Adrian Kerr is the manager/curator of the Museum of Free Derry, the award-winning Bogside museum that was set up by the Bloody Sunday Trust to tell the story of the civil rights and Free Derry eras in the late 1960s and early 1970s from the point of view of those who were most involved in and affected by events of that time. Here he talks to Hannah Crowdy, Head of Curatorial for National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) and ICOM UK Committee Member, about his work.
AK: The museum was first opened in 2007, and quickly became one of the key heritage and visitor attractions in the city. The original museum closed in 2015 and reopened in 2017 after a major redevelopment, which provided a purpose built museum with additional facilities for temporary displays, archive work and public meetings. Since reopening, the Museum of Free Derry has achieved full accreditation status under the Museum Standards Programme for Ireland and has become one of the most successful independent museums in the north of Ireland. The museum also regularly curates and/or hosts temporary exhibitions on subjects complementary to the core exhibition of the museum, and also curates exhibitions in other sites. Full detail on the narrative of the museum can be found at www.museumoffreederry.org
HC: What is special about your museum?
AK: The Museum of Free Derry (MoFD) was set up to educate people about what happened here and give them a sense of the impact it had on us and others. It is unashamedly subjective, giving the Free Derry story from the point of view of the Free Derry community, but it is not jingoistic and doesn’t ignore parts of the story that are uncomfortable. It is an important expression of identity for one community and something that we have always hoped would act as an encouragement to others to do the same.
It is also an outward looking museum that doesn’t see the conflict as simply a communal thing that should be looked at in isolation but as part of an international and ongoing struggle for civil rights and equality.
Museums like MoFD hopefully encourage different perceptions of history to be articulated and understood. We don’t believe there is a need to try to force different perceptions into one ‘accepted’ or compromised version of events, but there is a need for all of the different perceptions to be acknowledged and understood if we want them to become a source for discussion rather than a cause of division. Any attempt to deal with the recent history of the north that does not have such a reconciliation aim central to it would be counterproductive.
We also believe that stories must be told by the right people, by those most involved in and affected by the events, and told from the ground up, not imposed from above. Each community must be helped and encouraged to tell its own story. Others may disagree with the story told, but each community has the right to tell its own, and there is no need to try for a fake or imposed sectarian ‘balance’. In our case, our original staff included four (from five) who had lost family members on Bloody Sunday, so were uniquely placed to tell the story of that day and the impact it had on people, not just give a dry historical account. The museum is also located in the space where the events of Bloody Sunday happened. These two elements combined give a visitor an intensely personal experience of the history that we tell, and this is clearly reflected in reaction from visitors.
The success of museums and heritage centres like MoFD reflect the reality that many of those visiting the north of Ireland are here to learn about our recent past, about a conflict that resonated all around the world and impacted far beyond our shores. These visitors want to hear from those who were most involved in or affected by these events, they want a first-hand story. This also has the benefit of placing the economic benefits in the areas where these histories happened, which tend to be among the most economically deprived areas of the north.
HC: What do you see as the main challenges for museums on the island of Ireland in 2021?
AK: The main challenge for museums across the island of Ireland is the obvious one, that we need to rebuild after Covid. Many museums have suffered from a massive drop in visitor numbers and subsequent loss of income. This is especially detrimental to independent museums who don’t have the financial support of local, regional or national government.
Museums in the north of Ireland face a more specific challenge. We are trying to tell a history, to learn from a history, to educate about a history, at a time when the main government involved – the British government – are determined that this history is swept under a carpet and put out of sight and out of mind. They don’t want this history properly investigated or properly presented because they want to hide their role in it. In some ways, this is similar to the struggle to decolonise museums in Britain and present a more honest (and inevitably more negative) history of the British Empire, but in the north of Ireland it is a more current argument, affecting as it does so many people who are still alive, and so many perpetrators, from all sides, who are still active in public life. If we are to properly move on from the conflict here we need to deal honestly with our history, and the challenge for museums is to be an active and productive part of that process.
HC: What do you see as the main opportunities for museums on the island of Ireland in 2021?
AK: This directly links to the answer above. The opportunity for museums in the north of Ireland is to rise to the challenge of dealing with our recent history in the face of such opposition. Museums and other heritage institutions, from national museums to small independent exhibitions, can, and must, play a major role in this. In recent years, museums have become more active organisations and moved away from the “dusty displays of artefacts” as someone once described them. Museums in the north of Ireland, or those looking at the conflict in Ireland, have an opportunity to be a part of societal change and advancement and to be a part of genuine and lasting post-conflict resolution. This is a daunting challenge, but also a great opportunity and a chance for museums to be a force for good in a way that they maybe haven’t been in the past.
Another opportunity for museums in Ireland is the chance to reconnect with our local audiences. We, like many museums, have been used to a largely international audience base, but as people are more likely to stay closer to home we have a chance to attract a different audience. We have seen this during the brief period we were open last year, and in so far this year, as the vast majority of our visitors are now from this island.
HC: We understand that the Museum of Free Derry has been one of the founding members of a new Conflict and Legacy Network for museums and heritage organisations. Could you tell us more about this?
AK: This network is directly linked to everything I have said above. The idea emerged initially from meetings between NMNI and MoFD, and an awareness that we all must become more active in the current processes of conflict resolution. We agreed that museums and heritage organisations could have a stronger voice if we had a more united voice. After initial discussions and the formulation of a proposal, Healing Through Remembering were asked to come on board because of their experience of similar work in the past and their commitment to similar ideals.
The mission statement of the network is to “create a network of heritage organisations addressing conflict and legacy issues, with the purpose of nurturing a range of views and perspectives on the recent conflict to create greater understanding and inform the debate on legacy and reconciliation”. The membership criteria are:
- Membership will be open to museums, collections, exhibitors and other heritage organisations with a specific interest or role in conflict and legacy issues.
- Members must accept the mission statement, principles, aims and objectives of this network as outlined above and commit to uphold the shared set of values and ethical principles.
- Members must be willing to recognise and accept the unique identity of other member organisations even when it is significantly different to their own.
- Members must present this history in an ethical way primarily for the social and economic benefit of the communities whose stories are being told and for the wider community.
These criteria define what we want to do with the network – that we want it to involve a wide range of partners who cover all sides to the conflict here. We do not want to impact on the independence or identity of any member organisation and we want it to work for societal benefit here, not for economic gain.
The network is in its early stages – the pandemic has had an obvious impact on our ability to develop quickly – but the early stages have been promising. Attendance at early meetings has included organisations from across the full political and historical spectrum, and those attending have expressed strong support for the network and its ideals. We have also been able to secure some initial funding from the Museums Association’s Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund to try to address capacity issues within the network and attract the interest of other potential supporters.
We hope to take some important steps with this network within the near future, and given the current situation and recent announcements from the British government, it is becoming more and more important that we do.
HC: What should we look out for at your museum over the next 12 months?
AK: The next 12 months will be busy ones for us. Many of the key events that we cover in the museum narrative – including the main one, Bloody Sunday – are now at or approaching their 50th anniversaries. These anniversaries have to be properly commemorated, so we are currently working with a range of partners to finalise a suitable programme of events. This programme will include historical exhibitions, lectures, conferences, and a number of keynote public events. We have chosen the theme of One World One Struggle for this to allow us to not only look at what happened here 50 years ago, but also what was happening around the world then, in the years since, and now.
Alongside this we still have to manage what is thankfully returning to being one of the busiest independent museums in the north of Ireland and trying to rebuild our audiences to pre-covid levels.