Engagement and Empathy: ‘Post conflict’ interpretation of The Troubles in Northern Ireland

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Engagement and Empathy: ‘Post conflict’ interpretation of The Troubles in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland the past, the present and hopes and fears for the future have traditionally produced apparently irreconcilable opposites. Until relatively recently this was, notoriously, a frequently lethal cocktail. The violence that erupted in 1969 had its roots deep in divisions caused by Ireland’s history of conquest, settlement and colonisation. In the twentieth century, the divided political allegiances and aspirations of Unionists and Nationalists led to the partition of Ireland in 1921. The recent Troubles were fuelled by nationalist grievances against the Unionist-dominated government of Northern Ireland (which was dissolved in 1972), combined with Unionist suspicion that those campaigning for change were actually intent on the destruction of the state. The peace process which began in the 1990s was made possible by paramilitary ceasefires by Republicans and Loyalists and culminated in the political agreement of 1998 (usually referred to as the ‘Belfast Agreement’ or ‘Good Friday Agreement’). This was subsequently endorsed by referendums in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The process was consolidated by a further agreement in 2006 which stabilised the inclusive power sharing government. Northern Ireland is now widely viewed as an international model of good practice for conflict resolution. However, dealing with the legacy of the conflict remains a significant challenge.
Interpreting the Troubles

In Northern Ireland (as elsewhere) political aspirations and social attitudes are often underpinned by emotional perceptions of history and ethnicity. The political agenda has also shaped the wider cultural terrain, at least superficially. Political insularity can result in cultural insularity – at least in those areas of cultural life that are worn as badges of identity.

However, whilst Northern Ireland may have appeared to be frozen during the conflict, below the surface society was changing and the politics too was evolving. Cultural identity was creatively interrogated with aim of finding ways of positively acknowledging the diversity, and the legitimacy, of the various traditions which co-exist in the province.
In Ireland the past is not a ‘foreign country’- it continues to shape important aspects of contemporary cultural and political identity. Related to this is the issue of remembrance –what is remembered and by whom, when, how and why? Defining events in Irish history have been both memorialised and mythologized, and separating myth from reality has preoccupied historians for decades. National Museums Northern Ireland has traditionally sought to open up new perspectives on such events and their legacy by placing the local within an international context, or by taking a multidisciplinary approach which combines historical and anthropological disciplines to explore ethnicity and cultural traditions.1
The last major temporary exhibition developed by the Ulster Museum before it closed for refurbishment in 2006 began to address the recent Troubles. Entitled Conflict: The Irish at War, it sought to explore the theme of conflict from the earliest human settlement to the recent past, including a section on the Troubles (which became a particular focus of public interest).
The new Ulster Museum reopened in October 2009 after a £17.5m refurbishment, which brought about a complete transformation of the museum’s visitor facilities, public spaces and galleries. The success of the project has been recognised through various awards, including the prestigious Art Fund Prize for Museum and Galleries in the UK in 2010.
The Museum now features a suite of new history galleries which cover the history of Ireland from early settlement to the present. The history galleries conclude with a new dedicated exhibition on the Troubles, the first time that the subject has been addressed within the Museum’s permanent galleries. During the design development process various interpretative ideas were considered, but not fully resolved. The Museum ultimately chose to take an approach which offers a platform of information on a range of topics that relate to the core narrative of political conflict and violence. These include: Civil Rights, Summer Violence 1969, Political Developments, The Bombing Campaigns, Internment, Prisons, Bloody Sunday, The British Army, Paramilitaries, Policing, Peace Initiatives, The Republic of Ireland, Policing, Omagh 1998, Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment. The three-dimensional architecture of the space evokes a sense of urban inner city housing, with information presented on ‘gable ends’ (traditionally a favoured location for political murals in Northern Ireland). The result is a coherent but limited treatment of the subject.
The exhibition does not currently contain artefacts, which has generated both comment and criticism. The reason for this does not reflect any institutional reluctance in principle, but rather the difficulty of sensitively incorporating artefacts within the current design concept. The limitations of the existing collection were also a factor. Contemporary history and contemporary collecting have not been strengths of the Ulster Museum – but both are now defined as priorities as we seek to enhance our interpretation of our recent part.

