Complicated and contested stories of conflicts have been told by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) for more than a century. Now, for the first time, it is to tackle the UK’s own war: the 30-year Troubles in Northern Ireland that embroiled civilians, paramilitary groups and the British army, leaving hundreds dead and communities traumatised.
“There was a realisation that this was something that the IWM should address,” said Craig Murray, lead curator of the exhibition. “We wanted to show that it’s complex, difficult – and not over. And we wanted to listen to how and why people disagree about what happened, and air different viewpoints.”
Visitors to the London museum will hear often contradictory testimonies from different players – paramilitaries, police, soldiers and civilians – collected by Murray over five years. “So much is contested, but even if you disagree with what you’re hearing, it’s important to hear it,” said Murray.
A key section is devoted to events near St Matthew’s church in Belfast, at the junction of the republican Short Strand and the loyalist Newtownards Road on the night of 27 June 1970. Three people were shot dead – two loyalists and one republican.
Accounts of how the violence started and what happened the following hours differ. Two witnesses – teenagers at the time – contributed their recollections to the exhibition.
According to the testimony from a republican perspective, armed loyalists started a “raging gun battle” that soon “looked like a war movie in front of your eyes”, while the British army “stood back”. The witness added: “The community was basically left on its own to defend itself.”
From a loyalist point of view, the violence began with a local Protestant marching band being attacked. “There was no battle. It was Catholics firing on unarmed Protestants … and that’s my recollection of it as a 15-year-old.”
Among other testimonies in the exhibition is a former Provisional IRA member talking about the need to “depersonalise” targets. “Anyone can shoot a target, but it’s much more difficult to shoot ‘Brian’ who has three children and likes golf and does a bit of charity work … The actors in a conflict have to distance themselves from the humanity of their enemy but in doing that you diminish your own humanity.”
A former member of the loyalist paramilitary group Ulster Volunteer Force says he joined up in response to the “indiscriminate nature of the IRA atrocities”.
A Belfast resident describes growing up in the Troubles: “It was commonplace to walk out of your house in the morning and have an armed British soldier at your gate post … Going shopping, opening your handbag up, going through checkpoints which just popped up anywhere … Bomb scares were commonplace … It was just normal. It was my normal.”
The exhibits include a rubber bullet – a weapon first used by the British army to control a crowd in Belfast in 1970. By the end of the Troubles, 56,000 rubber bullets had been fired, causing the deaths of 17 people (16 of whom were Catholic), including eight children.
A number plate removed by an army bomb disposal team from a vehicle in Portadown in 1973 symbolises the use of car bombs by the Provisional IRA as a devastating and indiscriminate weapon.
A public information poster featuring Tufty the squirrel warns children: “Never pick things up in the street or elsewhere. They may look harmless but could be very dangerous.”
Archive photographs show the impact of bombings, army patrols, checkpoints and murals. A helpful glossary – “written and rewritten” to avoid semantic pitfalls, said Murray – guides visitors through confusing terms and acronyms.
The exhibition drew on a seven-person advisory panel of experts and historians that included William Blair, the director of collections at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, which has its own Troubles display. The new exhibition at the national museum dedicated to conflict was “arguably overdue”, he said.
“No one owns the story of the Troubles – there are multiple perspectives and sensitivity to the complexities is welcome. We’ve learned the importance of listening, and of being willing to proactively challenge stereotypical views. We hope we’ve been a critical friend [to the IWM].”
The final section of the exhibition focuses on the legacy of the Troubles and what the future holds for Northern Ireland. Many say sectarianism persists and express bleak views about what lies ahead. “We’re not normal, and anyone who thinks we’re normal needs to look again,” says one.
Murray’s biggest challenge was how to frame the conflict. “On [the mainland] side of the water, there is often a lack of knowledge and understanding of a conflict that was so close and yet seemed so remote to many people.
“I hope people come away accepting that disagreement and different perspectives are part of the reality. All conflicts pose difficult questions, but hearing people’s stories is crucial to a deeper understanding of what happened.”
Northern Ireland: Living with the Troubles is at the IWM London from 26 May until 7 January.