Impact case study
Voices of 68: Managing the Legacy of the Past in the Northern Ireland Peace Process
Unit(s) of assessment: History
Research theme: Global Heritage
School: School of Arts and Humanities
Despite the undoubted progress that has been made in N. Ireland since the onset of peace in 1998, it would be wholly inaccurate to suggest that the Province’s problems have been completely solved. There are many areas that provide grounds for the perpetuation of divisions. One of the most challenging is how to deal with the difficult legacy of the past.
This has become a significant element of the peace-building process and a top priority for political parties within N. Ireland as well as for the London and Dublin governments. The coming together of the academic rigour and independence of Reynolds’ research into 1968 – with its initial objective of writing the N. Irish events into the transnational narrative – and NMNI’s independence and drive for an inclusive representation of the past, has created a project whose ‘narrative hospitality’ provided a safe space for divergent narratives to meet, supporting communities on all sides to move forwards.
The research-driven Voices of 68 project has changed how Northern Ireland’s 1968 civil rights movement is remembered and, in so doing, has provided an innovative and influential blueprint on how the difficult legacy of the past can be managed as part of the Northern Ireland peace process. Through the co-creation of physical and digital oral-history-based exhibitions, the project directly informed National Museums Northern Ireland’s (NMNI) treatment of this period and shaped its broader methodological and theoretical approach.
It has inflected policy discussions on how to address the legacy of ‘The Troubles’; informed and influenced how this period is taught and learned at GCSE level; shaped local, national and international perspectives around the 50th anniversary of this seminal period; and provided a platform for former activists to construct a new, inclusive narrative on this crucial chapter in N. Ireland’s recent past.
The broad findings of this body of work that have fed directly into a programme of public, schools and policy engagement can be summarised as follows:
- The peacetime era affords opportunities to re-examine 1968 and recalibrate the memory of this period; N. Ireland should be written into this transnational story of revolt and its current absence from the narrative must be understood in relation to the post-1968 onset of the Troubles.
- A recalibrated perspective has facilitated the exploration of a constructive and inclusive approach to managing contested pasts, with an emphasis on the theory of agonistic memory.
- Oral history has a significant role to play in providing an effective methodological approach to managing N. Ireland’s difficult past.
- The Museum and education sectors constitute particularly potent vectors and stakeholders in the effective deployment of this innovative methodological and theoretical approach.
- The case of 1968 and the NMNI collaborative project can be a blueprint for how to negotiate the broader and delicate question of N. Ireland’s contested past.
The year 1968 is a common reference point and watershed moment in contemporary society; a transnational story of social revolt that shook governments around the world and inspired radical change. The mass civil unrest and nationwide strikes that rocked France in 1968 are seen as pivotal in the evolution of French society. This Mai 68 ‘moment’ was the initial focus of Reynolds’ research.
In his 2011 monograph, Reynolds argued that these events have been portrayed in an increasingly reductive light to the point that they are seen less as a nationwide crisis and the largest strike in French history, but more as a bon-enfant tantrum led principally by a spoilt generation of Parisian students. He contended that the memory of 1968 has been cultivated in such a way that undermines its true magnitude.
The Mai 68 research led to Reynolds’ involvement in a Leverhulme/AHRC project: Around 1968: Activism, Networks, Trajectories. Led by the University of Oxford, it produced oral testimonies from 475 former activists in 14 countries, offering new insights into the political and lifestyle radicalism around 1968. Within this programme, Reynolds addressed a lacuna by comparing events in N. Ireland with those of the iconic Mai 68 to make sense of how and why the memory of 1968 in the ‘Troubled Province’ has been marginalised.
In his monograph he argued that the positive aspects of civil rights protests in N. Ireland in 1968 were ‘buried’ by the onset of the Troubles. Peace has enabled a re-examination of 1968, not solely as a dark turning point in N. Irish history, but as a time when N. Ireland had an opportunity to take a different path. Reynolds concluded that N. Ireland did indeed experience its own ‘1968’ and should be included in the transnational narrative.
Reynolds’ work to rehabilitate the memory of this seminal moment for N. Ireland continued through a collaboration with NMNI that sought to re-engage the public with this period. This facilitated the development of an innovative, multi-faceted methodological and theoretical approach, combining museum studies, oral history, education and the conceptualisation of agonistic memory, through which divided communities are brought together to address the past in a constructive way, not predicated on consensus. In a co-authored article with NMNI’s Director of Collections, Reynolds argued that their success in bringing together contested historical perspectives provided valuable lessons for the broader challenge of dealing with the legacy of N. Ireland’s past. Through the deployment of oral histories within the trusted environment of the national museum space, and with a focus on the creation of educational activities, this research has advanced nascent theoretical discussions around the notion of agonistic memory. It has helped to shift the conversation about the N. Irish and transnational events of 1968, while the innovative approach provides a case study for other post-conflict societies struggling with the legacies of their own difficult pasts.