The gallery is introduced with the following statement:

The period of Northern Ireland’s recent history from 1968 is usually referred to as ‘The Troubles’. Much of the period, because it is so recent and because it was so traumatic, is still bitterly remembered by those who were injured, their families and the families of those who died. In all there were some 3,700 deaths, around 50,000 explosions and innumerable sectarian incidents.
This gallery is arranged around particular events and themes. Some of them may be upsetting – most of them remain contentious. We acknowledge the sensitivity and the deeply held views about the issues reflected here. The exhibition is not intended as a comprehensive account of all that happened but rather as a broad platform of information about complex issues which have shaped our recent history. We welcome feedback on the approach and on the potential to develop the gallery.’
Since it opened, over 700 visitors have been surveyed on their response to the exhibition. 85% of those surveyed feel that the sensitivity with which the subject was handled was ‘very’ or ‘fairly good’; 77% of those surveyed rated the content of the exhibition as ‘very’ or ‘fairly good’, while 19% rated it as ‘very’ or ‘fairly poor’. The findings indicate that most visitors find Troubles gallery to be interesting and balanced. Criticism of the gallery comes from both Unionist and Nationalist perspectives, which attests to a degree of balance but also reflects the acute sensitivities which exist around the selection and presentation of content. The gallery is seen as most suitable for adults because of the volume of information to be read. Many visitors highlighted the usefulness of the timeline while others suggested that the gallery as a whole required a more overt chronological structure.
Visitors have indicated a clear desire for original artefacts, interactive exhibits, human stories (‘fewer politicians and more real people’), and more media coverage from the time. This summary however only superficially communicates the thoughtful and perceptive nature of much of the feedback received. A better indication of what visitors want can be gained by examples of the comments themselves.

  • ‘Social history. The Troubles from the perspective of ordinary people, it is too politician / police / paramilitary oriented.’

  • ‘The panels require a lot of reading and the information needs enrichment with artefacts displayed. It is all brutal, harsh, unyielding – displaying and confronting us with the awfulness of the past but it needs to stimulate people to move beyond the past. The gallery has made a start but a lot more is needed.’

  • ‘More artefacts like in the rest of the historical exhibition would be good. Rather than just texts. It would make this part of Ireland’s history look/feel less disconnected from the rest.’

  • ‘Maybe a bit more about the common cultural bonds between Protestants and Catholics: music, movies, traditions of language.’

  • ‘It needs more on the everyday life during the Troubles and to focus on positives not just the violence/politics.’

  • ‘The deeper human (emotional) aspect is missed.’

  • ‘Perhaps you should have a revolving gallery of visitors’ thoughts on the walls.’

  • ‘Further info on the impact on people’s daily lives. … I know that Belfast is more than the Troubles and rightly wants to be known for more than that, but more info for tourists will show the tenacity and grit of Northern Irelanders.’

  • ‘The role of other global events in influencing both the Troubles and the peace process – role of a growing global inter-connectness in driving peace – the more people understand the broader world the less important the smaller cultural differences.’

  • ‘Some real exhibits, evidence of the impact on ordinary people; use some colour – black and white emphasises the bleak but makes it all seem ancient history, not recent’.

  • ‘Troubles gallery doesn’t present anything that couldn’t be read in a book or on the internet’

The challenge therefore is clear. To pro-actively and creatively address this challenge National Museums Northern Ireland has developed initiatives which together will provide a basis for new concepts and interpretive approaches to be reflected in a completely re-developed gallery.

Alternative Ulster

During the Troubles the newsworthy violence has been the prism through which most outsiders have viewed Northern Ireland. In reality, much of Northern Ireland maintained a veneer of ‘normality’, and for visitors it was often the apparent normality that was most striking. In reality, the Troubles affected society in ways that were often invisible, but insidious - tension, anxiety and distrust often lay under the surface. Nonetheless, people in Northern Ireland showed remarkable resilience and a striking ability to ‘get on with their lives’ in difficult circumstances, refusing to have their lives completely defined and constrained by the conflict. An important issue therefore for the Museum to address is how to move beyond a narrative based purely on politics and conflict to explore, in a more nuanced manner, the social responses to conflict. A new initiative - ‘Alternative Ulster: Social Lives and Street Styles’ - begins to address this.

