By Katie McClurkin
Just weeks after the Troubles and Beyond Gallery opened to the public on March 30, I can still easily summon the feeling of nervous anticipation that hung in the air that morning. Despite the best of intentions it is impossible to predict how the public will react to any exhibit. I joined the team of people from National Museums NI on the Collecting the Troubles and Beyond initiative and the Troubles and Beyond Gallery as a part of my PhD in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University. My research focuses on how material culture lends itself to the interpretation of contested history and history education. The modern history of Northern Ireland is obviously contentious. The history is intensely personal and ever present in urban and rural landscapes of Northern Ireland. With that in mind National Museums NI accepted the challenge of interpreting the recent past with respect and restraint. It has been a privilege to watch the gallery develop into a space that doesn’t shy away from the difficult narratives, rather it invites and encourages people to join conversation.
The Troubles gallery first opened at the Ulster Museum in 2009 with an exhibition of black and white images and thematic text. While it was informative and provided a factual account of the conflict, its impact was limited by the absence of original artefacts and multiple perspectives. National Museums NI has since responded to criticisms of the gallery through the Collecting the Troubles and Beyond project. Their approach has been to encourage dialogue and develop the collection through consultation with the community and relevant organisations to enable better representation of the recent past. The result is a new exhibition that uses objects to explore complex aspects of social, political, personal, and economic life in Northern Ireland.
The new ‘Troubles and Beyond’ gallery is structured chronologically from the summer of 1969 up to the present day, including material relating to a 'post conflict' Northern Ireland. Each decade section includes a wide range of material culture from that respective period. In the 1970s section for instance, visitors can see evidence of Northern Ireland's presence on an international stage in the form of Mairead Corrigan's Nobel Peace Prize medal and Mary Peters' Olympic gold medal. However, in the same section there is evidence of the escalating violent tension represented through artefacts relating to paramilitary activity and the security forces. The content relating to each decade engages visitors, challenges perspectives, and promotes conversations.
So why are the objects so important? We rely on primary sources to interpret history. The sources act as evidence; a voice from the past that can still be heard today. Material culture, although not a traditional primary source, helps us understand the stories of people, places, and events that were written out of the traditional narrative, silenced in some way, or simply undocumented. The objects in the Troubles and Beyond gallery are primary sources that allow us as curators, historians, and museum visitors to re-examine and challenge the accepted narrative of the past. Every object in the gallery has its own story and helps us to ask and answer questions about the object, its owner or creator, its function, the context around it and much more.
The exhibition was designed to provide a platform for conversation. In my opinion, the Ulster Museum has succeeded in creating an arena of multivocality where voices from the past and present, old and young, those who lived through the Troubles, and those who are in Belfast for the first time can engage with difficult subjects and exchange ideas. For NMNI the new gallery represents the institutions willingness to critically reflect on their role in interpreting history and amend their approach. Importantly, it also represents the experiences of the numerous donors who have entrusted NMNI with a piece of their story. The gallery will continue to develop over time as new objects come in and our understanding of the past develops. The Troubles and Beyond exhibition is not perfect, but represents a positive step forward for the Ulster Museum. It is a step in the right direction as they continue to interpret complex narratives and build inclusive, respectful areas for history education.