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Museum could do better to highlight famed industrial heritage of Ulster

By Nelson McCausland

Published 13/08/2015

The Ulster Museum
The Ulster Museum

Recently I went into The Bobbin cafe in Belfast City Hall with my wife for a cup of coffee and something to eat. One of the attractions is that, as well as being a cafe, it tells the story of the industrial heritage of Belfast.

Shipbuilding, engineering, linen manufacture, printing and so many other industries are described, along with accounts of the owners and the workers. You leave with some understanding that Belfast was once an industrial powerhouse that exported its products to every corner of the world.

With the passing of so many of those industries, a new generation has grown up that knows little of what Ulster was in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

So, as part of the cafe, a new generation can learn, an older one can remember and tourists can appreciate an important part of the Ulster story.

There are no artefacts, but the pictures and the text tell the story extremely well.

It is an important story because it helps to explain the political and social history of Ulster. The province had prospered under the Union and that prosperity was one of the factors that led so many Ulster folk to support the Union and oppose Home Rule. There were other factors as well, but this was most certainly one of them.

It is also an important story in an era when there is a renewed focus on what are called Stem subjects in education - science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Engineering expertise and inventiveness were important reasons for the success of Ulster industry and can help a new generation to emulate the success of their forefathers.

It was a wet day, and from there we went up to the Ulster Museum on the Stranmillis Road. There is much to see and much to enjoy and it was good to see so many families in the museum that day.

I visit the museum on a regular basis, but the earlier visit to the City Hall highlighted what is a shortcoming of the museum's account of Ulster history - its lack of coverage of that industrial history.

Visitors will leave with no real sense of a city that had the biggest shipyards and the biggest linen factories in the world, as well as its engineering and other industries.

Yes, there is a small screen with an audio-visual presentation and a few artefacts, but what happened to the big exhibits that were there some years ago?

An audio-visual presentation is helpful, but that's not what I go to a museum to see.

I can look at pictures in a book or on the internet. No, we're missing something here.

Back in the 1960s, Dr William A McCutcheon was commissioned by the Stormont government of the day to carry out a survey of the industrial archaeology of Northern Ireland.

It recognised that this was part of the cultural wealth of Ulster, just as much as songs, literature and art, and it wanted it recorded for future generations.

The fieldwork was completed in 1968, just in time before the start of an IRA terrorist campaign that destroyed so much of that heritage.

Dr McCutcheon became the first keeper of technology and local history at the Ulster Museum, where he was responsible for the preparation of a major sequence of gallery displays.

These included a wide range of large machine exhibits, and I remember well the impression that they made on visitors to the museum. Eventually, in 1977, he was appointed director of the Ulster Museum, the first Ulsterman to occupy that post.

When the museum was refurbished between 2006 and 2009 those exhibits were all stripped out and consigned to a warehouse.

Thereby, the educational value of the museum was diminished and the story of Ulster, as told by the museum, was also diminished and distorted. Surely it's time for a rethink?

  • Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee.

Belfast Telegraph

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