More background info: The museum has its origins in the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society founded in the early 19th century. A first incarnation of an associated museum opened in the 1830s; later an art collection was added. This bore the name Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery.
This moved to the present address in South Belfast
in 1929, where a purpose-built museum edifice had been constructed in a neoclassical style – though it remained unfinished.
In the early 1960s the name was changed to Ulster Museum and a major extension was planned. The competition for its design was won by one Francis Pym, who had submitted a bold ultra-modernist architectural style for the extension. In fact the Ulster Museum has become renowned as the prime example of modernist architecture in all of Ireland. The style is distinctly ‘brutalist’ with its large cubic structures of raw concrete and its huge curved cantilevered roof over the entrance.
The new wing looks like it’s “growing” out of the older classical museum building – a design, which admirers of modern architecture praise but which failed to win over large parts of the public … as has so often been the case with brutalist architecture. Though once widely vilified, brutalism has however gained some renewed recognition in recent years, not only in architectural circles. In fact there is even a distinct overlap with dark tourism, with some operators combining classic dark tourism with special brutalist architecture sightseeing (e.g. this one!).
Controversy over the new annexe to the Ulster Museum started already as soon as construction began in 1964. In fact, Pym eventually walked away from the project before it was finished and refused to visit the site until much, much later in his life. Moreover, the Ulster Museum remained his only completed work, as he not only left this particular project behind but also architecture design in general (he later even became a priest!).
The new Ulster Museum opened in 1972 – at a time when the Troubles were at their deadly peak. This association with that difficult time is sometimes said to have contributed to the lack of appreciation of its design.
In 1998 the Ulster Museum was merged with the Ulster-American Folk Park as well as the Ulster Transport Museum and Ulster Folk Museum to form the group of “National Museums of Northern Ireland”.
In 2005 a major
, multimillion-pound refurbishment
was announced; the museum closed and work began in 2006. Criticism
of the refurbishing plans, which involved some significant alterations to the original architecture
, didn’t take long to materialize. The main objections concern the closing of the courtyard by a new roof, in order to incorporate the space into the museum’s galleries, as well as the addition of a new museum shop and cafe utilizing the space under the huge cantilevered roof over the entrance, which was consequently moved a dozen feet or so to the right. Now the space under the roof is enclosed by new floor-to-ceiling glass walls, which indeed sit rather at odds with the rest of the architecture. (For some of the criticism see e.g. this architecture article
, or also this one
– external links, opening in new tabs.)
Nevertheless, the reopening of the museum in 2009 proved to be a great success with the public, with more than 100,000 visitors in the first month alone.
Part of the new exhibition space inside was also a section called “The Troubles”. This was soon criticized for being too bland, consisting almost entirely of black-and-white photographs, and too much playing it “safe” for fear of causing controversy, and many visitors lamented the lack of original artefacts,. That contrasted with an earlier exhibition from 2003 called “Conflict: The Irish at War”, which also included a small section on the Troubles and did display controversial artefacts.
To rectify what was hence being perceived as “a step backwards”, a new exhibition was being planned in the 2010s and finally opened in 2018. After my visit in April 2023 I bought a book from the museum shop that is about the curating challenges and processes regarding this new exhibition (Karen Logan, “Curating Conflict – The Troubles and Beyond”, no place and year of publication given, 128 pages). It’s quite an eye-opener and provides valuable insights into what a tall order compiling and designing this new exhibition was. But I for one think that the end result is quite admirable – see below for more details.
What there is to see: The museum covers a vast array of different strands, from palaeontology to modern fashion, and from art to history. Part of the latter is the relatively new (see above) exhibition “The Troubles and Beyond”, and obviously enough this is the main draw from a dark-tourism perspective! So let’s start by looking at this section first (even though when going through the museum along the suggested circuit, it comes more towards the end rather than at the beginning).
This section isn’t just about conflict, though, it also has lots of lighter, more uplifting parts. On display are plenty of posters, flyers and the like from both sides of the Republican/Catholic and the Unionist/Protestant divide. The cultural context for the eruption of the Troubles in the tumultuous 1960s is laid out, as is the descent into ever more violence, “peaking” in the “Bloody Sunday” massacre. The long road of the peace process is chronicled too (as is some resistance to this), including the Good Friday Agreement of 1997 and the subsequent developments of conflict resolution and reconciliation. The spectre of Brexit and its impact on Northern Ireland raises its ugly head as well, though the exhibition does not dwell on this much.
