National Museums in Northern Ireland

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Publicerad: 2011-09-30


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


As with Irish history as a whole; the history of Northern Ireland is contested. It is also marked with tragedy and suffering; especially during the ‘Troubles’ from the mid-1960s to 1998 (and is still; for some; a challenging place to live). In brief; the entire island of Ireland had been more or less dominated by the British state since the Norman period (twelfth century AD); but it had its own parliament from very early in this history until 1800. From the seventeenth century a ruling elite; often descended from English or Scottish families; governed the country. This elite saw themselves as part of the wider British leadership but despite loyalty to Britain; and their Anglican faith (Anglicanism is the established form of Protestantism in the UK); they were nonetheless willing to stand up for their rights as Irish magnates; and regarded Dublin (now in the Republic of Ireland) as their capital. Known as the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’; their power declined in the nineteenth century. Most of the Irish population were Catholics; and British rule disadvantaged them. In the north-east; the growth of industry around Belfast and the predominance of Dissenters (Protestants who rejected the Anglican Church) gave rise to a society keen to preserve its British character whilst suspicious of British rule. With the collapse of British power in the south from 1916 onwards; Protestants in the north armed and prepared to fight to retain their identity. The First World War intervened; but the island was partitioned in the 1920s between the Republic in the south and Northern Ireland in the north-east.

At the establishment of Northern Ireland then; a sizable part of its heritage (in Dublin museums) was lost; removing access to key cultural objects. Divisions in Northern Irish society between Catholics (generally in favour of an end to British rule) and Protestants (generally in favour of retaining a link with Britain); has in many ways rendered the past problematic and contested. Perhaps as a result of this difficult past; there has also been an absence of policy guidance for museums in Northern Ireland; and for various reasons; expenditure on museums was relatively low. Northern Ireland gained a national museum relatively late; and on the basis of impoverished collections; but did create the Ulster Folk Museum and Transport Collection; and the Ulster Museum (both in 1961/2).

Sectarian violence flared between the two communities during a period known as the Troubles (c. 1967 to 1998) with riots; bombings and assassinations. The Northern Ireland parliament was abolished and direct rule from London was imposed; with the British Army deployed to aid police.

With the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998; the UK government; working with Northern Irish groups and with help from the government of the Republic of Ireland); brought the Troubles to an end and devolved many aspects of government to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although isolated atrocities and occasional civil unrest still occur; and the Assembly has been temporarily suspended on several occasions; the situation is improved and further development of national museums has taken place; with the Ulster Museum winning a major award in 2010 (BBC News 2010); despite limited progress towards a coherent government strategy for national museums.


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