At National Museums NI, we are committed to decolonising our museums and collections. We recognise that decolonisation will be an ongoing process, as we learn and adapt in response to consultation. We have much further to go with this work, but we will ensure we act, change, listen, learn and develop.
We are very interested in feedback, and we welcome dialogue, particularly with those for whom the collections have special relevance and significance. If you would like to talk to us please contact our Curatorial department.
What is decolonisation?
The Museums Association has defined decolonisation as follows:
‘Decolonisation is not simply the relocation of a statue or an object; it is a long-term process that seeks to recognise the integral role of empire in museums – from their creation to the present day. Decolonisation requires a reappraisal of our institutions and their history and an effort to address colonial structures and approaches to all areas of museum work.’
The context here
For museums across the island of Ireland, consideration needs to be given to the particular context and sensitivities associated with colonialism in this place. In Northern Ireland in particular, concepts of ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ should be explored and considered thoughtfully, given the cross-fertilisation of culture and cultural fusion that underpins our society today.
Historians and other scholars disagree over the extent to which Ireland was actually a colony at all (as opposed to a sister kingdom and then part of the United Kingdom), and there is also the complex question of Ireland's part in the colonial project - was it exploited or exploitative (or both)? In considering these issues, museums must support exploration and public discourse in a way that moves beyond old historical tropes/binaries, and instead challenges stereotypical views of history.
In looking at issues relating to culture, identity and the legacy of the past within our own communities and experiences, we must be careful not to undermine the core principle of decolonisation, which is to address racism and exclusionary practices. Annex E (Rights, Language and Identity) of A New Decade, New Approach (January 2020) recognises ‘the need to encourage and promote reconciliation, tolerance and meaningful dialogue between those of different national and cultural identities in Northern Ireland with a view to promoting parity of esteem, mutual respect, understanding and cooperation’. We absolutely should interrogate the British Empire and its legacy, and the different roles Ireland has performed within that, but in a hospitable and informative way, respecting different identities and perspectives.
In December 2020, the Board of Trustees of National Museums NI approved the following commitments:
- To embed a decolonisation approach - We will foreground this in relevant corporate plans and policies, including the National Museums NI Ethics Policy. We will seek National Museums NI Ethics Policy opportunities to widen understanding of the meaning of decolonisation, within and outside the organisation, through training and advocacy.
- To interrogate our collections and sites - We need to understand the ways in which colonialism is rooted in our collections and sites, for example, in the collections we hold, the language we use to document them and the ways in which we interpret them for the public. We will undertake this interrogation through discrete research and development projects.
- To nurture and learn from partnerships - We recognise that much of the expertise and experiences required to inform a decolonisation approach lie outside our museums. Partnerships with academia and the wider museum sector will be important, but even more fundamental will be partnerships with source communities and those with lived experience of racism and exclusionary practices.
- To be honest and transparent - This work will be a learning journey for us, and we will not always get it right. It is important that we share this journey, in all its successes and failures, with our audiences. This will help open up opportunities to collaborate with, listen to and learn from others.
Priorities and progress
The World Cultures Collection
The World Cultures Collection
The World Cultures collection numbers some 4,500 items. It is closely linked to the history of the Ulster Museum and primarily covers material from the Arctic, Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania (including Australia and New Zealand). Most items were acquired in the 19th and early 20th centuries, by members of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, and were later transferred to the ownership of the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery and subsequently to National Museums NI.
Whilst the motivation behind the acquisition of ethnological material can appear strange today, it reflected curiosity about the wider world and a desire to present diverse cultures in Belfast. However, the European bias and power imbalances that characterised this collecting leave a complex and sensitive legacy to address today. Whilst some material was acquired legitimately, the collection does include objects acquired by theft and violence, through means now deemed highly unethical. The implementation of a new approach to the World Cultures collections is a priority for National Museums NI, and some of the projects we are working on are detailed below. We aim to be open and collaborative in our actions, to include multiple perspectives and encourage dialogue.
‘Rethinking World Cultures’ Exhibition
We are working on this new exhibition that will open at the Ulster Museum in spring 2022. The aims of the proposed exhibition are to increase public awareness of the World Cultures collections, to be open about their problematic origins and status within museums, to discuss our approach to decolonisation and to involve audiences in discussions about the future of these collections. The development of the exhibition will be supported by a range of partners from communities, within academia and across the museums and heritage sector. It will highlight a number of live projects and partnerships.
Digital Benin Project
National Museums NI is participating in the Museum am Rothenbaum’s digital platform project, Digital Benin. With its commitment to assembling all of the dispersed Benin royal arts into a merged online database that includes in-depth oral and historical research, we recognise that Digital Benin will be an asset to museums, the global community, and to Edo stakeholders in Nigeria and its diasporas. The Digital Benin project is being developed in close cooperation with the Benin Dialogue Group, which includes the Royal Court of Benin, the Edo State Government, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria and all European museums with important Benin collections. National Museums NI has three looted spears from Benin in the collection.
