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III. Passés douloureux et réconciliation / Difficult Pasts and Reconciliation

Peace in History and Heritage. Some thoughts on a Museum of Peace in Northern Ireland



En tant que discipline universitaire, l’histoire s’est traditionnellement davantage attachée aux conflits qu’à la paix. De même, le patrimoine bâti ou culturel, en tant que marqueur identitaire, a tendance à exclure plutôt qu’à inclure. Dans l’Irlande du Nord d’après les Troubles, le débat sur le traitement du passé, à la fois dans l’historiographie et dans les musées, bat son plein. Cet article a trois objectifs. Je souhaite tout d’abord proposer une réflexion sur les caractéristiques méthodologiques de l’écriture de l’Histoire et sa tendance à exclure la paix du récit historique. J’aborderai ensuite le traitement problématique des Troubles dans les musées nord-irlandais depuis la fin du conflit. Ceci me conduira à proposer un changement d’approche dans la représentation de l’histoire, privilégiant la paix au conflit. J’examinerai les modalités et les conséquences d’un tel basculement en imaginant ce que pourrait être un Musée pour la Paix en Irlande du Nord.

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1Our access to the past, through historical knowledge or memory, is necessarily partial. It is constrained by different filters, ranging from the choice made by historians in the topics they cover, the way history is taught or relayed to people or the way personal experiences inform what people forget or remember. In the end, the perception of the past may be rather different from the actual events that took place. Yet, one intriguing constant is the ubiquity of conflict in history-writing, heritage – that is to say the remembering of things past – and museums. In this essay, I would like to explore ideas to reintroduce peace in history-writing and heritage in the Northern Irish context. By “peace”, I mean not only the end of a conflict but also peaceful relations between communities, characterized by the absence of spectacular politically-motivated violence. From that point of view, Northern Ireland may be said to have been at peace since the ceasefires of 1994 or since the 1998 Omagh bombing, although the phrase “post-conflict” is used to express the specificity of the situation.

Peace, history and heritage

2The common point between history, heritage and museums is that they offer representations of the past. Historians use available sources to access the past and make data intelligible through the following process: “prior to the act of narration, the given events and facts are arranged as an emplotment according to the understanding of their causal connections as held by the narrator” (Munslow, 2000:169). Narratives are pervasive (Carr, 1986) but should not the confused with history itself, for they imply unavoidable inclusive and exclusive choices (Barton & Levstik, 2004: 129-149). For want of a better tool, narratives are the least unsatisfactory way of accounting for the multitude of emotions, experiences and events that people go through (Carr, 1986). The relation between narrative and peace is a complex one because of the multi-dimensional nature of peace. Narrating peace is made easier if the object under study is a peace treaty or a peace process, in other words if peace is turned into an event, as it can then more easily fit into “some temporal order that is necessarily causal” that is the classic pattern of a narrative (Holt, 1995: 13). However, the aspects of peace worth narrating encompass more than political decisions and militant activism. Peace can also be considered as an experience, which fits more awkwardly in the narrative format.

3Another reason for the comparatively limited place devoted to peace in history-writing lies in the long-standing use of history for political purposes, even despite the now universalist and objective aims of historical science. “Since the nature of most existing records is to reflect the standpoint of authority, it is not surprising that the judgement of history has more often than not vindicated the wisdom of the powers that be”, writes Paul Thompson in his appraisal of oral history over source-related history (Thompson, 1978: 5). The common perception that “history is told by victors” doesn’t totally resist the test of specification – for instance, Irish nationalist history is about continued resistance to domination – but struggle, not peace, is often found at the core of “schematic narrative templates”, whether historiographical (Whig or Marxist narratives for instance) or national (Wertsch, 2006). The historiographical turn of the 1960s has opened up new fields and added more voices to narrate (Iggers, 2005). Yet many of those new fields – women’s studies, economic history, subaltern studies – still use struggle as the core of their narratives. Social history at large, although it might describe societies in peacetime, yet does not specifically address the impact of ends of conflicts on them. Peacetime serves as a by-default backdrop and is therefore little talked about as such.

4To some extent, this is the case too in “Peace history”. This new field of research has developed since the interwar period but has met with a lot of scepticism (Summy and Saunders, 1995). It has been defined as the study of “ideas, individuals, and organizations concerned with the promotion of peace and the prevention of war and international conflict” (ibid.: 8). Apart from international conflict, it now includes conflict within states, such as civil wars and genocide (Van Den Dungen & Wittner, 2003: 366). Peace history can therefore be used to narrate the history of the peace process in Northern Ireland, but its concern with grassroots initiatives provides an awkward tool in tackling the various peaceful experiences of a post-conflict society.

