With thanks to the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, for providing the artefacts that appear on this page

The Troubles and the Titanic: according to Liam Kennedy, emeritus professor of economic history at Queen’s University Belfast, the “two Ts” are what Northern Ireland is known for around the world.

And while international tourists can learn about the ill-fated liner at the highly successful Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, there is no specific place they can go to understand exactly what happened during the conflict, nor is there a dedicated venue for local people to reflect on it.

It is precisely this gap that Prof Kennedy, together with a group of other academics and business consultants, proposes to fill with an ambitious new institution: a national museum of the Troubles.

Kennedy and his group, the Museum of the Troubles Initiative (MOTI), envisage a “multi-faceted mega-project”: a world-class museum, interpretive centre and visitor attraction, which would draw on a vast array of sources such as film footage, interviews and testimonies, murals, posters, drama, poetry and music, as well as material culture such as weaponry, flags and uniforms.

Pointing out that Northern Ireland’s recent history is about much more than simply bloodshed, Kennedy wants to trace a long narrative arc stretching from the 1960s to the present day, taking in both the descent into violence of the 1970s and the achievements of the Belfast Agreement.

More controversially, Kennedy also suggests the use of digital technology to simulate immersive experiences such as ambush sites and even car-bomb explosions. At present the group is still developing the concept, exploring funding opportunities with philanthropic organisations, and seeking out a suitable site in Belfast, possibly right on the peace wall between the Lower Falls and the Shankill.

Living memory

“Now is the time to engage, while it is still within living memory,” insists Kennedy. “We need to face up to the past and deal with it, and while there are clearly great difficulties in doing that, a museum, which is, after all, an exercise in public history, might be one of the more effective ways. In facing up to what happened, we need to listen to all the different voices, and represent them – we could build a cathedral of narratives.”

Kennedy advocates an inclusive, comprehensive approach where all perspectives could be accommodated. So does he envisage this as the next best thing to a truth commission?

“It’s the closest we’ll ever get. Truth recovery hasn’t happened and it won’t happen. But through the medium of a museum we could make the materials for people to come to their own judgements.”

Kennedy thinks that far from being “a parochial bit of bother”, the conflict in Northern Ireland has a much wider global resonance.

“The Troubles was a world-class problem in miniature. The dynamics bear a close resemblance to disputes in deeply-divided societies elsewhere, revolving round issues of ethnicity, nationality, religion, class and language.”

But who would foot the bill for such a grand project?

“We think it shouldn’t be difficult to raise the tens of millions required if the idea is good and it serves an important social function.”

Opponents

One of the most impassioned opponents of the plan for a Troubles museum is Kennedy’s friend and colleague at Queen’s, the literary critic and cultural historian John Wilson Foster.

“What do we have to teach the world about harmony?” he asks.

Rather than using the euphemism of “the Troubles”, Foster calls that period “the years of our disgrace”, a “protracted episode of human wickedness”.

And he believes that we are nowhere near the point where such a vast, interactive permanent exhibition could be developed with the necessary “coolness, scrupulosity and balance” that museums require.

“Even if we were even to plan to commemorate the “Years of Disgrace” with a profitable tourist destination while victims of those years still nurse wounds, endure nightmares and suffer the pains of loss, would be unseemly.”

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