Connected Curriculum

Decolonising Northern Irish Museums

Decolonisation is an urgent and developing area of UK museum practice. In Northern Ireland, the decolonisation movement has reignited debates about whether Ireland was itself a British colony. Perspectives on the subject do not always follow ethnic and political divisions, but historically, Catholics, republicans and nationalists have considered English and Scots settlement in Ireland to have been colonial, whereas Protestants, unionists and loyalists have believed it to have been migration between two neighbouring islands. Following Ireland’s Partition in 1921, when Northern Ireland was established, the 26 counties south of the new border, which later became the Republic of Ireland, withdrew from the British Empire. The fact that Irish Republicans believed this to have been an ‘unfinished revolution’ was partly the cause of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ (1968-1998) in which over 3,700 people died; a conflict whose consequences include, at the time of writing, ongoing disputes over the Northern Ireland protocol and the lack of a functioning government.

Therefore, the subject of decolonising heritage in Northern Ireland threatens to enflame division over the modern Irish border, and is also indirectly connected with stasis in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. In addition to the fact that decolonisation has been connected in other parts of the UK with ‘culture wars’, this explains why, having worked intensively to contribute to peace-building and the promotion of diversity in the wake of the ‘Troubles’, Northern Irish museums are approaching the subject with great care.

Museums, Empire and Northern Irish Identity (MENII)was a 2021-22 Queen’s University Belfast project, that paid attention both to the importance of undertaking museum decolonisation in ways that respect and include originating communities globally, and to the need to advance peace within Northern Ireland itself. In partnership with National Museums NI, the Irish Museums Association, the Northern Ireland Museums Council and the University of Maynooth, MENII aimed to research and understand collections that have been defined as ‘ethnographic’ and ‘World Cultures’; to investigate their relevance to people living in Northern Ireland now; and to empower museums to develop links with decolonisation research and practice that is happening in other parts of the UK and Ireland (see e.g., the Ireland Museums Empire Colonialism conference and forthcoming book).

In 2021, we approached the 43 then-Accredited museums, to ask them about ‘how the “other” was collected, constructed, conceived, understood, and represented by people from Ireland living and working within the British Empire outside of Ireland’. Counting distinct computerised records, the relevant findings amount to 4,361 items in total. Regionally aggregated, Africa, Oceania, Asia and North America are well represented in National Museums NI. Chinese and Japanese collections are quantitively strong in the North Down Museum, Milford House and National Trust historic house museums. Collections in the regimental museums include items from Myanmar and sub-Saharan Africa. The Armagh County Museum holds items from woodlands areas of North America, as well as African weaponry and beadwork.

The reasons why the museums hold these collections correspond with the unique foundations of each. For example, the Milford House Museum has collected items memorializing the once-grand County Armagh house of that name. The regimental museums have objects taken during imperial wars, and that were awarded and gifted to soldiers.  National Museums NI’s collections express civic identities and collecting interests, as well as contemporary collecting. Former owners of now-National Trust properties removed some possessions before leaving, with the result that these ‘big house’ collections are now unrepresentative of past imperial entanglements. Many museums concentrate on local stories and biographies; for instance, the collections at Armagh County Museum reflect its roots in the Armagh Natural History and Philosophical Society, and its curatorial networks.

The survey highlighted extensive documentation gaps on who the items’ first owners were, and it became clear that there is a significant need for provenance research on these collections. Clothing, masks, musical instruments, weaponry, ceremonial and decorative items and even boats are among the objects that bear material traces of the minds and bodies of people who lived and died far from Ireland, and whose names were never written down (see for example, the tomako (canoe) from the Solomon Islands at the Ulster Museum, which I’ve recently written about in Irish Historical Studies). Community collaborations are helping to improve museums’ understanding of what they have. One example is the Northern Ireland Museums Council and National Museums NI’s project, Global Voices Local Choices. However, many collections records remain difficult to access, and are not linked with existing publication citations.

MENII also conducted autoethnographic one-to-one interviews with thirty-three adults living in Northern Ireland. To mitigate unforeseen risks for participants in this new initiative, we approached people with experience of these and other contested histories. Twenty-one worked in the cultural or intercultural sectors, six were politicians, and three worked in community settings. One was a full-time writer, one a business person, and one an academic. Eleven were born outside of Northern Ireland. Eleven self-declared as having Catholic/Nationalist/Republican backgrounds, eleven as having Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist backgrounds, and nine were people of colour. Many had been directly affected by racism and sectarianism.

Nine items from the National Museums NI’s World Cultures collection. They are described in the next paragraph, along with one other object.
MENII study items (courtesy of National Musems NI).

We asked participants to discuss three objects from a choice of ten from the National Museums NI’s World Cultures collection, including an atua (god figure) from Rapa Nui; the Solomon Islands tomako; a beaded can from South Africa; a dish from Zimbabwe; a mask from Sri Lanka; a feather cloak fromKing Kamehameha III of Hawai’i; a hat from California; a canoe fitting from the Aleutian islands; a Buddha figure from India; and a puzzle ball from China.

Expressing their familiarity with related iconography, participants chose the Buddha figure the most frequently. They chose two of the rarest items — the cloak and the tomako — the fewest times. This suggests that items that are of global importance may not be those with which people living locally initially feel the most affinity. It also suggests that the museums should develop collaborative projects with originating communities around the world to progress understanding of the items’ significance and explore their futures.

Several contributors remarked that museums should be transparent about the limits of their knowledge. Others spoke about their concern for the items’ first owners, and were strongly motivated to find out more about the circumstances under which they had been taken. Some found the subject of the British Empire to be troubling and even traumatising, while others had positive feelings about it. Most participants discussed the question of whether Ireland was a colony with ease, and were interested both in how Ireland’s role in the Empire is refracted by these collections and in expressing their own views on imperialism and colonialism.

MENII Memories, MENII Voices’ (MMMV) is a public engagement project that has emerged from this research. Delivered by Queen’s alongside leading intercultural arts charity, ArtsEkta and the Irish Museums Association, which works on both sides of the Irish border, MMMV aims to raise awareness of and share personal accounts to help understand how colonial and imperial histories relate to contemporary society. It sets out to promote understanding of the intersecting themes of shared futures, diversity, and the decolonisation of heritage, and to foster respect for diverse perspectives. The project is engaging with communities to explore these themes through sharing personal stories of objects, creative arts, an exhibition, and best practice conversations with community and heritage partners.

Aimed at promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 of Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, MMMV is developing the participant autoethnographic method to deliver ethical, rigorous research through partnership and to empower people to explore and share their lived experiences of these topics. In MMMV, we are working with people from across society who are talking to us about objects that are meaningful to them. In sharing their perspectives on items in museums, they have explored how they feel empire and colonialism to be connected to their sense of identity today. These personal accounts use objects to explore Northern Ireland’s complex relationships with global histories of colonialism and imperialism, and the legacies and afterlives of those relationships in Northern Ireland today. Participants’ own words and images, and their reflections and thoughts, are collected on the MMMV website.

MMMV is funded by UK Research and Innovation, through grants from the Impact Acceleration Account schemes of Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The publication of this article has been supported in part by the AHRC-funded Connected Curriculum Network, which encourages dialogue and connection between educators, researchers and heritage professionals across the UK working to de-centre, diversify and decolonise British history education. 


With thanks to MENII and MMMV participants, museums and partners. MENII was UKRI-funded (ES/V00767X/1) and was led by Dr Briony Widdis, Dr Emma Reisz and Professor Dominic Bryan. Data Access Statement: The sources for this article are as stated. Due to the ethically sensitive nature of the research, interviews and associated correspondence are closed. 

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