Museology of “The Troubles”: Reflections on an Emerging Public History Initiative

By Martin Duffy

Queen’s University recently hosted a lively Forum discussing the question, “Do we need a Museum of the Troubles and Peace?”[1] Devotees of this blog may well have read Dr Katie McClurkin’s thoughtful article, “A Sacred Mission: Envisioning a Troubles Museum” which deftly crystallizes the symbolic burden such a facility inherits in a divided society like Northern Ireland. This Forum took this discussion a stage further with a panel which included conveners of the “Museum of the Troubles and Peace” (MoTaP) project, and more than a hundred academics, community activists, artists, writers, politicians, museum specialists and a highly interested public. It was an impressively diverse and international audience, one of the inadvertent benefits of our forced congregation around Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

The Peace Museum Tradition

Museums of peace are a well-established but eclectic group of diverse entities which have evolved over a considerable period.[2] Indeed, it could be argued that our earliest museological institutions were in some sense “museums of peace”. The earliest distinct “peace museum” dates to 1902 – the International Museum of War & Peace in Switzerland, which sadly was destroyed during WW1 and is now the site of the Lucerne Congress Centre.[3] Whispers of a totemic “war to end war” following WW1 saw an enormous “drive” to metamorphose war into institutions that embraced concepts of peace. A superb example of such a transformation is London’s Imperial War Museum.

One should also observe that in envisaging a museum of peace, one is not thinking of static glass-case repositories. Our conventional definition is of a museum publicly curating artefacts. For peace museums, however, we are talking about an entity which is in the business of “propagandising for peace”. Some years ago, the author suggested four main categorizations of peace museums, namely (a.) self-described “peace museums” (b.) museums whose events/issues were centrally concerned with peace (c.) museums devoted to relevant personalities or subjects and (d.) museums of diverse related disciplines, such as holocaust or genocide museums, which are obvious “family”.[4]

I believe these categorizations should now be widened to assert that all museums have a genuine potential to serve as museums of peace. One hopes that the museum envisaged by this Forum will possess precisely this eclecticism and dynamism. Nowadays we have a resilient group of museums whose collections are directly or indirectly concerned with exhibiting peace. In certain countries, Japan and Costa Rica being notable, there are also municipalities for peace where local government enshrines peace in all its work. I favour a highly inclusive definition of the concept of peace museum so that we incorporate under the “umbrella heading” the widest possible range of institutions including national museums and Holocaust/genocide memorials. As in the aspirational words of the 1945 UNESCO Constitution, “building peace in the minds of men and women” should be the aim of the peace museum.[5]

We have a specific museological tradition of anti-war museums. Indeed, WW1, the Korean War and the Vietnam War spawned attempts to use the horrific images of battlefields to persuade the public against future war. Then we have a burgeoning family of museums on the momentous subjects of non-violence, torture, reconciliation, human rights, anti-racism, slavery, the Atomic Bomb, the Holocaust, and genocide to name only some of the themes which we enthusiastically welcome into the “peace museum” family. A good example of a single-issue museum with lessons for this project is the Museum of Free Derry which emerged out of civic efforts to memorialise the often tragic struggle for civil rights in Derry.

The common denominator uniting the curators of the peace museum tradition is its grounding in local experience and efforts for peace. Moreover, I would also encourage those interested in securing a peace museum to look to the many examples of that “broad family” of museums which have confronted a past of violence, and which can be inspirational for those who attended the Forum.

A “Museum of the Troubles”

As BBC presenter Mark Carruthers has shown, there has been a recent growth of museums in both communities preserving and telling the story of the Northern Ireland conflict.[6] This phenomenon is increasingly labelled “dark tourism” and it was no insignificant component of the pre-Covid revival of tourism in Northern Ireland. However, what the MoTaP Board envisage is something much more challenging, and transformative. Their narrative involves stepping outside the safe, conventional explanations of divided communities. According to the MoTaP website, their vision is one “that addresses the conflict in all its complexity; that celebrates the resilience of people during the conflict and pays tribute to the courage and creativity of those who delivered the peace”.

