A “sacred mission”? Envisioning a ‘Troubles’ Museum

By Kathryn McClurkin

The very notion of a museum devoted to ‘the Troubles’ sparks many questions. Where would it be located? How would it frame the history of the conflict? Who would the museum be for? Would it be an all-Ireland institution or a determinedly Northern Ireland institution? How would it be funded? Is this the right time? Indeed, will there ever be a right time? The most prominent debates that I can recall on this issue are over use of the former Maze/Long Kesh prison site and those that played out between John Foster and Liam Kennedy in the Belfast Telegraph.[1]

While envisioning what a hypothetical ‘Troubles’ museum might be like I revisited Carolyn Strange’s and Michael Kempa’s article, ‘Shades of Dark Tourism: Alcatraz and Robben Island.[2] They make an interesting point in their discussion of Robben Island: that when the space was designated as a historic site, it inherently took on a “sacred mission.”[3] The “sacred mission” of an institution such as Robben Island, one that interprets a history intertwined with injustices, civil rights, and social justice, must surely go beyond that of a mere mission statement. R­­ather, it would seem to convey the idea of creating a space for an institution to not only interpret the past, but also to confront controversial aspects of the present. The Robben Island historical site and museum champions the message of the anti-apartheid movement and it develops its narrative around the struggle that political prisoners endured whilst upon the island. This institution is deeply committed to exhibiting and interpreting this history with the intent of trying to ensure that it will never happen again. My question, therefore, is this: would a ‘Troubles’ museum also pursue this sort of larger, transcendent mission? What might that mission look like, moreover, when translated into a museum layout?

In contemporary Northern Ireland part of reflecting upon the recent past is recognizing the loss of the innocent and condemning violence in a way that does not provoke further dissension, but, rather, promotes healing and growth. Imbued in the Ulster Museum’s 2018 Troubles and Beyond Gallery is an underlying drive, a “sacred mission”, to promote peace. While the gallery presents a chronological narrative of ‘the Troubles’, it also constructs a narrative that focuses on growth: on political and social progress. The language that is used in relation to the early decades of the conflict discusses the “Years of Darkness,” death tolls, and acts of violence. Yet this is juxtaposed against more recent and reassuring evidence of diversity and inclusion located at the opposite end of the gallery, such as marriage equality badges, and items tied to popular culture. While still finding its voice, National Museums Northern Ireland, a state funded institution that operates multiple sites in Northern Ireland, is becoming more confident in the use of the platform they established with the Troubles and Beyond Gallery so as to speak out on social issues.

But, of course, the Ulster Museum houses and interprets three enormous collections of art, natural history, and human history. While interpreting the recent past in a productive way is a high priority for the museum, it is not the sole focus of the institution. There are a lot of political and social movements, legislation, personalities, and experiences that are not covered in the Troubles and Beyond Gallery simply because there is not room. A museum dedicated specifically to interpreting ‘the Troubles’ would, one would think, have the space and time to focus more fully on the vast experiences and themes. Yet having this space and time would no doubt generate many difficulties as well as opportunities with regards to how to cover and convey the history of the ‘Troubles’.

So how would a museum dedicated to ‘the Troubles’ define its own “sacred mission”? For one thing, this museum would have to decide whether or not it would function as an institution that takes leadership positions on social justice issues. There are certainly precedents for museums taking a stand on social justice issues by, for example, speaking out against and contextualizing, perceived injustices. Other than the Robben Island museum, the most obvious example is that of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). This routinely issues press releases and social media posts on modern genocide, terrorist activity, and anti-Semitism. During the past five years the museum has also published articles and issued information on the civil rights crisis involving the Rohingya, the civil war in South Sudan, and the refugee crisis in Syria.[4]

Creating a museum that is respectful to the legacy of the conflict, one that elevates multiple perspectives and that speaks to and educates all visitors within a society that is actively defining what ‘post-conflict’ means and looks like, is undoubtedly a Herculean task. Any future endeavor to create a national museum devoted to ‘the Troubles’ will need to be meticulously organized with support from most, ideally all, political parties and from the communities that these parties represent. It will likewise require steady funding; funding that will not be directly impacted by, say, complications arising from Brexit. Most importantly, the legacy of ‘the Troubles’ is not just an intangible talking point for academics and politicians to muse about. It is injuries, bereavements, economic loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, and much, much more. Any future museum dedicated to the history of ‘the Troubles’ would be perfectly positioned to speak out on modern day acts of sectarian violence and other controversial issues and themes both in Northern Ireland and further afield, as well as to contextualize the ongoing battles for victim and survivor rights.  How could a hypothetical museum incorporate such outreach activities into its “sacred mission”? Indeed, should it even concern itself with social justice? Should it pursue this “sacred mission”?

(Image: Kathryn McClurkin).

[1] John Foster, “Why the Last Thing We All Need Is a National Museum of Troubles”, Belfast Telegraph, Feb. 14 2018; Liam Kennedy, “Why We Need a Museum of the Troubles”, Belfast Telegraph, Jan.  31 2018.

[2] Carolyn Strange and Michael Kempa, “Shades of Dark Tourism: Alcatraz and Robben Island”, Annals of Tourism Research,30 (2) 2003: 386–405.

[3] Ibid., p. 388.

[4] “The Plight of the Rohingya”, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www. ushmm.org/confront-genocide/cases/burma/introduction/the-plight-of-the-rohingya; South Sudan”, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/ confront-genocide/cases/south-sudan; “Syria”, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/confront- genocide/syria.

Dr. Kathryn McClurkin is a Public Historian whose work focuses on how material culture can be used to engage the public in sensitive and contested histories in a museum setting. She is currently a lecturer at Western Kentucky University.  Her Twitter handle is @k_mcclurkin

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