Devolving Restitution: African Collections in UK Museums Beyond London
Funded by Open Societies Foundation and the Art Fund
This project commissions scoping, provenance research, and writing that builds understanding and starts to unlock the immense scale, range and diversity of African collections in UK museums outside London. The programme brings together museums and grassroots diasporic, community and activist groups across the UK for six events, each addressing a different theme in African collections’ histories and opening up new dialogues with African claimants. This work aims not only to move forward the traditionally London-centric nature of debates about decolonisation and restitution in UK museums, but also to actively support and amplify the claims of African-based organisations and communities for the return of African heritage.
Museums, Empire and Northern Irish Identity
Led by Dr Briony Widdis in Queen’s University, in partnership with National Museums NI, the Irish Museums Association, the Northern Ireland Museums Council and NUI Maynooth’s Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses, this ESRC-funded Research Fellowship aims:
- To survey “ethnographic” collections in Northern Irish museums
- To research how local communities relate to the themes of colonialism and the British Empire and to ‘colonial objects’, leading to a better understanding of how and whether these collections are relevant to contemporary cultural identities in Northern Ireland.
- To build new networks bridging museums and academia, in order to enhance scholarship on the material culture of imperialism / colonialism on the island of Ireland; and to better understand the implications of these collections for their source communities.
For further details see: https://pure.qub.ac.uk/en/projects/museums-empire-and-northern-irish-identity
Return of Cultural Heritage Project (Australia)
Following National Museums NI’s participation in the ‘Return of Cultural Heritage’ scoping project 2018-20, contact with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) resumed in early 2021. We are currently digitising our Australian collections to send to AIATSIS, who will then share and discuss them with communities. We also hope that these communities will work with us to select and interpret objects for the Rethinking World Cultures exhibition.
Ulster American Folk Park
Ulster American Folk Park
World Cultures collections are, understandably, usually the focus of decolonisation activity, but at National Museums NI we recognise that we have a particular need to decolonise the Ulster American Folk Park. The Folk Park opened in 1976, and tells the story of emigration from Ulster to America from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, using objects and buildings to reflect experiences in both places. However, the experiences currently represented are one-sided, with little consideration given to the impacts of Ulster emigration on Indigenous Peoples and enslaved people.
As we plan for the future, we are working to reveal marginalised histories, and we are committed to a genuinely inclusive and ethical approach. This will include bringing to the fore the stories of Indigenous Peoples, many of whom suffered greatly as the result of the actions of Irish and other European settlers, and enslaved Africans, who were exploited by Ulster emigrants such as Hugh and Francis Rogan. These experiences are a shocking and unavoidable part of the history of emigration from Ulster to North America, and we commit to share them and to do the human stories justice.
Expanding the Narrative
We are expanding the Ulster American Folk Park narrative to include histories that have been marginalised and diminished. Whilst we are exploring if and how it might be appropriate to show this in physical, visible changes to the Folk Park, and we are engaged in an ongoing decolonisation training programme for our Visitor Services staff, we are also sharing the expanding narrative online. You can read more here:
We recognise that we cannot decolonise the Ulster American Folk Park without working with and learning from partners, and so we are already brokering relevant partnerships in the UK, Ireland and North America. We have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with The Centre for Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies at the University of Kent. Through exchanges of information, resources, staff, researchers and experiences, this partnership will help us to connect with Indigenous Communities in North America.
The partnership has meant that we are now working with a diverse team of North American Indigenous community members, who are excited by this work and support its initiatives.
We are also pleased to be working in partnership with the African American Irish Diaspora Network (AAIDN)
Developing the Collections
A decolonisation approach should not just be applied to the collections currently held by museums, but should be used to inform a more inclusive and ethical approach to how we collect for the future. In National Museums NI’s Collections Development Policy 2018-2023 we commit to:
- Improve the diversity and representativeness of the collections, through collecting associated with the nine protective categories as identified in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act (1998).
- Ensure the relevance of the collections, through the pursuit of active and informed contemporary collecting.
We recognise that we have more to do to ensure that we engage with and represent those from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and that the collection includes experiences of racism and exclusionary practices within society, as well as the activism that takes a stand against such hatred and discrimination.
Below you can find out more about some of our most recent acquisitions. We will continue to add to this page as we collect new material.
Troy Michie, Riots (June 3rd - June 8th, 1947), (2019)
Acquired January 2020
Troy Michie is an African American artist, born and raised in El Paso, Texas. He is at the forefront of considering topical themes in international artistic practice, including racial identity, sexuality, bodily representation and political discourse. The subject of this piece, the ‘zoot suit’, has an interesting history of political resistance. It came to be considered unpatriotic due to World War II ration regulations prohibiting the production of men’s suits with excessive fabric. In 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots occurred in Los Angeles, spurring a series of racially motivated riots and attacks across the United States.
Joy Gerard, Ormeau Park Gates. Belfast. Black Lives Matter. June 2020
Acquired March 2021
The themes of protest and urban space are central to the practice of Belfast-based artist, Joy Gerard, as well as division within society that erupts along the lines of democratic or social friction. This work relates directly to the Belfast Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Attendees tied their placards to the gates of Ormeau Park, and this then became a site of further protest, with families posting their own placards together in the weeks that followed.
Placards from the Black Lives Matter Protest, Belfast 2020
Acquired May 2021
These placards represent a local, community response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Residents of the Ormeau Road area of South Belfast mobilised to express solidarity with those protesting against racial injustice, following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in May 2020.