5Just like history, heritage deals with the past. Despite all valid charges that may be made against it, “heritage is still the term that best denotes our inescapable dependence on the past” (Lowenthal, 1994: 43). Museums and the concept of heritage developed in the 19th century, along with national histories. The three were used to fuel growing nationalist feelings. At the time, hoarding objects into museums served to show the diversity of the world and to boast the prestige of the country (Kreamer, 1992: 368). The protection of historic sites, sometimes largely decayed, likewise served to preserve signs of the past in the present and to create distinct national heritages. As part of this enterprise, the experience of conflict was frequently narrated or remembered, maybe because it was felt to be more collective and therefore more easily generalised. In his famous lecture on “What is a nation?” Renan remarked that “suffering in common unifies more than joy does” (Renan, 1882: 19). Conversely, the experience of peace or of peaceful conditions seems far more personal, making it more difficult to relate or include in a collective heritage.

6The relation between history and heritage is an intricate one. In particular, academic historians have been eager to distance themselves from heritage issues, along the following line: “History explores and explains pasts grown ever more opaque over time; heritage clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes” (Lowenthal, 1998: xi). Yet such a distinction is hardly tenable, for academic research cannot be dissociated from their context of production. Moreover, it is worth noting that the relation between history and heritage/memory in Ireland is different than say, in France, where the theory of the “realms of memory” was developed by historian Pierre Nora. In Ireland, history-writing has long reflected and fuelled the nationalist and unionist cultural “traditions”. It is still largely dominated by ethno-national issues, because of the island’s colonial past, the recent creation of the state and the contested nature of partition and therefore of Northern Ireland. As a result, memory is certainly less alienated from history there than in the French case described by Nora (1996, 10-12). A practical way of gauging the relation between history and heritage is to look at what history is displayed in museums. Museums are among the main providers of history for the general public, certainly more so than actual academic books. They are a place for both history and heritage, as argued by Kavanagh:

In many ways, museums are a meeting ground for official and formal versions of the past called histories, offered through exhibitions, and the individual or collective accounts of reflective personal experience called memories, encountered during the visit or prompted because of it. History and memory meet in the collections, within the research process and within the museum visit. (Kavanagh, 1996: 1)

7Yet the “formal versions of the past” may vary from one museum to the next. For instance in Northern Ireland, the history gallery in the refurbished Ulster Museum, covering the history of Ireland from the Bronze Age to World War Two, is infused with references to conflict. Conversely, the living history Ulster Folk Museum represents life in Ulster at the turn of the century with hardly any reference to the contemporary political situation, providing instead a challenging if somewhat disturbing non-narrative version of the past. That a historian curated the history section of the Ulster Museum, when the Ulster Folk Museum was the brainchild of geographers, provides clues as to the different representations of the past (Bigand, 2011).

8In Ireland, the perfect fitting of conflict into the pervasive narrative format often impacts the way history is written or represented, or the way news is conveyed in the media. Indeed, it provides a lens to read the world where conflict becomes an expectation. This is not to undermine the existence, inevitability and sociological value of conflict (Simmel, 1903) but it is noticeable that peaceful circumstances, considered as non-events, are comparatively rarely reported on. In Northern Ireland, any visitor who has some knowledge of the Troubles expects to see signs of conflict. A majority of individuals may be set to move away from the conflict and also not to limit the last forty years to only the Troubles; yet the collective way forward to implement government policies calling for “A Shared Future” or “Cohesion, Sharing and Integration” is a difficult one, as if it was bogged down, among other things, by mental conditioning (Todd and Ruane, 2010).

The Trouble with Representing the Troubles

9Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland has been more busy “dealing with the past” and the so-called “legacy” of the Troubles than celebrating peacetime. This is understandable, to some extent, as so much of the violence of the conflict is still unresolved and as the power-sharing institutions in Stormont were not properly running until 2007. A whole series of necessary schemes have been set up to acknowledge, remember and explore the past, both at an official level – for instance the Historical Enquiries Team within the PSNI or the appointment of a Police Ombudsman – as well as in the third sector – the cross-community organisation Healing Through Remembering may be quoted as an example (Bell, 2002).

  • 1  A new “Peace Bridge” was opened in Derry/Londonderry in 2011, but it doesn’t quite fall into the c (...)

