To coincide with the 20th Anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement, the Ulster Museum has opened a new exhibition, The Troubles and Beyond, exploring politics and conflict and the impact of both on everyday life, people and communities.
It powerfully examines our recent past through a remarkable range of objects reflecting diverse perspectives and experiences. Many objects have been contributed directly by the public as part of a major collecting initiative, Collecting the Troubles and Beyond, launched in 2016 and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The project has helped to enhance the existing Ulster Museum Troubles collection, which dates back to the outbreak of the conflict, through an active programme of contemporary collecting, including community collecting events. The new gallery is rich in the range of objects, stories and material it presents, on display together for the first time.
The new gallery seeks to move beyond a conventional political narrative and the Good Friday Agreement itself, and includes a section on ‘post conflict’ Northern Ireland with objects relating to flag protests, the campaign for equal marriage and Brexit.
Images from celebrated local photographers Bill Kirk, Frankie Quinn and Martin Nangle can also be found in the gallery, many of which capture the social and economic decay that was compounded by the Troubles. Their work also powerfully evokes the resilience of people living through difficult times.
William Blair, Director of Collections at National Museums NI, said: “There is no doubt that the traumatic events of the years after 1968 were a divisive period and there are huge challenges in interpreting that contested history.
“For some years now, the Ulster Museum has been working with other museums internationally, from Sarajevo to Beirut, exploring approaches to dealing with contested history and the legacy of difficult pasts.
“Our aim has been to create a gallery that provides a new platform for discussion – one that offers opportunities for people to respond and contribute their own stories.
“A really important part of the project was our work in collaboration with other museums, universities, community groups and members of the public to establish the significance and meaning of objects in our collection. This has been crucial to help enhance our interpretation of our recent past.”
He added: “This project has been a real challenge for the Museum but one that is central to our role and purpose in society. We offer shared space within which different voices can be heard and believe we can make a positive contribution to creatively dealing with the legacy of our past. We owe it to our present and our future.’’
Stella Byrne, Casework Manager, Heritage Lottery Fund said: “This project was funded through Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures which was a unique programme. It made upfront investments to museums, libraries and galleries to help them strengthen and enliven their collections and enabled them to implement their long-term collecting strategies. Curators were able to ‘go shopping’ with their HLF grant, researching to identify material and objects that they would like to purchase over the five-year lifespan of their project.
“National Museums NI’s project focuses on the difficult period of Northern Ireland’s heritage and collects material relating directly to politics and conflict, but also explores themes of society and culture. We are delighted to see the collected material on display in the new exhibition and we hope people visit, explore and respond to the diverse material. It is thanks to National Lottery players that we can fund projects that help us explore Northern Ireland’s recent heritage.”
Deirdre MacBride, Cultural Diversity Programme Director, Community Relations Council said: “With today’s launch of The Troubles and Beyond gallery the Ulster Museum has created a safe and open space in which dialogue and understanding about The Troubles can occur.
“This is situated in the context of Northern Ireland’s continuing emergence from years of conflict and violence and in which we are building peace and democracy. Museums have the vital task of reflecting and reframing debates on key issues and events, through demonstrating a commitment to plural voices, encouraging active engagement with the stories and experiences of self and of others, and providing an open, safe and shared context within which that discussion can be validated in the public realm.
“Northern Ireland has an opportunity to lead the way in how we remember and evaluate historical change in public space. This space will continue to evolve and we commend the Ulster Museum for its commitment to be a space in which reflection and possibly reconciliation can emerge even while we are dealing with hurtful living memory.”