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Ivan Little pays a visit to a thought-provoking new exhibition at the Ulster Museum, launched to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement

The signature of a child penned in a visitors' book hours before he died in the Omagh bomb, a BB wreath saved by a teenager at the Enniskillen atrocity, paramilitary regalia, tributes to the dead, Mary Peters' Olympic gold medal and a ticket for an SLF concert... the exhibition that bears testimony to our Troubles and how people strove for normality despite it all

A poignant link to Northern Ireland's worst terrorist attack has been unveiled as part of a new Ulster Museum exhibition about the Troubles. One of the displays features an Ulster American Folk Park visitors' book signed by a 12-year-old Spanish schoolboy just hours before he was killed in the Omagh bomb.

Fernando Blasco Baselga from Madrid added the comment 'Viva Espana' beside his signature, little imagining that his own life was about to end on August 15, 1998 when 29 people and unborn twins were killed in the Real IRA attack in the Tyrone town.

Another exhibit in the museum is a Boys' Brigade poppy wreath recovered after the Enniskillen massacre on Remembrance Sunday in November 1987 when 11 people died in an IRA bombing.

The wreath was 'rescued' by the then 17-year-old BB member Selwyn Johnston, who never got to lay it at the town's war memorial.

A number of examples of the hardware of a more modern warfare are also chillingly featured in the new gallery.

An IRA under-car booby-trap and a loyalist pipe bomb, which were defused and later used in the training of Army bomb disposal teams, are on show.

The once-deadly throwbacks to the Troubles are precisely that - now harmless throwbacks to the Troubles.

They're relics, museum pieces from an era of Northern Ireland's past that has now been largely consigned to the history books.

A decommissioned UDR handgun is also in the gallery and officials say its provenance has been checked to ensure there was no repeat of the discovery several years ago in the Imperial War Museum in London of a rifle that had been used in loyalist atrocities, including the murders of five Catholics in Sean Graham's bookies shop on the Ormeau Road in Belfast in February 1992.

Paramilitary regalia worn by loyalists and republicans have been acquired by the museum, along with plaques and berets

There are also printed memorials to the dead of the RUC and murdered civilians as well. And there are tributes to IRA members who died.

A less contentious conversation piece is one of the Army's bomb disposal robots, which commands a pivotal space in the centre of the gallery.

Rubber and plastic bullets, along with a helmet and riot shield used by RUC officers, are on display too, as are CS gas canisters and even a bin lid used to alert residents about the impending arrival of soldiers, particularly in west Belfast.

One statistic that emerged during a media briefing about the 'work in progress' gallery yesterday was that 300,000 house searches were carried out in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.

Another exhibit is a loyalist 'sponge' badge manufactured in the wake of premier Harold Wilson's description of loyalists as "spongers".

Tomorrow's Good Friday opening of the gallery - The Troubles And Beyond - has been timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.

William Blair, director of collections at National Museums NI, said: "The displays examine politics and conflict and their impact on the lives of ordinary people and their communities.

"Our aim has been to create a gallery that provides a new platform for discussion - one that offers opportunities for people to respond and contribute their own stories."

He insisted that the gallery shows what life was like behind the headlines, too, with tickets and clothes from the punk era in the Eighties.

The lines are sometimes blurred, however, with the Troubles encroaching on normality.

One ticket is for a Stiff Little Fingers gig in Belfast in December 1987, when a message was read out telling a youthful Gary McMichael, who was in the audience, that he was needed at home.

There, he discovered that his UDA leader father John had been killed by the IRA.

Mary Peters' Olympic gold medal sits side by side with Mairead Corrigan's Nobel Peace Prize and a signed picture of boxer Barry McGuigan.

One of the more offbeat curios is a Spitting Image puppet of former Secretary of State Peter Mandelson, which was bought at auction in Dublin. It's all a far cry from the 2009 attempt by the museum to mount a Troubles exhibition, which encountered troubles of its own.

Independent critics dismissed it as a toothless and anodyne narrative of the conflict in which more that 3,000 people lost their lives.

And what rows there were over exhibits underlined the sensitivities of trying to find an accommodation between two communities who can see the same incidents through starkly differing prisms.

Eight years ago former DUP Culture Minister Nelson McCausland criticised the absence of material in the museum Troubles gallery on the Orange Order, the Ulster-Scots heritage - and creationism.

But Mark Taylor, the then director of the Museums Association, told the DUP to keep its nose out.

"I have been working in museums over 20 years and I can't recall in the UK an example of such blatant political interference," he said.

"It probably happened in Eastern Europe during the cold war, but it is pretty unprecedented."

Four years ago the museum staged an exhibition called the Art Of The Troubles featuring 60 artists whose paintings reflected their takes on the conflict.

In the past the power of the unions in the museum was illustrated after attendants refused to hang paintings that didn't coincide with their political landscapes.

One work, Conrad Atkinson's Silver Liberties, which commemorated the victims of Bloody Sunday, was famously banned in 1978, and the Englishman branded the museum trustees "cultural paramilitaries".

His painting appeared in the Art Of The Troubles collection.

But submissions to the annual Royal Ulster Academy exhibition, which is staged in the museum, have ruffled feathers too, particularly one depicting Ku Klux Klan members among Orange protesters at Drumcree.

Sources said the fresh approach at the museum to the history of the province has been "a delicate balancing act" to tell the story of the Troubles in a way that wouldn't rock either community's boat.

But other sources said the curators of the new collection have been determined to be bolder, to take more risks and to confront potential controversy with an unfettered perspective of the past.

What also sets the new gallery apart from the old one has been the contribution from the public of artefacts relating to their experiences of the conflict.

Some of the objects, which include posters, pamphlets and even a signed menu from a celebration dinner by unionists who brought down the Stormont power-sharing administration in 1974, were gathered together as part of a major initiative - Collecting The Troubles And Beyond - launched two years ago.

Kathryn Thompson, chief executive of Museums NI, said iy will listen to feedback from critics.

She added: "The gallery isn't complete.

"It's going to evolve and we want to explore difficult questions."

All around her in the gallery images have been frozen in time, images that became synonymous with the darkest days of the Troubles.

But acclaimed photographers Bill Kirk, Frankie Quinn and Martin Nangle have also captured the stoicism and courage of people who resolved to survive the Troubles, which were often raging on their very doorsteps. However, it isn't just the 30-odd years of blood-letting here and the impact of the likes of the hunger strikes and the Ulster Says No protests that come under scrutiny at the museum.

For the gallery also looks at what happened after the ceasefires and after the Good Friday agreement.

The section on post-conflict Northern Ireland has a wide range of artefacts relating to flag protests, the Northern Bank robbery, the campaign for equal marriage and Brexit.

Bizarrely, a steward's bib from the flag protest has been donated by Sinn Fein's Tom Hartley, though it hasn't been made clear how he got it. Officials, meantime, are hoping to add another item of clothing to their collection - a George Best football shirt.

The Troubles And Beyond exhibition at the Ulster Museum is free to visit. For further information go to www.nmni.com

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