10Unsurprisingly, the celebration of peace in public space has been rather tentative. It is mostly visible in public art displays. One may mention the “Hands across the Divide” sculpture, built in Derry/Londonderry in 1992 and, more recently in Belfast, the “Thanksgiving Square Beacon” (2007) and the “RISE” sculpture (2010).1

Thanksgiving Square Beacon, Belfast, 2007

Thanksgiving Square Beacon, Belfast, 2007

RISE, Belfast, 2010

RISE, Belfast, 2010
  • 2  Information given on a Late Night Art BusTour organised by Belfast City Council.

11Both pieces display rather ambitious political intentions. The “Angel of Thanksgiving”, as it is also called, aims “to bring people together and to change hearts and minds; to make bridges across the divides in our community; to work towards a peaceful, happy existence for everyone on this planet by respect for each other, their cultural heritages and all our aspirations” (Thanksgiving Square plaque). As for RISE, “it symbolises the rising of the sun and new hope for Belfast’s future and aims to help revitalise Belfast, bringing a new focus to the area and projecting a vibrant, confident image of the city” (Belfast City Council website). It is certainly difficult to gauge the actual inspiration that such artwork may instil in local people. If anything, the nicknames they go by, respectively “Nuala with the Hoola/The Thing with the Ring” and the “Balls on the Falls/Westicles”2, seem to point, with good matter-of-fact Belfast humour, to a form of distance towards over-abstract forms of reconciliation.

12Museums offer more concrete possibilities for remembering the past and nurturing peace, even if the representation of the Troubles in a museum is problematic because of the absence of a single narrative of the period (Crooke, 2008). Attempts have been made to display this highly sensitive and partly unresolved recent history, whether in permanent or temporary exhibitions (Crooke, 2008; Crooke, 2005: 132-4). A debate about having a Museum of the Conflict has also been ongoing since 1998. The cross-community organisation Healing Through Remembering has played a pivotal role in organising this debate (Heal, 2006). A report published in 2002 included five recommendations to help “healing through remembering”. One of them was a Living Memorial Museum, whose role was to:

serve as a dynamic memorial to all those affected by the conflict and keep the memories of the past alive. It will also provide a diverse chronicle of the history of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland, increase public awareness of the impact of the conflict, disseminate information and provide educational opportunities ensuring lessons are learned for the future”. (Healing Through Remembering, 2002: 46)

13The organisation later published an audit of artefacts recording what objects existed that could be put in a museum (Brown, 2008). Kris Brown, who carried out the audit, reckoned “the best thing a new museum could achieve would be to ensure that conflict was never repeated. ‘This is still a highly segregated society - it’s like a form of voluntary apartheid - a museum could serve to educate people about the values and traditions of other communities.’” (Heal, 2006). The main ideas about the museum included having a “museum without walls”, accessible on multiple sites through travelling exhibitions and events, which was thought to be more inclusive. It was also to build on both an oral history archive and a collection of objects (Purbrick, 2007). The project has recently taken up a new turn in the form of a pilot exhibition called “Objects that were transformed by the conflict”. It opened in February 2012 in Belfast and travelled throughout Northern Ireland over the summer of 2012.

14Parallel to this project, the Ulster Museum opened its own Troubles Gallery in 2009 in the continuation of its history gallery. There was high speculation and expectations about the contents of the exhibition. A supposedly well-informed article announced that:

The collection ranges from the shirt worn by founding Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Gerry Fitt when he was felled by a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) baton at a 1968 rally, to a plaque commemorating a match played by Manchester United on the first anniversary of the 1998 Omagh bomb in aid of victims’ families”. (Morrison, 2009)

15However, last minute political and institutional cold feet meant that when the gallery finally opened, it played the sensitivity card, was devoid of artefacts and only included texts and pictures (Bigand, 2011). The gallery received a lot of bad press and the museum is currently working to improve it. A final project underway is to turn the former Maze Prison into a Peace and Conflict Transformation Centre. Little definitive information is available about the project but the place and the stories it tells have triggered strong criticisms, as they are felt not to offer an inclusive story, with the potential glorification of paramilitary prisoners, in particular Republican ones (Lindo, 2011; Northern Irish Assembly Debates, 2011).