The impact of the research can be summarised as per the below:
Influencing policy debates around the legacy of NI’s past as part of the peace process
The research-driven, collaborative approach has provided a blueprint for addressing the legacy of conflict in N. Ireland, in particular ‘The Troubles’, and has had a direct impact on political bodies grappling with this mission. It has exemplified how inclusive representation and storytelling is a model for reassessing the recent past openly and constructively in order to confront and manage contentious histories. The 2014 Stormont House Agreement announced the appointment of the 15-member Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT). FICT was established in June 2016; its remit includes advising on how N. Ireland can effectively manage the legacy of its contested past.
Shaping NMNI’s representation of N. Ireland’s contested history and magnifying the prominence of the organisation’s role in managing the legacy of the Province’s past
The success of the Voices of 68 exhibition and its positive feedback saw a version of it afforded a prominent space in the permanent history gallery of the Ulster Museum in August 2019. This has facilitated sustained engagement between the Museum and its international visitor audience in the portrayal of a hugely significant moment in N. Ireland’s past. The collaboration and its underpinning research have had a direct and significant impact on N. Ireland’s national museum that goes beyond its representation of this period.
Transforming how the period of 1968 is taught and learned in the N. Irish education sector
In partnership with the NMNI education team, a collaboration with the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) – a public body under the Department of Education – and the History Teachers Association of Northern Ireland (HTANI) has ensured this project’s direct impact on how N. Ireland’s 1968 is now taught and studied at GCSE level in the Province. Underpinning this were the development of a series of study days at the Ulster Museum and creation of online, interactive resources tailored to the curriculum and student needs. The study-day series, attended by 750 pupils to date, is linked to the permanent, temporary and travelling exhibitions, and offers pupils and their teachers a day of activities including lectures by academic experts and talks by protagonists of the 1968 period. The digital learning resource provides teachers and pupils with activities to undertake before, during and after a visit to the Voices of 68 exhibition. They are available on the Ulster Museum and the CCEA websites and are in use by teachers across the Province’s schools (hit count at the end of the impact period: 2575), extending the project reach far beyond those students who have the opportunity to attend the study days.
Changing public perspectives on the N. Irish events of 1968 and the broader question of managing the legacy of NI’s past, locally, nationally and internationally
Through permanent, temporary, digital and travelling exhibitions, public-facing events and in-depth media coverage, this project has inflected and shaped perceptions of N. Ireland’s 1968 in the Province itself, Republic of Ireland, the UK, Europe and the US. The central place acquired by the Ulster Museum as a trusted and independent vector in shaping public perceptions of the past in N. Ireland, coupled with a partnership with the Civil Rights 50th Anniversary Committee, enabled this project to influence strongly the nature of commemorative events amid a surge in interest. Iconic activist and civil rights leader from this period.
Providing a platform for former activists and protagonists from 1968 to shape a new narrative of a crucial turning point in N. Ireland’s recent past
The project provided a platform for historical actors in 1968 to surface their experiences as part of public representations of these events. The inclusion of hitherto marginalised voices in the co-production of project material enabled a redefined and more inclusive narrative of N. Ireland’s 1968. The creation of such ‘narrative hospitality’ opened up opportunities for sectors of the N. Ireland community, who neither traditionally visited the Museum nor assumed their stories were meaningful for others, to contribute to shaping a new, more constructive and inclusive narrative. Reynolds interviewed people from a cross-section of N. Irish society, using their feedback to make improvements in each iteration of the project, and involving them in public-facing events. The project had a transformative impact on participants, many of whom previously felt marginalised, and not only on how they now perceive their participation in 1968, but also how their knowledge can contribute to how this history is passed on to future generations.
- Reynolds, C., Memories of May ’68: France’s Convenient Consensus. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011.
- Reynolds, C., Sous les pavés…The Troubles: France, Northern Ireland and the European
Collective Memory of 1968. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2014.
- Black, G. and Reynolds, C., ‘Engaging Audiences with Difficult Pasts: The Voices of
’68 Project at the Ulster Museum, Belfast’, Curator, 63: 21-38, 2020.
- Reynolds, C. & Blair, W., ‘Museums and ‘difficult pasts’: Northern Ireland’s 1968’, Museum
International, 70(3-4):12-25, 2019.
- Reynolds, C. and Parr, C., ‘Northern Ireland’s 1968 at 50: agonism and protestant perspectives on civil rights’, Contemporary British History, 2020.
- Reynolds, C., ‘Beneath the Troubles, the Cobblestones: Recovering the “Buried” Memory of
Northern Ireland’s 1968’, American Historical Review, Vol. 123, Issue 3, 1: 744-48, 2018.