Can Northern Ireland’s museums help to keep peace?

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Today, 10 April, marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, a peace deal that brought an end to the Troubles—a period of sectarian conflict and violent attacks in Northern Ireland that lasted from around 1968 to 1998, during which more than 3,500 people lost their lives.

Since the signing of the agreement in 1998, the question of how to represent this highly contested history has been the subject of an ongoing debate in Northern Ireland. The role of museums have become central to this debate, owing in part to the necessity for state-run and funded institutions to remain politically neutral and be equitable to Northern Ireland’s disparate communities. Now, a number of museums in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere in the UK, are reflecting on how the Good Friday Agreement has transformed Northern Irish society, as well as telling the stories of those who brought a fragile but lasting peace to the region.

Throughout the Troubles, the predominant images of Northern Ireland were often dramatic and polarised. The majority of these images were shot by foreign photojournalists working for international media. Donovan Wylie, a former Magnum photographer and a professor at Ulster University, says this galvanised photographers from Northern Ireland to portray their own culture. “It pushed us to engage seriously with questions of authenticity and authorship,” Wylie says. “As a result, the calibre of photography in Belfast is very high.”

Prison and peace

To mark the anniversary of the agreement, a film based on Wylie’s seminal series The Maze, an insight into the eponymous prison used to incarcerate paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles, is being shown by Belfast Exposed, the publicly funded photography gallery (until 13 May). The film is co-directed by artist Peter Mann. “To exhibit it on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement will be symbolic,” Wylie says.

In another exhibition, the Belfast-born artist Hannah Starkey will exhibit a series of 21 portraits of women who were influential in building peace. Principled & Revolutionary: Northern Ireland’s Peace Women (7 April-10 September), is being be shown at the Ulster Museum, part of National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI), and has been commissioned by Belfast Photo Festival.

“I’ve always wanted to thank the women who were at the table during the peace process, many of whom are from grassroots working-class backgrounds, like my own mother,” Starkey says. Also giving a platform to lesser-known stories is Silent Testimony, an exhibition of portraits by Belfast painter Colin Davidson which focuses on the victims and survivors of the Troubles. The series is the result of a partnership between the artist, the Ulster Museum and Wave Trauma Centre, a cross-community victims’ charity. The paintings will go on display at Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland’s devolved government.

Multiple perspectives

NMNI, meanwhile, has launched Collecting the Troubles and Beyond, an initiative supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which seeks to make the Ulster Museum’s Troubles gallery more inclusive by collecting and exhibiting artefacts acquired from the public.

Hannah Crowdy, the head of curatorial at NMNI, says that the title of the project is carefully considered. “This is an ongoing project,” she says. “We have a shared past, but we do not have a shared memory. So, while the exhibition considers the legacy of the past, we are also looking beyond—to a better future.”

In 2021, Array Collective, a group of 11 Belfast-based artists, became the first Northern Irish winners of the Turner Prize for their recreation of a síbín, now on show in Belfast
Photo © Ulster Museum

But perhaps the most significant work on show will be that of Array Collective, a group of 11 Belfast-based artists. In 2021, the collective became the first Northern Irish artists to be awarded the Turner Prize for The Druthaib’s Ball, a construction of a síbín, an illicit pub. The installation, which explores the multivalence of Northern Irish identity, has been acquired by the Ulster Museum.

“Array Collective represent the nuance of living in Northern Ireland today,” says member Emma Campbell. “We are not making conflict art. Our work is about other parts of our identity that come before the question of whether we are green, orange, neither or both.”

The Druthaib’s Ball was previously shown at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry as part of the Turner Prize exhibition, and is now on show in a Northern Irish museum for the first time (until 3 September). “It feels really important for the work to be placed at an institution in Northern Ireland like the Ulster Museum,” Campbell says. “The work is testing the boundaries of the institution and pushing buttons through its acquisition.”

Existential threat

But pushing buttons always carries an element of risk; the work is being shown just as the Good Friday Agreement itself comes under existential threat. Northern Ireland’s parliament collapsed in 2022 over the Democratic Unionist Party’s concerns around the complex post-Brexit trading arrangement known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. The same year, the Republican party Sinn Féin—which, during the Troubles, was closely associated with the paramilitary group the Irish Republican Army—won a majority of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The exhibitions, then, also confront the fact that the hard-won peace accord is increasingly fragile and still at risk.

This sense of fragility is felt by Belfast’s artists, particularly when exhibiting work in Northern Ireland’s museums. “We were nervous when we came to show the installation in the Ulster Museum,” says Array Collective’s Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell. “There is a very real and understandable fear of damaging the delicate peace, and that extends to the museum sector. For a lot of artists, there is a contradictory feeling of both wanting—but then also not wanting—to rock the boat.”

The Windsor Framework, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s proposed post-Brexit legal agreement between the European Union (EU) and UK, was announced on 27 February and aims to simplify trading arrangements between mainland UK, Northern Ireland and the EU. “Brexit has complicated issues of customs, shipping and procurement,” says Mary Cremin, the outgoing director of Void Gallery in Derry. “It has made staging some exhibitions prohibitively expensive, and has impacted on how we can partner with other museums across the UK.”

Return of Stormont

Cremin believes that more UK and EU partnerships could be possible for Northern Ireland’s museums, should the Windsor Framework restore trading confidence. But the most advantageous outcome, she says, would be the re-establishment of an Executive in Stormont. Crowdy agrees: “The main frustration is that there are certain high-level decisions that cannot be made without Stormont being restored,” she says.

The anniversary of the Good Friday Agree­ment will also be recognised by cultural institutions in the UK capital too. At the London Irish Centre, an ex­hibition, Belfast—Conflict to Peace (6 April-11 April) by the Northern Irish photo­­grapher Sean McKernan will offer an over­view of the Troubles across four decades. At the Imperial War Museum, Northern Ireland: Living with the Troubles (26 May-7 January 2024) will ex­plore the era from all sides of the con­flict.

As Northern Ireland remembers the Good Friday Agreement, the mood is optimistic. The country’s museums can play a unique role in mediating in a divided society where the past is alive in the present. But this is a cautious optimism, in a region that knows the complexities of upsetting the status quo.

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