Amongst the many original artefacts that are not in print are, e.g. a car bomb device (attached to the underside of a vehicle by strong magnets and designed to go off as soon as the vehicle is moved) and an RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) helmet that was damaged by a protester’s petrol bomb. One exhibit whose inclusion would have looked odd without the given context is that of an ordinary 1960s television set. This was an item salvaged from the ruins of Bombay Street in West Belfast that in 1969 was largely destroyed in one of the most violent episodes of the Troubles. A particularly poignant large object is one of the remote-controlled bomb disposal robots employed from 1972. Some 400 of these devices were lost in their operation - it’s hard to estimate how many lives may have been saved by them in return …
Other than violence, there’s also coverage of cultural developments, including the Northern Irish punk rock bands the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers. In addition there is also plenty of Troubles-related visual arts represented here, including a couple of recreations of those famous wall murals you can see, in particular, in several parts of Belfast
(the double name with a slash in between is consistently applied throughout the exhibition, marking the curatorial neutrality also employed on this website).
, I was quite impressed with this exhibition – especially given what a tall order it was for a National Museum representing the conflict in as balanced and neutral a fashion as possible. I think it manages this admirably. Moreover, some of the artefacts and images/documents on display are quite impressive. The Ulster Museum’s Troubles exhibition thus compares very favourably indeed with the less balanced Museum of Free Derry
and especially the very sectarian Irish Republican History Museum …
This section is not the only part of interest to dark tourists, though. The general history section
that precedes the special Troubles one also covers such dark aspects as WW1
, the 1916 Uprising, Civil War and Irish partition (see also Ireland
, Northern Ireland
and Kilmainham Gaol
). Amongst the darkest artefacts on display are a copy of Hitler
’s “Mein Kampf” and a Swastika armband.
The fact that this museum is a constant work in progress is evidenced not only by the latest additions to the Troubles and Beyond section and its calls for more donations. There is also a very recent section about the Covid-19 pandemic, which is also put into context of previous pandemics. Amongst the artefacts on display here are a rather cute soft-toy corona virus, a copy of then PM Boris Johnson’s (here misspelled “Johnston”) letter to the nation spelling out the lockdown regulations (which he himself apparently violated in what has become known as “Partygate”) and a can of beer by Scottish craft brewers BrewDog who named a special edition beer (a hazy NEIPA) “Barnard Castle Eye Test”. This is in reference to then Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings making a 260-mile car journey to Durham during lockdown and a day trip to Barnard Castle on his wife’s birthday, later claiming that this trip was meant to test his eyes before the much longer drive back home to London.
The rest of the museum has less specifically dark elements, but may still be worth a good look around for open-minded visitors. The museum’s vast collection includes a large number of impressive palaeontological items such as giant dinosaurs’ skulls, massive antlers, a stuffed dead Dodo and various colourful preserved insects. The arts sections also feature interesting aspects and for those into such things the collection of historical and contemporary fashion items is also noteworthy. But for our purposes it’s not necessary to go into more details about all that.
All in all, this is rightly a highly acclaimed museum with a vast and varied coverage, of which the recently added “The Troubles and Beyond” section is without question the highlight, especially, though not only, from a dark-tourism perspective. It offers one of the best, balanced and varied exhibitions about this difficult subject that I have ever seen anywhere. Highly recommended!
within the grounds of Belfast
’s Botanical Gardens just off Stranmillis Road in the southern part of the city, about a mile south of Great Victoria Street Station.
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to, free
The museum is well within walking distance from Belfast
city centre, but there’s also a dedicated bus stop just outside the west facade, served by the lines 8a and 8b, with direct connections to Great Victoria Street. (Taking the train from Great Victoria Street Station to the stop “Botanic”, however, would only halve the walking distance required, so is not advisable.)
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays.
Time required: concentrating largely on the Troubles section, I spent a bit over an hour in this museum. But if you want to see everything else there is and study it all in depth you can probably use the best part of half a day in here.
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing else in the immediate vicinity.
For more dark attractions you have head back into the centre of Belfast
and to the districts to the west and east of it.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The museum is right next to Belfast
’s Botanical Gardens, which also sport a fine Victorian palm house and this is well worth a look.
And the main old campus of Queen’s University with its grand main building is only a few steps to the north.
Further south the riverside walks along the banks of the River Lagan are an attraction, especially for those who want to get away from the city hustle and bustle and find some urban green oases.
Otherwise it’s back to central Belfast
to the north with all its manifold attractions …
- Ulster Museum 1a - exterior
- Ulster Museum 1b - gloriously brutalist
- Ulster Museum 2 - atrium with flying dinosaurs
- Ulster Museum 3 - paleontology
- Ulster Museum 4 - dead dodo
- Ulster Museum 5 - WWII
- Ulster Museum 6 - Covid
- Ulster Museum 7 - the main section for dark tourists
- Ulster Museum 8 - iconic original artefact
- Ulster Museum 9 - bomb disposal robot