16The common point of all three projects is to tell the story of the conflict in order to educate people, offering them a time and space to reflect on past evils, so that they don’t happen again. It is a somewhat moralising approach that may lead, in some cases, to an informative yet uncomfortable visitor experience. They can also be criticised from other perspectives. For instance, Tunbridge and Ashworth point to the ambivalence of representing conflict when they say that “atrocity [is] one of the most marketable of heritages and one of the most powerful instruments for the transference of political or social messages” (Tunbridge and Ashworth, 1996: 94). Another aspect is raised by McDowell, who warns against the limitations of promoting conflict heritage through “dark tourism”, which may end up having the reverse effect:

Support given by tourist visits, then, works to reinforce both the legitimacy of the landscape in question and the narratives being evoked. […] In [the Northern Irish] context, selling conflict heritage must be seen as a spatial practice which, contrary to improving community relations and transforming the nature of the conflict, instead redefines and reinforces territorial politics and transforms the conflict into a war by other means. (McDowell, 2008: 406)

Shifting the paradigm: how about a Museum of Peace in Northern Ireland?

17Museums are media for a specific message. While all previous examples have similar educational and peace-building intentions, they also show the difficulty in relaying a non-contentious narrative of the Troubles. They also present the dangers of an obsession with the past as described by Tunbridge and Ashworth:

The dominance of a concern for the recall and reconstruction of an imagined past over finding a solution for the difficulties of the present and a shaping of the future is a denial of the possibility of change and thus a reinforcement of the present statu quo. (Tunbridge and Ashworth, 1996: 4)

18Why not, therefore, change the message? Rather than focusing on the horrors of the conflict so that it doesn’t happen again, why not focus on the benefits of peace so that people want to maintain it? How about imagining a Museum of Peace in Northern Ireland?

19The surveys and reports that led to the projects above were all carried out relatively early after the Good Friday Agreement. With the conflict so recent and no concrete political progress, the period was more “an end to a war but not quite peace” (Purdrick, 2007: 18). Certainly the situation is different today. The Northern Irish Assembly has been running without interruption since 2007 and some political gestures, moving away from single-identity towards inclusiveness, point towards normalisation, even if the process remains slow. A Museum of Peace was certainly unthinkable ten years ago. Today, it would still be a challenge, but the benefits of it could outweigh the difficulties, as I will try to demonstrate now.

20A first benefit would be an obvious link with the community at large. There are several peace museums and galleries devoted to peace in the United Kingdom (Morrison, 2008). The main one is the Bradford Peace Museum, opened in 1994. Following the methods of peace history, as practised in the important local Peace Studies Centre in Bradford University, “the Peace Museum explores the events and history of people and organisations that have worked to promote peace, non-violence and conflict resolution” (Peace Museum website). While it is “the only museum in the UK dedicated to the collection, conservation, and interpretation of material relating to the history and development of peace, nonviolence and conflict resolution”, it delivers a universal message, with no specific community to serve and no local connection apart from the university. A Museum of Peace in Northern Ireland would focus on the Northern Irish conflict and peace process, therefore addressing the whole community.

21As in Bradford, a Museum of Peace in Northern Ireland could include a section devoted to the history of the peace process, focusing on people and organisations that worked for peace. Two joint Peace Nobel Prizes were granted to four Northern Irish people over the course of the Troubles. They can be seen both as international encouragements to end the conflict and as public recognition of the grassroots activism and political dialogue. The question of “who are the peacemakers” in Northern Ireland is not a simple one. Yet a museum could still address it, if only to display the invaluable, yet rarely publicly acknowledged, work of peace and conflict resolution organizations (Cochrane, 2001). It would also be a way to show that peace-building is a long process requiring broad consensus and gradual repositioning. Peace can only happen when the most extremist forces finally endorse it, but this doesn’t take any of the credit away from the early converted.

22Apart from presenting peace as an event or a process, the museum could focus on peace as an experience by including more personal dimensions. A guiding principle would be to show the changes that the end of the conflict has brought to people’s lives. Following the example of the Healing Through Remembering exhibition, a series of objects associated to the conflict whose meaning was transformed by the end of it, or objects that people associate with peacetime could be displayed. There could be a section about what people can do now that they couldn’t do during the conflict, using audio or video displays. Panels would be left blank for visitors to pin their own reflections, stories and reactions.

