chapter  1
18 Pages

Introduction: The Interregnum, the Institution and the Critic

The Ulster Museum in the heart o f South Belfast fulfills its role as the ‘national museum for Northern Ireland’ (Ulster Museum 1993:2) with some grace. An elegant mix o f architectural styles, its hybrid form reflects the pluralist historiography to which it now aspires and which is testified to by its commitment to the Education for Mutual Understanding programme and its support for the cross-curricular theme o f Cultural Heritage. Anxious to ‘present impartially the complicated story o f Ulster’s past’ (Ulster Museum 1993: 6), the museum’s major exhibits demonstrate a sense o f the shared dignity o f labour and Northern Ireland’s great contribution to the world’s industrial development. Met by a series o f large static machine plants used in the production o f Irish linen, the visitor wishing to follow the recommended tour begins on the ground floor and progresses up the building in a spiral movement. Following the arrows, he or she moves from linen to aeronautics and ship-building, past the reconstruction o f a shop window from an indiscriminate age, before encountering what seems like a narrative proper. Starting in 1590 with Sir Arthur Chichester and Hugh O ’Neill, plantation is considered with indecent haste and within twenty yards the visitor encounters Henry Joy M cCracken’s uniform close to that o f a First World War soldier o f the 36th (Ulster) Division. Soon after, history ends. Moving past the formation o f the Ulster Special Constabulary (1920) the narrative o f Ulster’s past is foreclosed just as Ulster is rendered a politically meaningless framework due to partition. However, as it is the national museum for Northern Ireland, the visitor to the institution could reasonably expect some indication o f post-partition development in the North. Following the arrows, which after all now suggest

a narrative o f sorts, one is led directly from 1920 to an exhibition o f dinosaurs followed by the micro-colonial instant represented by the mummy o f Takabuti. As a metaphor, or even a joke, the resonances are telling.