From the outset it was apparent to me that we had thoughtful conveners such as Irene Boada-Montagut, and a diverse audience, who understood the sensitivity of a peace museum project in a society recovering from decades of fighting. Some questions which arise from the outset: is there a difference between a museum of peace and a museum of “the Troubles”? Are these two phenomena mutually incongruous? Museums of peace typically protect the experience of victims, and of course “victim” is a highly contested definition in the province. Moreover, at what point do “the Troubles” start and finish? These are all questions the convenors will address.

There was an encouraging consensus at the Forum around the need for a reflective, vibrant shared space which might embody all the hopeful strands of remembrance, reflection, reconciliation, and regeneration. The audience heard a scholarly summation from Queen’s academic, Olwen Purdue on how one museum might discuss such diverse subjects, to say nothing of the contribution public history might make to transitional and restorative justice. One had a sense of sociologist Amy Sodaro joining the call persuading us that “the memory of past violence is considered the surest inoculation against future violence”.[7]

Addressing the lived realities of “the Troubles”, artist Rita Duffy reflected on the lack of progress over the Maze-Long Kesh Conflict Resolution Centre and the importance of a peace museum project being robust enough to elucidate “multiple aspects” of the conflict. Jane Morris suggested such a project must combine aspects of what have made Amsterdam’s Anne Frank Museum and Belfast’s Titanic Building such a success. There was a certain reluctance to contemplate something bespeaking a voyeurism of conflict, and a concern as expressed by anthropologist Dominic Bryan that we might need to look beyond history to envisage a learning space which encourages identity confrontation and modelling intergroup conflict.

Location is always a crucial subject of such debates, and from the outset while there was a feeling that flashpoints such as Lanark Way were obviously iconic sites for a peace museum, the voice of community activists Eileen Weir and Chris McGimpsey soberly reminded us that territoriality would immediately decide the perception of such a museum, poised perilously on one side of a peace wall or another. A sense of creating a museum which was central to the Belfast cityscape was widely felt, but so also was a concern that the rural experience of the province should not be overlooked. Victims and survivors should be part of the conversation about a future institution which might preserve their experience. Historian Thomas Hennessey wisely counselled against getting bogged down in definitions in what should be a multi-narrative story and the latent perils of politicization.

There was also a sense of the magnitude of “the Troubles” story and that the building which emerged be grounded in the “living history” of the communities whose experiences it will convey. Guy Beiner, a Negev-based academic who understands Irish and global conflict intimately, emphasized that such a museum should purposively be an “uneasy space” which might “challenge preconceptions”. Catherine Clinton of the University of Texas at San Antonio encouraged the audience with support from the USA. Historian Fearghal McGarry noted the importance that such a museum be installed “at a remove from the state,” while former Belfast City Councillor Jeff Dudgeon suggested the proposers might get added momentum if they bundled the bid alongside an art museum focusing on artwork for peace. It was an enthusiastic and supportive meeting.  

Concluding Reflections

The author is confident that this is but the start of a rich and informed discussion. It was well understood by the audience that peace museums are the opposite of passive entities. Such museums draw on a divided past to construct alternatives and encourage accord.[8] They involve fashioning narratives of peaceful struggle and protest and creating a veritable smorgasbord of themes and images. Methinks it’s past time for museum curators to put on their “big pants” and create some museological “dissent” with exhibitions which embrace the diversity of such a divided society, and push the envelope open.[9]

In a divided society not all of these conceptions translate well or with equanimity. For example, the descriptors “disappeared”, “troubles” and “victims” all conjure up diverse tragedies in different countries, meaning there is a cultural specificity to memory and human rights. There is a danger of being leaden footed when we translate narratives undigested from abroad. Peace museologists have pondered whether “museum” is too “time-bound” a word to capture the Zeitgeist of peace culture. Peace museums are dynamic interpretative places, inclusive enough to garner genuine cross-community support and yet controversial enough to challenge common perceptions and interpretations of a politically tangled past. Thanks to the obvious enthusiasm of the MoTaP conveners and public interest, the debate will continue, and may hopefully result in gestation of an authentic peace museum. Few could decry the dreams of those campaigning for such an asset in a community still recovering from conflict.[10]


[1] The forum was hosted by the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast, 24 May 2021. The website of the project is museumofthetroubles.org

[2] TM Duffy, “The Peace Museum Concept”, Museum International, 45, 1993, 4-8

[3] P. Van den Dungen, “Preventing Catastrophe: The World’s first peace museum”, Ritsumeikan Kokusai Kenkyu, 2006, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 23-36.