23The point of such a museum wouldn’t be to give a rosy picture of the end of the conflict and shun any unpleasant material. It is not what visitors expect, as the criticized over-sanitized approach of the Troubles gallery in the Ulster Museum suggests – an evaluation carried out in 2011 has shown visitors’ expectations included the use of oral history and artefacts, including weapons (Gillespie, 2011). A Museum for Peace would aim to encourage visitors to value and nurture peace. To this effect, the fragility of peace and the difficulty to come to terms with the past would have to be addressed, be it by relating victims’ experiences or through a reflection on dissidents or the high levels of suicides and mental illness in a so-called “post-conflict” society. A section on ways to nurture peace could also be included, putting existing inclusive projects into the limelight (for instance cross-community projects or integrated education) and inviting visitors’ suggestions. Finally, peace-inspired artwork, commissioned or not, could be displayed, as a complement to the Troubles Archives currently developed online by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (​artforms/​TroublesArchive.htm). Such a combination of displays would also allow for educational programmes on conflict transformation and peace-building.


24Museums have an important educational mission as providers of history for the general public. Thankfully, they are less constrained by the narrative format than history books and therefore offer better opportunities for multiple voices to be heard. This specificity should be fully taken advantage of to relate Northern Ireland’s contested past – as it is successfully done in the section about the 1912-1922 section in the Tower Museum of Derry/Londonderry. Museums also have a social function, defined as follows:

Museums can be trusted incubators for social change, as long as audiences are left to engage topics on their own terms and resolve issues in their own minds. By raising awareness of issues and empowering people to educate themselves on important topics to determine their own position around these subjects and become socially active, museums can have a role in social transformation. (Cameron, 2005: 229)

25A Museum of Peace in Northern Ireland could fulfil such an activist function among the community and beneficially complement the displays on the Troubles in other museums. It would offer a different version of Northern Ireland’s history by shifting the focus from conflict to peace, from past to present. This proactive choice should be clearly stated in the museum. It might help to foster a common heritage that politicians have been publicly calling for in the recent years, therefore serving the community it addresses in priority. Yet outsiders wouldn’t feel excluded, as the contents of the museum would coincide more with their experience as tourists in post-conflict Northern Ireland. Their learning experience would be enhanced, since learning builds on previous knowledge (Falk and Dierking, 2000). The same would be true, in fact, of a large portion of the community, namely young people born at a later stage of the conflict and with no first-hand memory of it.

26Finally, setting up a Museum of Peace in Northern Ireland would create an element of surprise that would undoubtedly attract visitors. In a study of taboo in Australian museums, Caleb Williams lists the reasons why a museum might want to engage in controversial displays. While it would be provocative to equate peace and taboos, some of the dynamics he describes wholly apply to our purpose. The surprise element would rely on peace being used as a marketing argument just like taboo in the following quotation:

Taboo is deployed strategically to suggest that the museum has transformed itself into a vital, contemporaneous cultural zone and is now a receptacle of ‘highly charged’ ideas and representations that possess strong appeal to visitation demographics that would not normally choose to spend their leisure time in the museum. (Williams, 2001: 4)

27Surprise would also be the basis of the visitor’s experience, as such a museum would follow the model of counter-hegemonic/emancipatory museums, which “favours the poetic use of shock in order to generate a rupture in audience conditioning and expectation, and to provide a deeper, more critically alert awareness of things-as-they-are” (Williams, 2001: 3, 5). With a clear militant agenda and an exhibition tuned in to the experience of visitors, a Museum of Peace in Northern Ireland would undoubtedly be beneficial for the continuation of peace in the country.

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1  A new “Peace Bridge” was opened in Derry/Londonderry in 2011, but it doesn’t quite fall into the category of public art.

2  Information given on a Late Night Art BusTour organised by Belfast City Council.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Thanksgiving Square Beacon, Belfast, 2007
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,1M
Titre RISE, Belfast, 2010
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,2M
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Karine BIGAND, « Peace in History and Heritage. Some thoughts on a Museum of Peace in Northern Ireland »e-Rea [En ligne], 10.1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2012, consulté le 16 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Aix-Marseille Université EA 853.
Karine Bigand is a Senior Lecturer in Irish Studies in the English Department at Aix-Marseille-Université. She holds a PhD in Irish studies on the representations and political uses of the Irish rising of 1641 (Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris). Her research deals with the representations and political uses of history in Ireland through various media – historiography, photography and museums – relations between France, Britain and Ireland as well as French representations of British and Irish history. She has published several articles on the said subjects and recently co-edited an issue of the European Journal of English Studies on “Cultural histories” (vol. 14.3, Dec 2010). She recently completed an MA in Cultural Heritage and Museums Studies in the University of Ulster in Belfast.

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