Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Ulster Museum tackles the Troubles... and not before time

Conrad Atkinson's Silver Liberties is an enraged response to Bloody Sunday

So, the Ulster Museum finally did it. The venerable old institution screwed up every ounce of its courage, took a deep, shuddering breath, crossed itself three times, whispered a quick prayer for mercy – and put on a proper show about the Troubles.

The Art Of The Troubles, a major retrospective featuring more than 60 works (some of which have not been seen in public for decades) by 50 artists, opened its doors last week.

All the well-known figures you might expect to see are there – Joe McWilliams, Willie Doherty, Paul Seawright, Jack Pakenham, Micheal Farrell, Richard Hamilton, Robert Ballagh – as well as other, more surprising or less well-known names.

Years in the planning, it's a thoughtful, thorough overview of the period and it contains some pieces – I'm thinking in particular of FE McWilliam's bronze woman caught in a bomb blast, which stood for years in the old entrance hall of the museum – that still have the power to bring you up short.

There's an added interest in that several of the works on show were, in the past, actively excluded from the Ulster Museum. In 1978 museum attendants – supported by the museum's trustees – refused to hang Silver Liberties: A Souvenir Of A Wonderful Anniversary Year, Conrad Atkinson's (below) enraged response to Bloody Sunday, and Joe McWilliams' Community Door, which features a petrol-bombed door from a community centre.

The fact that both pieces are on display now is a small but significant correction of that earlier impulse towards intolerance and censorship.

The new, temporary exhibition is a welcome development, not just in itself, but because the permanent display dealing with the conflict is a poor show. In every sense.

Tucked away in a dim corner – it's almost as if the museum wants visitors to overlook it – it's a bland, overly-cautious response to the Troubles based on black and white photographs and dull swathes of text.

Not a single artefact to be seen, and it's not that the museum doesn't have any – it has plenty of fascinating flotsam and jetsam from the recent past squirrelled away in its stores, far from the public gaze – but its seems to be too wary of the political reaction to show them.

It's one thing to be sensitive, which is reasonable and appropriate in this querulous, wounded society, but if you're so ultra-sensitive that you're unable to say anything at all beyond the barest minimum, then this becomes a form of cowardice.

The museum has a duty to its visitors, both local and international, to tell the story of the 1968 to 1998 conflict, difficult and contested though this may be. Or perhaps not the story – what chance will there ever be of reaching an agreed narrative? – but a story, an engaging, imaginative, interpretive account of those lurid years.

One thing is certain. While "whatever you say, say nothing" might have been practical, everyday personal security advice during the Troubles, it's no basis for one of our leading cultural institutions to approach the single defining historical event of our times.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the museum thinks that approaching the Troubles obliquely, through the medium of art, is a safer way to get to grips with it. Less controversial, less politically risky (though it clearly still scares the bejaysus out of it to mention the 'T' word at all; a friend in the media who phoned the museum to inquire about the show was informed that it was keeping it low-key because it was perceived to be sensitive).

So, in the absence of any politically-agreed way of dealing with the past, does the art on display in the Ulster Museum today go any way towards helping us to understand the Troubles? It certainly reminds us – as if we could forget – how vicious and bewildering and outrageous those times were.

Yet there's only so far you can go with the idea of the artist as the moral conscience of a society, only so many ways you can articulate a sense of revulsion and horror, before even that becomes effortful, or commonplace.

The most successful pieces of art in this show are the ones that resist easy interpretation, the ones that evoke a more complicated, reflective response to our messy past.

There are no straightforward answers here. But visitors may leave the exhibition with a few more questions knocking around in their heads, which, in the absence of answers, is the next best thing.

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