Gareth Davies

“…museums, and the museumizing imagination, are both profoundly political.” (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities)

The museum has throughout history been a political space. Techniques of curation, narration, and presentation can have a profound effect on the way both domestic and international communities understand and interpret history. The potential for museums to present an authoritative narrative of past events is remarked upon by Benedict Anderson, in his book-length study on nationalism, Imagined Communities. For him, the museum, along with the census and the map, is one of the key institutions through which colonial control and claims to national identity are harnessed and legitimized.

Countless times in history, the museum has been used as a tool through which to put forward an official discourse on historical events; one which is supposedly authoritative, but rarely impartial. Not only are museums powerful institutions in terms of historiography, they are platforms from which such historiographies can inform and shape contemporary debate on such nebulous concepts as ‘national identity’. Contemporary nationalism in speech-making, artwork, and literature often relies on the resurrection and invocation of deep-seated, romantic, historical myths which often find themselves memorialized in museum spaces.

This week in Northern Ireland, the Protestant unionist Orange Order officially opened the ‘Museum of Orange Heritage’ to the public. The Orange Order are a religious heritage group dedicated to upholding the Protestant faith, and by extension Northern Ireland’s union with the United Kingdom. The group have earned a certain notoriety in Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, for their involvement in parades, which have a history of turning violent. The Orange Order is a brotherhood of sorts, which does not admit anyone of Catholic background, or Protestants who have married into Catholic communities.  Such practices constitute the backdrop to claims that the Orange Order is a racist, sectarian, or Protestant-supremacist organization.

According to the official website, the newly opened museum aims to further “understanding, education, tolerance, and mutual respect” for the Orange Order by informing visitors of its history, and its “place in British, Irish and World society”. The launch of the museum has received little press coverage, save for a short article in the BBC, and a couple of pieces in local media, none of which have reported anything amiss.

What is worrying about the launch of the museum is that £3.6m of funding has come from the European Union’s Peace Fund III initiative. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the European Union has invested a significant amount of money in the region in pursuit of peace and reconciliation. Among its general goals were economic and social development, and “addressing the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland, as part of the region’s peace process”. The self-proclaimed goals of the Peace fund are to reconcile communities and contribute to a shared society. Previous goals of the EU peace fund have been to foster social integration, inclusion, and reconciliation, with “priority given to vulnerable groups in the areas worst affected by the conflict”.

Part of the problem with building an Orange Order museum charting a ‘history’ of the organization, which is meant to positively contribute to community relations and reconciliation, is that the Orange Order is an active group in Northern Ireland, and has a long and continuing history of partisan struggle in the country. The building of a museum of Orange heritage seems not only a provocation to republican or Catholic groups living alongside Protestant communities in Belfast, but a step backwards in the pursuit of a more peaceful Northern Ireland.

Funding a project like this with the intention of instilling peaceful values, in a region that continues to endure inter-community tension, is woefully misguided by the European Union. The creation of an Orange Order museum, which portrays Orange heritage and history, serves only to memorialize and condone the actions and traditions of a group which are outwardly sectarian and provocative. In a press release from the Orange Order, it was announced that the opening of the museum marks “a new dawn for Orangeism”, a worrying prospect which seems to dash any claims that the Museum could work towards any of the EU’s stated goals of social integration. Through the rhetoric of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘education’, a veiled and institutionalized sectarianism makes its mark.

The fascination with creating museums, archives, and public history projects in Northern Ireland points to a wider problem in the way that peace initiatives are conceived of and have been implemented in the country. This January, I discussed the distinct lack of meaningful progress that had been made in terms of inter-community reconciliation at the Stormont talks. One of the key purposes of the talks was to find a sustainable solution to the problems posed by nationalist activities such as flag flying and parading in Northern Ireland. The outcome of the talks was that no agreement had been made on these activities, but an oral history archive was to be put into place. The Orange Order may have a long history and heritage, but the Orange Order is not yet history itself; it is very much alive. What then, will the museum be teaching? How will it be educating? And what differentiates a museum from a meeting or a recruiting house?

There is a clear and understandable desire in Northern Ireland to relegate the legacy of the Troubles to the past, but so often the methods employed to ‘get over’ a fraught and difficult history end up re-instating the sectarian divides they are meant to resolve. The creation of an official Orange history in an EU-backed museum enforces the legitimacy of the group, its history, its actions, and the museum’s dubious claims of peacebuilding. The case of the Orange Order demonstrates that the museum is not just an institution that can reinvent political histories of the past, but one which has a profoundly active, and violent effect on present times.

Gareth Davies is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. He graduated from the University of York with a BA in English and Related Literature. He is currently studying towards an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict at Trinity College Dublin. He has experience in writing about representations of conflict in film and literature, and his research focuses on genocide theory and military technology. Twitter @garethaledavies