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10.00  "Dealing with the Past" in Northern Ireland: Empathy as Political Engagement in the Memorial Heritage Project

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9:00, Sunday 5 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

Now in a transitional phase between violence and established peace, Northern Ireland is dealing with the legacy of forty years of conflict. Memorials, archives and museums have been presented as a means to share experiences, get others to forge an emotional connection, and evoke understanding of past suffering. In these cases the human stories of individual experiences, and tangible objects used as evidence, become a tantalizing record with memorial status and museums places where this can be put to use. In the Minutes of the Consultative Group on the Past (2009) museums are described as a “receptacle whereby people’s stories could be kept … as a living memorial to what they have gone through.” This posed an opportunity to forge a society that was “willing to listen to the stories and the suffering of other people.” Memory projects, such as Unheard Voices (WAVE Trauma Centre), are presented as having resulted in greater understanding, insight, respect and empathy for the experience of others.

Museum and archive projects with a memorial function are portrayed as a meeting point where individual stories and experiences can be shared to create understanding. In this context, forging empathy is considered a means to bring about intergroup forgiveness and compassion. By focusing on the authenticity of testimony and artifacts, memorial museums and archives are forging an emotional engagement with the traumatic experiences of others. 

This paper will consider the potential consequences of how memorial projects in Northern Ireland aim to affect their visitors by utilizing empathy. Objects and stories are used to immerse the visitor in the traumatic experiences of the others, aiming for the visitor to experience the emotion of the victim. In memorial museums this is passed from one generation to another, reminding us that we have an obligation to remember. Drawing upon interviews with donors to memorial projects (revealing motivations) and feedback from visitors (noting their responses), we can achieve an understanding of intention, emotion and affect. It will be demonstrated how key objects and interpretative methods are used to encourage the visitor to imagine and feel the same emotion as that of the victims.  

Argued as a means to achieve a deeper appreciation and understanding of individual experiences, memorial projects risk a simplistic and politically motivated interpretation of the past that could be counterproductive to a more nuanced and progressive means of dealing with the past. In instances when museums are referred to as a “catalyst,” for sharing stories and bringing communities together, these are usually presented uncritically, as an opportunity without complication. Alderman and Arnold de Simine  argue that memorial museums can threaten a deprecation of our understanding of the historical context by lacking analytical examination and critical reflection on the past. The memorial projects discussed in this paper, although providing alternative stories of the Troubles that counter to the authorized heritage discourse of State, risk a retrograde approach that could begin to emerge as a substitute heritage discourse lacking critical engagement. By analyzing such memorial projects, and exploring how the past is being mobilized, this paper will enhance our awareness of the politicization of the past amongst memorial projects.

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