[4] TM Duffy, Exhibiting Peace: A Compendium for the International Peace Museums Network (Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, 1998), 244pp

[5] TM Duffy, “Museums of Human Suffering and Human Rights”, in BM Carbonell (ed) Museum Studies, Blackwell, Oxford, 2004, pp. 117-22

[6] Mark Carruthers, “’Dark tourism’ booms at Northern Ireland’s Troubles museums”, BBC NI website, 2 November 2018, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-46046674 (accessed 29.5.2021)

[7] Amy Sodaro, Exhibiting Atrocity (Rutgers University Press, 2018)

[8] TM Duffy, Peace Museums (Peace Education Mini-Prints, University of Malmo, 1993), 54pp.

[9] Lisa Kennedy et al., “Creating the Museum of Dissent”, Museological Review, Vol. 15, 2019

[10] Irene Boada Montagut, “I dream of a Trouble’s museum”, Belfast Newsletter, 29th April 2021, available at https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/opinion/columnists/i-dream-of-a-troubles-museum-at-belfast-peaceline-interface-3218747 (accessed 29.5.2021)

(Image: Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway – Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com)


Martin Duffy (mduffy4@tcd.ie) has written widely on museums of peace, holocaust and genocide, and the wider exhibiting of these themes in divided societies. He has worked extensively for UNESCO and ICOM. His recent research seeks to incorporate these eclectic strands into an analysis of peace culture. He is currently attached to National Museums, Northern Ireland.

3 thoughts on “Museology of “The Troubles”: Reflections on an Emerging Public History Initiative

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  1. This is a really interesting piece and it sounds like the discussion addressed some important and complex points regarding such a challenging but important idea.

    I would just question the claim that “Whispers of a totemic “war to end war” following WW1 saw an enormous “drive” to metamorphose war into institutions that embraced concepts of peace. A superb example of such a transformation is London’s Imperial War Museum.”

    Whilst IWM, in its modern form, has slowly and within confines, begun to provide a platform to the victims and dissidents of Britiain and its allies’ militarism (but maintain huge blind spots regarding colonial history), I’m not sure it can be said of it’s early history.

    The idea for IWM was borne in 1917, when Britain’s war effort was not going well and public disaffection was growing. It had a pro-war propaganda element, in its conception, and whilst it might memorialise British sacrifice, without providing a platform to dissidents of war, such as conscientious objectors, or global victims, it merely reinforced the perceived righteousness of British imperialism.

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  2. That is, voices of the dissidents of British imperialism were missing and any history that omits this necessarily supports the violence of imperialism.

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  3. The transformation of museums is something which I regard as on-going and aspirational. The present-day IWM constitutes a metamorphosis of concept and curating which is not to in any way to decry or mitigate the tragedy or injustice of an imperial past. There are some who might suggest such subjects are taboo or should only be curated with caution. To their credit the staff at the IWM have re-purposed a museum which, as Jay rightly observes, had its origins in WWI, but which is now re-imaging a history of colonialism and conflict, with an emphasis on the peaceful resolution of disputes and the prevention of war. Such repositories may also evoke a nostalgia in the war-time generation, but innovative programming at the IWM has placed peace education at the cornerstone of the museum’s work. This is a gradual process, but one hopes that as living memory of brutal war fades, the physical culture of the IWM will serve as a deterrent to war, which was the purpose of the first anti-war museums. The IWM did not have its genesis in the overtly anti-war sentiment of a museum such as that in Lucerne, but the holistic theme of its education outreach has been to encourage world peace, and this has become increasingly central to the IWM’s mission in recent decades. Jay also implicitly raises broader issues as to whether entities like the IWM should offer a statement of apology or of even of reparation for the mass brutality of war, and this is the inconvenient truth which a “museum of the troubles” will also have to confront. Such a museum in Northern Ireland may exhibit much which is still raw to community consciousness, and this is rarely without controversy.

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