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Free Speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game.
Free speech is life itself.
- Salman Rushdie



Making Meaning Of The Past


Anthony McIntyre
Other View, Winter 2001


As a child, the Ulster Museum situated at the back of Botanic Gardens in Belfast, held a great fascination for me. Ever since my mother took me to see 'the mummy woman' I made a habit of frequenting the building anytime I was up playing in the 'Tanny Gardens'. In teenage years other things intervened in my life. And with one thing or another such as imprisonment keeping me away from the museum there was a gap of about twenty years before I ventured back there with my two children who were eager to view the dinosaur exhibition.

This summer saw me go back again. The occasion was the exhibition War And Conflict in 20th Century Ireland. It went on Display in the Belfast museum after having completed an all-Ireland tour during which host locations included Strabane, Banbridge, Lurgan, Newry, Dundalk, Monaghan, Letterkenny, Ballymena, Coleraine, Derry and Omagh. Many of these places have experienced all too sharply the effects of war in Ireland in the last century.

Jane Leonard, the exhibition curator explained in the Ulster Museum news sheet that 'the human cost of conflict is the main theme of the exhibition which focuses on everyday experiences and memories of the two world wars, 1914-18 and 1939-45; the decade of revolution, partition and civil war, 1912-23; and the Troubles since 1969'.

My visit to the exhibition included being supplied with an illustrated colour catalogue written by Jane Leonard and designed by James Hanna. The catalogue is so well put together that browsing through it offers an easy way out for those not inclined to make the physical effort of visiting the display.

It did not take long to complete my journey through an imaged depiction of our troubled past which was arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Prominent themes were propaganda, prison, peace movements and victims' groups, peace keeping and reconciliation, and remembrance memorabilia such as graves and veterans associations. Among the gems of historical value on display were a Star of David saved from the Teresenstadt Concentration Camp. How, I wonder, did the bearer of such an ominous signifier fare out? There was also a roll of honour for those members of the RUC who died during the present conflict. Not too far away were posters calling for the force to disband. Jane Leonard explained in relation to this stark contrast that the exhibition had to address itself to the manner in which people remembered; nothing was clear-cut or one sided when viewed from that angle. Where there was also an overlap of commonality in relation to how events were remembered the exhibition did, she stressed, strive to capture that also.

If asked to pick what my one abiding memory of the exhibition would be I could only opt for the Tufty poster. As children Tufty used to feature regularly in our formative minds warning us of the hazards of the roads. I am sure he saved many lives. In the exhibition poster Tufty was warning children to keep out of bomb damaged buildings. In deprived areas derelict buildings were a luring adventure playground. The bombing campaign ensured they were plentiful. And I have often wondered if the use of Tufty was not just practical but in part propagandistic - the politicisation of a child's consciousness or a genuine safety measure? The exhibition did not answer that for me. However, that was not its purpose. But it did lead me to think that museums are never as the Monaghan Museum curator Roisin Doherty believes 'neutral space'. Imagery and symbolism are so crucial to the partisan ways in which human beings come to view the world that at best the term 'neutral space' itself begs investigation.

Jane Leonard has done a great job. Her professionalism combined with her user friendly approach made the visit not just a wander down Memory Lane but an engagement with the conflict and divisiveness that not only has plagued this society but far a field as well. George Orwell once commenting on the symbolism of Hitler and Stalin's moustaches claimed that they were daring us to laugh. This exhibition dares us to think.



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