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Shared Future News February 26, 2024 – A NI Troubles peace museum for ‘a new lease of life’

by in News

By Caoimhe McGonigle 

A conversation on the
need for a museum commemorating the Troubles was facilitated by author and
former BBC presenter Mark Devenport. Speakers at the event at Queen’s
University Belfast (QUB) included Professor John Barry, Jane Morrice, Dr Gul
Kacmaz Erk, and Shelby Hanna. Other panellists were Dr Irene Boada-Montagut and
Professor Frank Gaffikin.

The Museum of the Troubles Initiative (MoTaP)
is a charity that
seeks to bring into existence a museum “that addresses the conflict in all its
complexity, that celebrates the resilience of people in their everyday lives
during the conflict, and that pays tribute to the courage and creativity of
those who delivered the peace”. Twenty-five years on from the Belfast/Good
Friday Agreement, MoTaP believes “the time is ripe for a major initiative
relating to the Troubles and peacemaking in Northern Ireland”. Its patrons
include former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, Robert Eames (Anglican
Bishop and life peer), and Sir George Bain (former President and
Vice-Chancellor of QUB).

Mark Devenport opened the
conversation by noting the nature of the scheme, which although “a timely
project to bring into action”, is not without its controversies and issues that
have so far prevented the charity’s ideas from coming into fruition. He introduced
the panellists, who discussed the need for such a space and how to remember
this post-conflict society in a modern world, threatened by both man-made
concerns of conflict and civil war and more ecological concerns of
environmental degradation.

Prof. John Barry (QUB Centre
of Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action) sought to “ask for people’s
help in a tangible way… to join and help bring it to fruition”. He believes
that his focus on climatic issues affecting us in real-time can be wed with his
status as a “citizen of this place” — a place where he believes it is
“extraordinary that we don’t have a museum for the contested past”. Noting the
tendency of people to “march into the future looking backwards”, Barry observed
that “peace is about looking forward — an unfinished project we are still
working through”. In the midst of global turmoil, he thinks we need to discuss
our opposing views of the past and begin “conflict transformation”, not
continue the “conflict management”. For Barry, we need to make peace with our
world and those within it; conflict resolution and climate activism go
hand-in-hand, as we can “both walk and talk at the same time”.

Jane Morrice thanked the
audience for their interest in “an ambitious, exciting and ground-breaking
initiative”. Born in Belfast, Morrice was a teenager when the Troubles began:
“Like everyone, all I wanted to do was run away… and I did”. Ten years later,
she returned to Northern Ireland as a journalist, when she saw “the real horror
of what was happening” and decided to get involved. Working for the European
Commission to set up a peace programme, she co-founded the Northern Ireland
Women’s Coalition and supported the peace negotiations in the 1990s. Morrice
has worked on European affairs, integrated education and “peace, here and
abroad”. She sees MoTaP as an opportunity to “not only record the terrible
stories of the past but build on the peace process”. Morrice hopes that the
museum will enter its “first stage” by 2028 — the 30th anniversary of the
Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Gul Kacmaz Erk referenced her
and Christopher S. Wilson’s publication, Reframing
Berlin: Architecture, Memory-Making and Film Locations
in
relation to the city in “collective urban memory”. Noting that while MoTaP is
“in its infant stage now”, attempts to push the project forward have led to the
creation of a virtual museum to help “envision what it will be in the future”.
The simulations encompassed within this digital space, in her view, allow
visitors to decide what they would like to add to the project, as the project
is “all about people”.

 


which she is the producer. This new museum — “born and bred in the digital” — is a new kind of project that is made up of a “network of archives”. The task of building connections with pre-existing archives through oral history is, to Hanna, one of the utmost importance to prevent ordinary people’s stories and voices from being lost forever. Acknowledging that while “nothing holds a candle to the real thing” (physically visiting a museum), the numerous virtual experiences which are offered by several museums and sprung up during COVID-19 were “the next best thing”. Hanna then provided a view of a number of sample digital spaces and rooms, which included a peace park and dome, as well as a simulation of the HM Prison Maze. Future plans and ideas include a view of Belfast city centre checkpoints across the three decades of the Troubles and scans of the numerous peace walls, which to this day continue to divide Belfast. Local artists’ work is represented (for example, that of Banbridge sculptor F. E McWilliams) and encouraged; these databases can be filled with various sculptures and paintings, as well as the recreations of streets.

The question-and-answer section of the event concentrated on the realisation of this initiative. Irene Boada-Montagut used the example of her home city of Barcelona and its regeneration to highlight the possibility of the museum giving Shelby Hanna gave the audience a virtual tour of the spaces so far developed by her team, of Belfast a new lease of life. The initially proposed space for the museum — the old Assembly Rooms — was brought up multiple times in the conversation, as Frank Gaffikin lamented that they were “allowed to degenerate”. In his view, with the collapse of traditional retail, city centres with their historic buildings should not be allowed to become underused but given a new and important purpose. Issues with funding for MoTaP are interconnected with the museum’s controversial nature. It is, in Gaffikin’s words, an “extremely contentious project”, and alternative sources of funding from the Northern Ireland Assembly will have to be sought out, as the museum seeks to include still unacknowledged voices — for example, those of the trade unionists or of children — separate from the dominant perspectives of the three decades of sectarian violence.

MoTaP is seeking volunteers to contribute to the project.