Review: Ulster Museum

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Not being privileged to attend the preview opening of the revamped Ulster Museum last week, I was determined to inspect the new offering as soon as I could. Met up with my mate Gordon outside its entrance, and we both immediately realised our atrocious timing — the placed was packed with children and their parents on midterm break.

Entrance is certainly a vast improvement from the cavernous predecessor, though I was a little thrown off by where to go next: you’re inclined to verge left, straight to the cafe. It’s a quick zigzag right-left to enter the museum proper.

The Welcome Zone is an architectural triumph. Lots of space and light, and an enjoyable perspective watching people funnel along gangways into the various sections.

However, the Information Desk blends in too much with the surroundings. Its polished light brown stone I’m sure was expensive enough, but it doesn’t work. Perhaps some brushed steel or other contrasting material would make it stand out. After all, don’t you want your Information Desk to be easily spotted?

I always work top-down in museums. No way we could compete with all the prams in the lifts, so we hoofed the three flights of stairs to the Art Zone.

Here, the first room is the Applied Art. I admired the variety of materials, for example the candlesticks with twisted base, like a peeled orange. But I couldn’t figure out any rhyme or reason with the selection of art pieces. This was more clear in the glass section (with the rich tradition of glass and crystal making in Ireland) and the ceramics (with teapots and the like from all over the world, we like our tea!).

The adjacent rooms contained the current exhibition by Irish-born artist Sean Scully. This was very good. In fact, his work was displayed in many of the rooms of the Art Zone, covering a chronological period of the artist’s work. Some type of audio recording/Podcast to accompany the exhibition would have been nice, but that isn’t meant as a criticism (just a suggestion). I liked the large photographs of the artist at work. Good contextualisation.

We skipped the Nature Zone, out of snobbery. I’m in an art museum, not a natural history museum.

That left the History Zone, with its slightly ecclectic arrangement, covering Ireland, Egypt, and other miscellany. If I was one of the thousands of pupils brought to the Ulster Museum, I think I would enjoy the Armada section very much, with the display of silver and gold coins, and ship artefacts.

Indeed, I found myself examining the well-chosen artefacts shown in the Plantation to Power Sharing section (quite an ambitious time frame!). More coins from the Jacobite era. A tree branch with tied ribbons, representing outdoor Masses during the Penal Laws. A B-Special uniform with county pins.

But perhaps more could have been done with the 1912-1923 time period (Home Rule through Civil War)?

Also, what’s with hiding the 1972 Olympic gold medal of Dame Mary Peters? If Gordon hadn’t pointed it out to me, I would have missed it. It’s in a side display, in a case not much larger than a shoebox. It deserves a more prominent display, accompanied by a photo or newspaper headline.

And I thought, that’s it? Couldn’t even end with the Civil Rights Campaign? We strolled around a corner to discover The Troubles room. (Perhaps we were walking against the map guide, but we were being chronological, so what’s the rationale in the layout here?)

I heard negative remarks about this section, so I purposely kept an open mind, looking out for the positive.

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There are about a dozen configurations of gable walls (end of terraced buildings), with relevant topics explained in large text on parts of the wall. To its credit, I found nothing offensive or inaccurate with these textual descriptions (and I know firsthand how difficult this can be).

One of the sections was a set of three monitors, displaying photos, Burns zoom effect style, each with a descriptive title, in a continuous loop. Decent application of mixed media (motion within a permanent fixture (wall)).

But that was it! I couldn’t believe there was no creativity applied to any of the other sections here. Posters of the Civil Rights Campaign? An RUC cap/uniform for the Policing section? The Nobel Peace Prize medal/replica for the Peace People? A desk/pen/pad of paper from the Northern Ireland Parliament for power sharing? Headphones to listen to various speeches of what was being displayed?

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In fact, in the corner there is a sideroom where visitors can inspect various books on The Troubles on a bookcase. Sadly, this comes across as an afterthought. More substantially, there are a couple of computer kiosks where you can browse online material held at CAIN, the Arts Council’s Troubles Archive (though it’s mostly written work; I found no visual material; and not available outside the Ulster Museum?), and the BBC Radio Ulster’s Legacy’s project in 1999 (with a selection of voice recordings of people recalling their experiences of the Troubles: this is actually a most relevant resource).

So, my disappointment is not the avoidance of contentious issues (though there’s no section on the 1974 UWC Strike, the collapse of power sharing apparently not significant enough?).

It’s the lack of consistency with the rest of the museum. Everywhere else in the museum, the topics are displays of contemporary art, natural history, or folk history (artefacts). The Troubles section fits none of these. Walking through the History Zone, I expected a continuation of appropriate artefacts, which would be relatively easy to procure (I worked at the Northern Ireland Political Collection; surely a loan arrangement could have been made, at the least?).

I understand that original consulting for The Troubles section fell through. But there are plenty of people in the conflict-visual arts industry, and I would like to think it possible for the Ulster Museum to receive fair advice if only to make The Troubles section more consistent with the rest of the museum’s offering.

With all of the interactive areas in the museum, there’s no need to shy away from making The Troubles section more interesting. I’ve witnessed successful Troubles-related projects and exhibitions elsewhere (even responsible for one myself), so I know that it is possible and not too painful to achieve.

Look forward to returning to the Ulster Museum on a quieter day!

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