Anthony D Buckley
‘Telling stories with objects: Ethographic Collections at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum'
In (eds) Séamas Ó Síocháin, Pauline Garvey and Adam Drazin Exibit Ireland: Ethnographic collections in Irish museums. Wordwell, Leopardstown, Dublin 127-142
Each time I visit the store, I see groups of three-dimensional, inanimate objects. Yet, at one time each of these objects belonged to someone, and was used by that person, most likely in the course of his or her everyday life.Each was part of a family economy.At some time, someone may have made that object in a craft workshop, and so it was part of the craftsman’s economy too.Thus, so long as we have to admit to possessing an object without the social and economic facts associated with it, we only have half the object – the physical half.
G B Thompson, Museum Director (1959).
My aim in this paper is to describe the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and its ethnographic collections and to explore the historical forces that gave rise to them.
The Ulster Folk Museum was set up by Act of Parliament in 1958. It soon acquired a manor house and spacious grounds, in Cultra, which lies between Belfast and Bangor in County Down.By 1964, the first exhibit, a cottier’s house had been dismantled and transported “brick by brick” from its original location in Magilligan in the Co Londonderry, and then rebuilt and opened to the public in Cultra. In 1967, the Folk Museum was merged with the Belfast Transport Museum and renamed the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. In 1998, it was merged with other museums to be part of the Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland.
The aim of the Ulster Folk Museum, enshrined in its founding Act of Parliament, was to illustrate “the way of life and traditions of the people in Northern Ireland, past and present”.In practice, the focus of the Museum’s curatorial activity became specifically the lives of the farmers and artisans who belong to Northern Ireland’s countryside and small towns.The Museum typically concerned itself with the “little tradition” which Robert Redfield, in his book Peasant Society (1956) differentiated from the “great tradition” of science, high art, and professionalism. The Folk Museum generally left the “great tradition” to its sister museum in Belfast, the Ulster Museum. The Museum avoided the word “peasant”.Nevertheless, it mostly concerned itself with the lives of those Northern Irish people who live away from the big cities.
The first phase of the Museum’s development (roughly, 1958-1974) was centrally motivated by a positive desire to discover and represent a unified communal identity among the people of Northern Ireland by examining their vernacular culture. A second phase (1974-1998) arose in the mid 1970s when a younger generation of curators brought fresh ideas to blend in with the ideals of the Museum’s founders. In 1998, a startling third phase began, when the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum became part of a larger overarching organization, the Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland (known to its staff as MAGNI). This new organisation includes the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, the Ulster Museum in Belfast, the science galleries known as “W5” also in Belfast, and the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh.This third phase has proved to be qualitatively very different from the other two. It has brought a new emphasis away from curatorship and towards management-led organisational change.
The Museum’s collections did not arise in a social or ideological vacuum. Like Lévi-Strauss’s animals (1964), the past is “bon à penser”.Like all social scientists and historians, therefore, the curators at the Folk Museum have used their collections, in part at least, to tell stories which reflected current social and political preoccupations. By their nature, however, museums are conservative places. It is difficult to get rid of old collections and old curators, so the impact of modern developments can be slow.The result has been that older ethnological ideas are still to be discovered in the Museum’s present-day collections.
From the start (and as indicated in the quotation at the top of this article), the Ulster Folk Museum always looked in two directions.First, like every museum, it was concerned with collecting objects and with finding out and documenting low-level object-orientated information. This was the kind of information, vital of course, that one can put on a small caption: (“This is a zinc bucket of a type used to carry water in Co Fermanagh.Its dimensions are - - - ”). Second, and more than many museums, it was also concerned to collect and develop an ethnological narrative that made a deeper sense of the objects that were collected.
These twin purposes, to collect objects and to develop an ethnological narrative, were from the beginning realized through direct encounters between the museum curators and the population of Northern Ireland.Field-research, it was expected, would culminate in the curators acquiring a deep understanding of the population of the province, manifested in scholarly publications as well as exhibitions.
Above all, the museum never had the intention merely of displaying objects.[Indeed, in an appendix to this article, I shall illustrate why it is radically inappropriate to display folk life artefacts in the manner of an art gallery.]Rather, the Museum’s goal was to work in close collaboration with the local populace to bring to the surface their way of life and traditions.The goal could only be achieved by using objects to tell stories.
The Open Air Museum
The most obvious single ethological collection in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum is its collection of buildings.The Museumis set roughly in the period before the Great War but its emphasis is upon those aspects of folk culture that are not confined to that specific period.
The oldest, and, by common agreement among curators, the best part of the Open Air Museum is the rural area.Most of the buildings in this rural area were brought (as far as was practicable) “brick by brick” from their original situation in dispersed rural settlements, not from towns or villages.The buildings are all “vernacular buildings” in the sense that they are not designed by architects but are the outcome of a building tradition of craftsmanship learned by one builder from another. These buildings were all chosen very much with an eye to the technical features of the construction.Much was therefore made of such features as cruck-trusses in the roofs; bed-outshots; byres beneath the dwellings, and so forth.
