Minimal Troubles at Ulster Museum

 

The refurbished Ulster Museum’s planned Troubles exhibition is much smaller than expected. Is it a case of ‘don’t mention the war’?

THIS WEEK, the Ulster Museum – known locally as “the culture bunker”, because of its brooding Brutalist concrete exterior – reopened after a £17 million refurbishment. The iconic building appears to have undergone a glossy television-style makeover: the dark warren of the original galleries has been replaced with open spaces, unadorned white walls, glass walkways and polished steel. There’s a distinct emphasis on instant visual impact – “Window on our World”, a four-storey display tower, aims to provide a snapshot of the collections, with dinosaur skeletons, a vintage car and an Irish high cross. And the new interactive zones allow visitors to handle the skull of a two-headed calf, or try on Victorian corsets and crinolines.

But the pizzazz of the revamp does not seem to have extended as far as the new Troubles gallery.

Tucked away in a gloomy corner, it combines panels of dense factual text with black and white photographs documenting the conflict. No artefacts or relics of the conflict are on display: there are pictures of guns, for example, but no real guns; a single reproduction of a republican “comm”, or prison letter, but no sign of the letter itself. As one visitor remarked: “it’s a cop-out – a definite case of ‘don’t mention the war’”.

A bland, safe and strenuously non-controversial Troubles exhibition was not the original idea for Northern Ireland’s first permanent gallery dedicated to the 1968-98 conflict. There were plans to exhibit bullet-riddled boots and the shirt worn by SDLP founding leader, the late Gerry Fitt, when he was bludgeoned with a police baton at a civil rights rally, as well as paintings such as Ulster Crucifixion– a multi-panel altarpiece by Troubles artist Ken Howard.

“The new Troubles gallery is tentative,” admits Tim Cooke, director of National Museums Northern Ireland. “We are trying to give a headline sense of the key issues here. But you can’t resolve this stuff. People might expect a definitive exhibition. The impact of the Troubles is unresolved – so the gallery is unresolved.”

The Ulster Museum has always prided itself on its collections of contemporary material – the institution’s copy of the 1916 Proclamation was acquired in April 1916, and it holds items such as Mairéad Corrigan’s 1976 Nobel Peace Medal and the 1974 2nd Battalion IRA Roll of Honour from Long Kesh. In fact, many of these Troubles artefacts have already been on display in the museum in the recent past. In Conflict: the Irish at War, an exhibition that ran from 2003 until the museum’s closure for renovation in 2006, British Army bullets and an RUC helmet and shield damaged during the street fighting in Derry in 1969 were shown. An official evaluation showed that the majority of visitors who came to see that exhibition did so because they valued the courage the museum demonstrated in curating an exhibition on this sensitive topic. It was judged “Best Exhibition 2004” at the Museum of the Year Award.

But there have been damaging controversies too: in 1978, attendants at the museum refused to hang Silver Liberties: A Souvenir of a Wonderful Anniversary Year, Conrad Atkinson’s artwork commemorating Bloody Sunday. The staff’s “work-to-rule” action was backed by the museum’s trustees, and caused a stand-off with the Northern Ireland Arts Council, which described it as “a denial of creative freedom”. “Silver Liberties” is currently held at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, which has one of the biggest collections of Troubles art in Ireland and Britain. A group of Belfast artists is campaigning to have the piece reinstated in the new Troubles gallery at the museum.

It’s true that interpreting the past is a risky business, leaving institutions open to charges of political bias, over-simplification or inaccuracy. Then there’s the question of timing. The dust gathered at Kilmainham for 60 years before the jail was developed as a monument to the Civil War.

Is it simply too soon for a full-scale Troubles exhibition? Dr Kris Brown, who compiled an audit of Troubles artefacts for the cross-community organisation Healing Through Remembering, says he can imagine what that exhibition would look like. “There is so much material out there, and so many stories and narratives that could be told via artefacts, images and testimony, that with a modicum of focus, funding and collaboration a really innovative and memorable exhibition or museum could be created. It would do justice to people’s memories as well as challenging some of the encrusted positions of a divided society.”

Dr Brown says it’s important to be sensitive – but not to play for safety. “What we shouldn’t do is forget about it, or just indulge in two-dimensional Troubles nostalgia . . . Can one local institution deliver a world-class exhibition on division and political violence? Perhaps not, but we should start planning how we could.”