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Karen Logan, project curator of National Museums NI, gets ready for the new exhibition
Titanic and the Troubles – whether we like it or not, that’s what this part of the world is known for. We already have the tremendously successful Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, where people can explore the history of the doomed liner. Yet there is no equivalent museum for examining the Troubles.
In many ways this is understandable – the recent past is so close, the hurt of victims is still raw and there are numerous contested and conflicting narratives about what actually happened.
How do you approach the legacy of a dirty war? How do you accommodate the worldwide interest in the Troubles without breaching the boundaries of taste or ethics, or being accused of political bias, or exacerbating existing pain among those affected by the conflict? These seemingly intractable questions are probably why we don't – yet – have a Troubles museum.
So in the absence of any dedicated venue this is where the Ulster Museum, our primary institution for engaging with the past, has a particularly important role to play. It has a special duty to provide a place, not just for visitors but for local people too, to reflect on the complicated, cataclysmic events that happened here and how those experiences have shaped us.
I'm not saying that's an easy thing to do – it definitely isn't – but it is necessary.
That's why I'm pleased to see the Ulster Museum launch a new exhibition, The Troubles And Beyond, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It aims to explore "politics and conflict and the impact of both on everyday life, people and communities".
A complete revamp of the existing display was long overdue. The last show, which opened in 2009 after the museum's refurbishment, was, to put it frankly, really poor. I remember talking to Tim Cooke, the former director of National Museums Northern Ireland, at the launch, where he admitted that the display was "tentative".
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Not half. It consisted of walls of dense text and images, not an artefact or relic of the conflict in sight. Early plans to exhibit bullet-riddled boots, controversial political art and the shirt worn by founding SDLP leader Gerry Fitt when he was bludgeoned by a police baton at a civil rights rally were scrapped.
Instead, there were pictures of guns, but no real guns. A reproduction of a prison 'comm', or prison letter, but no sign of the letter itself. Reviewing the exhibition at the time I described it as bland, boring and strenuously non-controversial in its desperate attempt to offend nobody.
Almost nine years on, and under a new leadership team headed by Kathryn Thomson, National Museums NI has taken its courage in its hands and given us a show you would actually want to see. Unlike the previous exhibition, this one contains fascinating stuff – relics, objects, artefacts, some from the museum's own collections, some donated by the public – and that's a big step forward.
There is a bomb disposal robot; a bodhran painted with the face of Bobby Sands; a vinyl LP of UVF songs; a menu signed by Ian Paisley and others from a dinner held at the Europa Hotel to mark the fall of the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive (they dined on ham and peaches, in true Seventies style).
One particularly poignant exhibit is the guest book from the Ulster American Folk Park from August 15, 1998, signed by 12-year-old Fernando Blasco Baselga, a Spanish schoolboy who was killed later that day in the Omagh bomb.
"There is a power in the objects, and it's about how you frame them, to let opposing perspectives reveal themselves." That's what William Blair, director of collections at National Museums NI, told me at the launch of the new display. He acknowledged that most people found the previous show underwhelming because of the absence of material culture: "There was a monochrome uniformity, without any sense of being on a journey."
Ironically enough, the new content would actually have been easier to present nine years ago, given that we are in a much more toxic political environment now.
But it seems likely that the curators have been inspired, or given confidence, by powerful, resonant and very popular temporary shows at the museum like Colin Davidson's Silent Testimony – portraits of 18 individuals affected by the conflict – or the Art of the Troubles.
In my view the Ulster Museum could go still further in developing an innovative, imaginative and interpretive response to the Troubles. As William Blair admits: "We don't claim to have cracked the code – this is a contested, challenging period."
But The Troubles And Beyond is a vast improvement on what went before.
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