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Why we need a museum of the Troubles

We should take our inspiration from how Spain reconciled with its tortured past

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Investment: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Credit: Allan Baxter/Getty Images

Investment: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Credit: Allan Baxter/Getty Images

Getty Images

Investment: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Credit: Allan Baxter/Getty Images

Think bigly, my friend said. We were walking in the mountains of my native Catalonia, not far from the Spanish-French border. We had been talking about the Northern Irish Troubles, as one does when high up in the Pyrenees. I had been outlining ideas from a cross-community group that aims at bringing into being a Museum of the Troubles and Peace (MOT&P) in Belfast.

I’m conscious of how my city, Barcelona, reinvented itself in the 1990s on the back of a successful Olympic Games and associated cultural events. Once a city bypassed by time and languishing in the shadow of a vicious civil war and Francoism, today it is one of the great cities of Europe.

Much the same is true of strife-torn Bilbao at the same time, which reinvented and regenerated itself following major investments by the Guggenheim Foundation in partnership with the municipal authorities.

Could something similar happen in Belfast? In a way, much is already being done. The Belfast Hub is on the horizon and Belfast City Council has designated 2023 as the Year of Culture (“At Home in 2023”).

This seems the right moment for a further quantum leap, one that interleaves economic, social and cultural benefits. Above all, there is an opportunity to engage with our troubled past and shape a better future — if we have the courage to do so.

Here is a bold manifesto based on conversations with community groups, peace and reconciliation groups, museum specialists, business people, historians and social scientists.

What is proposed is a state-funded foundation, or museum, of the Troubles and peace-building. Its distinctive feature would be facilitating a multiplicity of voices and perspectives on the past, thereby engaging constructively with the Troubles. It would also engender possibilities of healing through understanding, education and supportive gatherings.

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The scope is inclusive. Naturally, the perspectives of unionism and nationalism and the shades therein need to be represented, but the narratives of feminism, LGBTQ+, labour and trade unionism and peace groups also have their place.

It would be a world-class set of institutions, housed in an iconic building, located possibly at, or close to, the peace line between the lower Falls and Shankill, or in a city-centre location.

In either case, the irony and symbolism of “peace walls” should not be lost sight of. Berlin comes to mind, which also reminds us that walls do eventually come down. Hasta la vista.

A museum that is more than a museum would give expression to the many different perspectives on the Troubles, encourage visitors to form their own judgments, and provide a focal point for peace and reconciliation in the province.

The range of historical materials relating to division and peace is enormous. These run from from military artefacts to TV documentaries, posters, cartoons, photographic archives, oral testimonies and reflections of peoples’ lives in the visual and literary arts. Advanced digital technology makes possible immersive experiences that capture and dramatise key moments in the contemporary history of the north.

The Museum of the Troubles and Peace would be international. The Troubles and the Irish peace process speak to a wider world. The experiences — the failures and triumphs coming out of other deeply divided societies — also speak to us.

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A loyalist mural in east Belfast

A loyalist mural in east Belfast

A loyalist mural in east Belfast

There is much to be gained by promoting international dialogue, with Belfast as the leading centre for conferences, workshops, study tours, summer schools, artistic reflections and other initiatives in peace-building. As the Irish and Scottish proverb puts it, it is only in the shadow of each other that we survive.

We are happy to celebrate the high politics of the Irish peace process, which involved John Hume, Gerry Adams, David Trimble and other local politicians. There is the London-Dublin dimension and, of course, the international support offered by Brussels and Washington.

These architects of the Good Friday Agreement might consider memorialising these achievements in a multi-centered initiative of the kind proposed here.

The Troubles were never just about the Troubles. We favour an expanded definition of peace. Most people were not actively engaged in conflict. We place particular emphasis on the social and cultural life of the period, acknowledging the resilience of those who lived through the most challenging of times in the closing decades of the 20th century.

There has to be room for the lives of the people, living and loving in the worst of times. There has to be room for Van Morrison, Paul Brady, punk rock, and other soundtracks of the period. There has to be room for the art of the Troubles as well as the roar of guns, Land Rovers and riots.

We must detail the ordinary and the overlooked, as well as distilling inspiration for the future. In other words, we need a people’s history of the Troubles and post-conflict Northern Ireland.

Some wonder if it is appropriate to create a cultural centre and visitor attraction majoring on a traumatic past. There are issues of sensitivity here and the task is a daunting one. But anyone who, for instance, has visited Jewish museums elsewhere in the world will have a ready answer.

Nearer home, the Irish historian Professor Fearghal McGarry has given his answer: “We have no right to deny rising generations of young people access to their own history.”

The importance of giving younger people, including those bearing the pain of intergenerational trauma, access to complex and informed knowledge can hardly be overemphasised.

For international visitors, the challenges are different, but few are likely to be left indifferent. Single-identity museums, while important elements in the cultural landscape, have inbuilt limitations. The Museum of the Troubles and Peace also has the potential to offer safe spaces, a “warm place”, as it were, for cross-community youth work, as well as acting as a resource centre, perhaps in conjunction with the Community Relations Council, for peace-building initiatives. Signposting therapeutic and related services for vulnerable visitors would be part of the brief.

We have the resources in terms of leaders, the intellectual infrastructure of Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, the UK and Ireland museum sectors, the international connections and the entrepreneurial energies of local business, tourism and community groups to bring this kind of vision into being.

EU peace programmes, the Shared Island initiative and philanthropic foundations have funded thousands of valuable, often life-changing, projects during the course of the Irish peace process. But as yet no signature, or mega, project has emerged that engages innovatively with the past, that buttresses a fragile peace, that plays a major role in economic regeneration, and that is inspiring by virtue of its boldness and ambition.

As in Bilbao and Barcelona in the early 1990s, now may be the vital moment.

Dr Irene Boada Montagut has a background in Catalan, Spanish and Irish studies. She has lived and worked in Northern Ireland since 1993 and is the project manager for the initiative Museum of the Troubles & Peace


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