The rural area of the Museum is a representation of a dispersed settlement.Ireland differs from, say, England in that its farmhouses are rarely found in villages.Rather, much of the Irish countryside consists of dwellings and even public buildings - such as churches, halls and schools - scattered through an open landscape. Curators therefore put as much thought into the landscape – into the spaces between buildings, the ditches, field boundaries etc. - as into the construction of the buildings themselves.
In due course, the Museum decided to set up a small town. Many of the buildings in this area had already been reconstructed to be part of a dispersed settlement, but these were incorporated in the new townscape.With the building of the town, however, there was a drift towards constructing replica buildings, instead of moving entire buildings from their original situation, as had been the earlier policy.Part of this was due to tightening financial considerations, and there was a definite need to complete the landscape without undue expense.And eventually it was also due to the increasing tightness of building regulations which have progressively insisted that exhibit buildings have features (damp-proof courses, labelled fire-escapes, fire-sprinklers) that one might want to find in a modern public building. Another feature of the Museum’s town is a residential centre.These buildings replicated authentic frontages, but they contained modern sleeping and recreation areas to allow children and others to stay overnight. Part of this complex includes replicas of a priest’s house, a parochial hall, a pub.In addition, the town area contains disguised teaching rooms for schools and even modern offices for members of staff.
As well as dwellings, there are various public buildings, many in the town, some in the rural area.There are two schools, an Orange hall, a temperance hall, a parochial hall, three churches, a minister’s house, a parochial house, a court house.Many of these began life in dispersed settlements well away from any surrounding village or urban area.
Each exhibit building, whether replica or not, strives to tell multilayered stories about very many different matters, about the building’s construction, about the people who lived there, and about what went on in the building.For example, the Orange hall has a discreet exhibition about the history of the Orange Order and of the lodge (from Silverstream in Co Monaghan) that met in this hall. It also tells of the ritual life and symbolism of the Orange Order.The interior of the Presbyterian meeting house, itself from Omagh, was copied from a remote rural church in Tyrone’s Ditches near the village of Poyntzpass.Like the Tyrone’s Ditches church itself, it is set out in the manner of a conservative church that had resisted the introduction of instrumental music and whose communion tables were set out in the aisles only on special occasions. The Catholic church, from Drumcree near Portadown, is set out as if for a Tridentine mass.The bank – a replica of one that still stands in Portglenone – has quite a different kind of story.This tells of the bank’s first manager and his family in the 1920s.These people lived comfortably, over the shop, so to speak, but they rode and otherwise mingled with the local gentry.
Like most museums, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum has considerable material culture stores.The material culture collection is in part a study-collection, and in part a resource for exhibition work in the Museum’s galleries and in the Open Air Museum.It was always policy to display comparatively inexpensive and easily replaceable furniture and other materials in the Open Air Museum and to keep historically or ethnographically important artefacts safe in the stores where they can, however, be seen by members of the public who want to come and look.
The material culture collection has largely followed the research interests of the different curatorial departments.
Agriculture. The central work of the department of Agriculture has been very much bound up with the landscaping of the Open Air Museum, and with creating and sustaining a working farm that produces, for example, cereals, flax, potatoes, turnips and different kinds of livestock, among them some rare breeds once found locally. There is also a considerable collection of implements and other material culture relating to agriculture.
Domestic life. This is one of the most important areas of collection. Partly this is because domestic life is the source of many artefacts: most artefacts are domestic artefacts.Partly it is because dwellings are a major feature of the Open Air Museum.
Crafts. It was part of the Museum’s earliest vision that it should embrace not only buildings and other artefacts, but also the skills required to produce them. So the Museum has collections of tools and implements and also craftspeople (fewer now than formerly), who possess and can demonstrate various skills.For example, Bob Johnston is a superlative basket maker. George Crowe’s main competence is as a metalworker, but he is knowledgeable and skilful in other crafts such as printing, pottery and milling. Robert Berry and Rosemary MacDonald are involved in farming and animal welfare.Rosemary McCartney engages in the practicalities of weaving and other textile work. In addition, many of the Museum’s visitor-guides develop skills in appropriate fields such as flower arranging, sewing, storytelling, cooking etc. The Museum’s once significant building team and workshop craftspeople are now depleted.
Community Life. There is also much material here concerned with matters outside the home, not least, religion, brotherhoods and other voluntary associations. The collection includes regalia and vestments of different kinds, as well as objects relating to religious and other ritual.
Music. Music is a remarkably important part of Northern Irish life.Not only is there a rich strand of “traditional Irish” music, but there are other forms of music from the Lambeg drum, through marching bands to church music.The material culture stores contain a useful collection of musical instruments, and this is reinforced by recordings in the Museum’s sound archive.
