Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Museum of Free Derry Needs to Keep the Names Up

The Museum of Free Derry has recently drawn fire from all sides for an exhibit that lists the names of all those killed in the area during the early Troubles.  On one hand, relatives of RUC officers killed during the Troubles "find it disgraceful" that their loved ones are identified in a space they consider a bastion of republicanism and which supports "terrorism."  On the other hand, some relatives of Bloody Sunday victims and others object to the full display of names of those killed on the grounds that it shows "complete disrespect for those on the list that have been murdered by the establishment" by having members of "the establishment" listed alongside the Bloody Sunday dead and other victims of state violence.  While the exhibit has been up for a decade, it has received attention recently because of the reopening of the museum after renovations.

I was so glad that the Museum of Free Derry received £2.4m to fund renovations and an extension for the simple reason that it does the best job in the city, really in the North (and for that matter on the entire island of Ireland,) of presenting the history of the civil rights movement and the early Troubles.  As an historian of Derry, I've been impressed by MoFD because it has struggled and persevered under the kinds of strains and challenges that would have sunk a less sturdy instituion and would have ripped apart less stalwart organizers.  

During the Troubles, the Bloody Sunday Trust maintained a countermemory, a version of the past diamterically opposed to the official version proclaimed by the Widgery Tribunal and adopted by the Northern State and mainstream press that blamed the victims of Bloody Sunday for state violence that killed 13 unarmed civil rights protestors.  It was not until the Good Friday Agreement authorized a new inquiry that the version of events almost unanimously held by Catholic nationalists in Derry and Northern Ireland (not to mention the Republic) was considered, evidence weighed.  (Lots of evidence -- the inquiry took 12 years, considered 20 million pages of testimony and produced a 5000 page report.)

From 1972 until 2010, when the British government apologized for Bloody Sunday calling it unjustified and unjustifiable, families of the victims, civil rights activists, scholars and republicans joined together to commemorate Bloody Sunday, to remember the victims, to bring the truth to light. It was an act of defiance -- standing up for truth.

It was out of this movement that the Museum of Free Derry came into being.  It started as all good things in Derry start, a DIY affair with a lot of hard work, sweat, tears, laughter and passion.  It started also with the need to create an archive.  Derry needed a repository, a safe place to hold and keep artifacts related to the civil rights movement, Bloody Sunday and the Troubles.  Nationalist Derry also needed a space to tell its story, a story that was discredited and oversimplified for so long.


The little shed and local tours gave way to a museum and gallery in 2007, with volunteers and one full time staff person.  The team struggled to achieve accreditation, not to be pompous museum people, but to do justice to the stories and objects they curated -- that they quite literally "cared for." Just a quick listen to John Kelly's interview with Indymedia in 2007 gives you a good sense of both how relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead like Kelly (his brother Michael was murdered) invested in the museum as well as a sense of the objects entrusted to it.

In the meantime, the countermemory became the official memory and the formerly accepted version of events has been rightly discredited.  The MoFD went, in its relatively short lifetime, from an activist space telling a story counter to official versions to an internationally known museum, a member of the International Sites of Conscience, and the go-to place for the now largely agreed-upon story of the civil rights movement and the Troubles in Derry.  It also narrates Northern nationalist history more broadly.  The tens of thousands of documents and objects will, in the light of the addtional funding, extension and renovations, allow the Museum to grow in all kinds of important ways.

As a scholar of memory as well as an historian of Derry, I know it is difficult to go from being the counternarrative space to the official narrative space.  Central to this shift is the need to balance commemorative and educational functions.*  The museum is a memorial to Bloody Sunday.  Its very existence is grounded in the events that took place in the Bogside, that reverberated across the North, the Republic, the world.  It has many memorial functions. Its very existence is testimony to  its founders' preservation and  care for objects and documents that for so many years were not considered "important" or "valuable" by the vast majority of historians, museum professionals, government administrators and political representatives.  It is a memorial museum. 

It is also a museum. As such it has the responsibility to present historical information in all its complexity. It is not simply a matter of taking a stand between right or wrong.    There is right and wrong in every story. It's figuring out how to assess the balance that is tricky.  Despite right/wrong, even us/them, THINGS HAPPENED.  People died.  Historical narrative needs to reflect this.  Historical museums most of all.

 That is hard work at the best of times.  As Northern poet John Montague wrote of historical knowledge, " Give us the whole mosaic, that we may judge is a period indeed as a pattern and is not merely a handful of colored stones in the dust." The Museum of Free Derry is not shirking its original mission by presenting the events of Troubles, (including the names of  all of those who were killed,) with all its messiness and complexity.

The Museum of Free Derry's longstanding and continued efforts to do justice to the truth of Derry's past and to the struggles of her people is something worthy of respect.  The effort was largely unpopular when it began and it will be unpopular again.  It matters little as long as staff, volunteers, board members and supporters continue to preserve, interpret and make sense of a complex and important past.  I also applaud the debates --- it is important that we don't settle into a complacent acceptance of one version of events and let dust settle over the events of the past century and more.  But the debates are not the fault of the museum -- just the opposite, they are a mark of its success.

(P.S. In case you are wondering, no one asked me to write this.  In fact, I'd be surprised if the interested parties even read it --- there are a complex set of dynamics when it comes to outsiders telling Derry's history and I am used to that.  But this is important to me and that is the sole reason I wrote and published this post.)

*Credit goes to scholar Ed Linenthal for the careful study of commemorative vs. educational functions in museums

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