Making the past : history, identity, and the cultural politics of the Ulster Folk Museum

  • Evelyne Robinson

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    As Hewison has put it, 'a display in a museum may simply be telling a story, but the existence of a museum has a story to tell'. It is with such a sentiment in mind that this thesis examines the history, identity and cultural politics involved in the creation of the Ulster Folk Museum, in that it records a particular version of Ulster's past and culture. In writing the history of a region, 'knowledge' is paramount - the story told being highly dependent on the author. These mediators, or 'organic intellectuals' as Antonio Gramsci termed them, can influence the version of the past that is made available. Situated in Cultra, near Holywood, County Down, the Ulster Folk Museum was founded at a time when Northern Ireland was endeavouring to establish its own sense of national identity. Furthermore, it was created by an Act of Parliament - the first folk museum to be sanctioned by a government.

    Heritage - a way of understanding the past in the present - is liable to different interpretations. However, as chapter one outlines, it is the purpose of heritage representation that is significant. Whether it is considered an opportunity to consolidate identity, or to satisfy a nostalgic outlook, 'heritage' is a contested term that has been subject to rigorous debate within cultural geography. One of the most common forms of heritage representation is the museum. Dating to circa 1450, museums are cultural institutions that are dedicated to the display of 'material evidence'. Simultaneously reflecting and contributing to the creation of social values, museums are a visible aspect of both the cultural and physical landscape of Europe. Being a 'temple of carefully chosen best goods', they implement a tripartite system of collection, preservation and representation. However, the folk museum differs from this process in that it includes another dimension - research.

    Chapter two outlines the origins of the folk museum movement, which originates from Scandinavia. Concerned with the cultural heritage of ordinary people, the folk museum is an opportunity to represent material artefacts indicative of local personality. As a result of its intrinsic association with rurality and its anti-modernist outlook, the folk museum movement found many geographers amongst its advocates, including H. J. Fleure and Emyr Estyn Evans.

    Indeed, the Ulster Folk Museum was founded under the guidance of Evans, one of Northern Ireland's most celebrated geographers. Outlining the main tenets of Evans's philosophy, chapter three illustrates the shared similarities between his geographical approach and the fundamental principles of the folk museum movement. Section two examines the ideas and influences behind the development of the museum, both in terms of 'academic' and 'political' input. The three academics, Evans, Thompson and Gailey, endeavoured to produce a museum indicative of Ulster's regional personality and its shared cultural heritage, as they understood it - which is the subject of chapter four. The scale of the project required an injection of cash, offered by the Stormont Government, and in chapter five the cultural politics underlying the state's attitude toward the museum is identified.

    Section three deals with representation at the museum, where Ulster's cultural heritage is presented in a distinctly pro-rural way, reflecting the geographical interests of those involved. However, in a bid to portray a picture of Ulster's 'rural working past', the contested nature of identity, cultural traditions and artefacts in Northern Ireland, caused debate amongst the Unionist council. To this end, this thesis examines the history, identity and cultural politics involved in the creation of the Ulster Folk Museum, tracing the genesis of the idea, and the physical development of the museum until the early 1970s.
    Date of AwardDec 2000
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Queen's University Belfast
    SupervisorDavid N Livingstone (Supervisor) & Nuala Johnson (Supervisor)

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