The Occupied Museum of Free Derry

The newly revamped Museum of Free Derry has been mired in controversy since before its doors reopened. At issue is an exhibit that includes the names of all the people who were killed in the area during the Troubles. This seems harmless except that the names of British soldiers and police officers are also there, right alongside many innocent victims who were killed by those very same squads. The decision to include those names may seem reasonable from a purely educational viewpoint but the Museum underestimated the emotional response from locals who lost friends and family members during the conflict. For some of them, the inclusion of these government contingents is an affront to the memories of their loved ones and a blatant disregard for their own feelings and their continuing fight for answers and justice. 

Derry is a special city. It wears its heart on the sleeves of its people and the sides of its buildings. Some of the biggest atrocities and battles of the Troubles happened on the streets of Derry, and it is the Museum’s goal to teach people about them. There is a huge focus on the Civil Rights movement and the Bloody Sunday Massacre, which took place mere steps outside the museum – in fact, the space was opened by the Bloody Sunday Trust. Many of its directors (who are also employees of the museum) lost family members on Bloody Sunday and their goal is to highlight the massacre, support human rights, educate the public, and keep the families’ continuing quest for justice in the spotlight.

These are all worthy goals but there has always been a bit of disagreement among some of the surviving friends and families as to how to achieve them. The Bloody Sunday Trust does not speak for everyone who lost loved ones and that has never been more apparent than now. When the museum reopened after a £2.4 million face lift, it boasted a full multi-media experience. One of these state-of-the-art exhibits is a catalyst that has torn into the scars of the past and ripped them wide open again. This is the exhibit that lists government forces alongside their victims and it has led to an “occupation” in the museum. Linda Nash and Helen Deery have started a sit-in and they refuse to leave the museum until the offending exhibit is removed or altered. Both women lost brothers in the conflict and they do not believe their brothers should be remembered in the same space as the people who worked with the forces that killed them. It’s a compelling argument and in the last day or so, a few others have gathered outside the building to show their support for the two women. The museum has staffed the building at night to make sure the women aren’t left alone but they can’t sustain a 24-hour schedule for long – and the ladies won’t back down. As of this writing, neither will the museum.

It has a compelling argument as well. After all, a museum is a learning center and the Free Derry Museum has a lot of teaching and outreach to do. The subject matter is already divisive for some people and to overcome that and be a legitimate and inclusive place of learning they feel they need to display all the victims in the area and not cherry pick which names to show. The controversial exhibit is not set up as a memorial and it does not honor either side of the dead and therefore, they are not willing to remove it. Most of the family members who lost people on Bloody Sunday are in agreement with the Museum’s stance, including two of Linda Nash’s other brothers but that doesn’t mean that this conflict will resolve itself or fade away. It’ll probably get worse before it gets better unless someone steps in to mediate.

Some claim that the inclusion was forced by those who gave grants to refurbish the museum and that it sold out to get a fancy makeover. Others believe there’s an agreement between Sinn Fein and the British government to silence the families, stop their marches, and ignore their claims… and that the Bloody Sunday Trust supports this agreement too. Many others simply don’t like the way the museum has handled the dissent. Whether you believe any of the conspiracy theories and rumors or not, this rift in Derry’s Bogside is opening a lot of old wounds instead of celebrating a new endeavor. It will take a sympathetic voice, a respectful conversation or ten,  and a lot of compromise to bring this rift to a close. It’s suddenly clear that the museum’s stated goals of inclusiveness, education, and justice need to begin in their own community. Perhaps they should start with the women who are sitting right inside those shiny new doors.  

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4 thoughts on “The Occupied Museum of Free Derry

  1. oglach says:

    This could have and should have been handled differently by the Trust and the museum. This isn’t ancient history. It’s yesterday. Thanks for posting.

    • A little respect and understanding (on both sides) often goes a long way. It’s rather heartbreaking to see the families being torn apart by this after dealing with it for so long already. It definitely should have been handled differently.
      The old museum was an amazing place already and I look forward to seeing the new place someday, so I’m hoping it’ll be resolved by then, since I’m not one who will cross a picket/protest. I just hope everyone involved can take a breath and work something out.

      • oglach says:

        It’s important that they do, because most of the people who visit the museum will not be from Derry or even Ireland. You know a lot about the history of the city. What if you didn’t, and your first and only exposure to it was a museum that featured a display containing soldiers names alongside victims? It sends the wrong message. A “many sides” type of message. Way bigger issue than the people involved.

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