The Troubles and Derry Girls” alongside objects relating to the peace process and the electoral ID cards for the main characters.

A man and a woman look at a display case full of memorabilia
A range of objects remind visitors of the 1990s

The third and final Derry Girls series ends with the cast voting in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in what is an incredibly poignant and powerful episode that represents the wider hopes and fears of the time. The exhibition needed to reflect this and has done so well. However, it would have been more impactful as a conclusion to the exhibition.

Other content relates to the school that the girls attend, Our Lady Immaculate College, where visitors can use an iPad to explore Sister Michael’s office and on a separate screen watch excerpts from the series.

Further on in the exhibition there is a display case of objects relating to the school, a clothes rail of costumes, such as the “Derry” Spice Girls outfits from the show’s Starz in their Eyez event, and Fra’s train trolley props.

These are potentially interesting displays but, as a result of the layout, appear out of sequence and do not seem to have the same colour and wraparound graphics that gives the main body of the exhibition coherence.

An insight into society

The Derry Girls Experience is an important exhibition for the Tower Museum. It is supported by a lot of visuals, merchandise and interest across the city. It offers an excellent insight into both the television series and the wider social and political context in which it is set.

The level of interactivity and multimedia is a strength and defines this as an experience, but the object-rich content and clever interpretation, which meaningfully situates this in a wider, real-life, context gives it merit as an exhibition as well.

Karen Logan is senior curator of history at National Museums NI

Project data
Cost
£80,000
Main funders
Tourism NI; Derry City & Strabane District Council
Supporter
Hat Trick Productions
Graphic design
Epic
Exhibition design
Epic; Tower Museum
Curation
Tower Museum
Exhibition ends
July 2024
Admission
Adult £4; child £2; concessions £2.40

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