The term ‘Alternative Ulster’ has its origins in the 1979 album, ‘Inflammable Material’, by the Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers, which contains a track by the same name – a local anthem. As a concept, the aim of this project is to reveal and interpret additional dimensions of Northern Ireland’s recent past. In essence, Alternative Ulster reveals how many people refused to be defined by the Troubles, and the traditional tribal identities of Catholic and Protestant / Unionist and Nationalist / Orange and Green.
The current focus is on music, fashion and social life, but this will ultimately be extended to include other aspects of counter culture and social change. The project provides an impetus for contemporary collecting in the field of social and cultural history. The visible expression of the project currently is a Facebook page of the same name - an innovation for the Ulster Museum in terms of curatorial applications of social networking. The level of engagement and interest in this page demonstrates the relevance of this theme and its potential to reach out to new audiences.
The project has attracted academic interest in the form of the University of Liverpool’s research project Collecting and Curating Popular Music Histories. Alternative Ulster offers insight into the role of music in an environment characterised by conflict and highlights how exploration of popular music moves beyond nostalgia to an understanding of complex expressions of individual and group identity. In the Northern Ireland context, these cultural forms challenge and undermine political/tribal stereotypes (and external perceptions of Northern Ireland). The project extends our understanding of the value of collecting popular culture and demonstrates how material collected can enhance interpretation and engagement in important new directions for the museum.
Facing the Past

To provide deeper engagement with the Troubles, National Museums Northern Ireland has developed an ambitious project entitled ‘Facing the Past’. This project brings National Museums Northern Ireland together in partnership with the BBC and WAVE (a local organisation which works with victims and survivors of trauma). The focus of this collaboration is a two year programme which combines community engagement, exhibitions and the creation of new digital resources. Funding is currently being sought from the European Union Special Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

The BBC will digitise its local news coverage over the years of the Troubles and this will be made available for real time access in the Ulster Museum. It will give an immediate sense of the lived experience of the Troubles and how violence co-existed with everyday life. WAVE, which has for many years supported victims of the Troubles in telling their stories, will collect stories from diverse sources, such as nurses and journalists whose work brought them into close contact with the conflict. A touring exhibition will also be developed which will travel across Northern Ireland and the border counties. As well as providing a stimulus for engagement, this will provide opportunities to pilot new approaches and ideas that will support the re-development of permanent gallery. The key aim will be to give people an opportunity to tell their stories, through objects and through recording their memories.
An important priority will be to ensure that the new Troubles gallery can serve as a rich learning resource for people of all ages. Recent studies have emphasised the important role that education can play in societies emerging from conflict in helping children and young people both to understand a violent past and to contribute to a shared and more peaceful future.2 National Museums Northern Ireland has a critical role to play in enabling visitors to understand the complex multi-faceted nature of our shared history. It can open up discussion and exploration in a forum that can support diverse learning styles - both formal and informal. In essence, we tell stories through objects. In relation to the Troubles, the particular challenge is to reflect the multiple meanings that objects can hold for people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and to create exhibitions that reveal different experiences of the same historical period.

National Museums Northern Ireland’s evolving interpretation of the Troubles aims to promote empathy, engagement, critical awareness and understanding. Our ultimate goal is to develop an approach to interpreting our difficult recent past in a manner that offers layered interpretation with multiple entry points catering to diverse visitor needs. A creative exploration of what might be conceptualised as the emotional content of our collections will be a key challenge. New directions under consideration include a layered interpretative approach which prioritizes diverse human stories linked to an expanded collection and wrapped in relevant context, including news coverage of the period. This would involve the creative application of new technology in the form of multi-media interactives, user generated content and accessible, rich digital resources.

Achieving this will require a thoroughgoing assimilation of the innovative social history methodologies that have engendered the transformation of museum theory and practice and helped shape the themes of involvement and ownership; representation and identity; relevance and value.3 In essence we are striving for a people-centred approach that captures and evokes a sense of the personality of Northern Ireland and the character of our people; their resilience, humour, and creativity. This can be found in a deeper exploration of social context and through creative expressions of music, literature, film, sport and other cultural forms.
National Museums Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to do this. This presents a significant challenge, but only the Ulster Museum can locate our recent past within the broad sweep of Irish history and the cultural context offered by our multi-disciplinary collections.
Museums are not simply about the past, but also the present and the future. Post conflict interpretation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland requires a sensitive awareness of the relationship between all three.
William Blair

Head of Human History

1 For example, Kings in Conflict at the Ulster Museum and Remembering 1690 at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, both of which marked the 300th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1990. The former located the events in Ireland firmly with a broad European context; the latter took an anthropological approach which reflected how organisations like the Orange Institution and the Ancient Order of Hibernians remembered the Williamite wars through their material culture of banners and the associated portrayal of significant events and personalities.

2 Clare Magill, Alan Smith and Brandon Hamber, The Role of Education in Reconciliation: The Perspectives of Children and Young People in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Northern Ireland (Belfast: University of Ulster, 2009)

3 David Fleming, ‘Social History in Museums: 35 Years of Progress’, Social History in Museums, 35 (2010), 39-40

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