Textiles. The Museum has a very extensive collection of about 20.000 items of textiles, including embroidery, linen, quilting and so forth, as well as other items relating to the manufacture and use of textiles.It is of course the case that almost all activities involve the use of textiles, not merely everyday clothing, but specialist working clothes and objects relating to ceremonial and religious life of various kinds.
Transport. The Museum has considerable collections of vehicles and other artefacts relating to road, rail, maritime and air transport.There is a very large collection of motor bicycles and motor vehicles of all kinds. The rail gallery, in particular, is architecturally splendid, and its contents, the so-called Irish Railway Collection, is equally astonishing.
Museums are mostly organized around physical objects.The Folk Museum however was from the very start concerned with “non-material culture”.One of the very first members of staff to be employed in the early 1960s was Brendan Adams who collected materials concerned with Ulster dialect. For a time, there was even a separate department of non-material culture which included a dialect specialist, a musicologist, a narrative collector and myself who was employed as an anthropologist. Of these, only the musicologist now remains.
Sound archive. Although all the curators collected material objects where appropriate, much of the work in non-material culture had its focus in the sound archive. Conversely, all those curators whose main concern was with material objects also made sound recordings.For very many years the Museum has run a loan service of tape recorders helping members of the public – amateur and professional – to undertake oral history projects. This external source now provides a major proportion of the Museum’s collection of recordings. The Museum’s own sound archive consists of some 11,000 recordings.The Museum also houses about 18,000 recordings from BBC Radio Ulster’s Sound Archive which are in the same physical space, but administered separately by BBC staff.All of these recordings are also available for members of the public to come and hear. The sound archive also contains materials better described as ethnographic rather than historical. For example, we have material on folk narrative, music, dialect and language, and general aspects of life in Northern Ireland.
Library and paper archive. The Museum also has a considerable library and paper archive dealing with the subject matter of the Museum.The library includes a considerable collection of international journals concerned mainly with folklore and ethnology, many of which cannot be found elsewhere in the province.
William Connor pictures. I should slip in here the fact that the Museum managed to acquire a very large collection of pictures by the well known Northern Irish painter William Connor.Despite being “fine art”, these pictures became part of the Museum’s collection because they deal with topics relevant to folk life.
Photographs. The Museum also has a very considerable collection of photographs taken between c1850 and the present. As with all the Museum’s collections, this collection reflects the Museum’s interest in agriculture, buildings, community life, crafts, domestic life, music and the four kinds of transport.
The photographic collection has in total about half a million still images and there is also a small but significant collection of moving pictures. The biggest and most important collection is of black and white negatives.One major historical collection is that of William Green whose pictures of Northern Irish life were taken between 1905 and into the 1920s. The Museum also houses the important Harland and Wolfe collection of photographs concerned with ships and shipbuilding, among them some of the most important pictures concerned with SS Titanic.
The initial impulse 1950-1975
I want now to explain how the Museum and its collections have come to be as they are.
Overshadowing the whole of the Museum’s history, have been three remarkable men.Estyn Evans provided much of the intellectual inspiration.George Thompson, his pupil, was the first Director, a natural leader, who guided the Museum through a period of astonishingly rapid expansion.Alan Gailey, Keeper of Buildings and later Museum Director was also one of Evans’s pupils. Gailey worked with great practical and intellectual vigour and was largely responsible for the practical business of building the Museum’s Open Air Museum.
Evans was Professor of Geography in Queen’s University, Belfast and it was from him that the intellectual impulse for the Museum arose.His initial claim to fame was and remains his meticulous work on Ireland’s and especially Ulster’s vernacular material culture, a culture which, he thought to be uniquely valuable (e.g. Evans 1942, 1957, 1967).Evans believed that patterns of life and patterns of material culture discoverable in the archaeological record were still to be found in the practical lives, and in the material culture of especially rural people – farmers, artisans - living in twentieth century Ulster. Evans takes credit for setting up the anthropology department in Queen’s University, Belfast, and it was largely though his efforts that the Folk Museum came into existence.
Evans was certainly a charismatic figure.Those who never knew him are still surprised by the affection, even awe, with which his former pupils still refer to him.Evans’s charisma, however, derived from the way his ideas reverberated among a broader Ulster public.Evans said what many Northern Irish people were glad to hear.
Not only among his students, but also in the rural areas of Ulster, there were many who were open to Evans’s ideas.In the 1950s, but also later, there was a burgeoning sense of pride in local community in many rural areas.This was manifested in a pride in the way of life of ordinary people living in the locality and in the wider society, in the singing and dancing, the storytelling, the craftsmanship or just the neighbourliness and the “crack”. All of this was to be admired. Many among the rural middle-classes also felt themselves excluded from the wealthy Ulster elite, many of whom had “English” public school accents and were often thought actually to be English (Shanks 1988, passim). All of this contributed to a sense of pride in the region of Ulster and the nation of Ireland, and (much less problematically) in the localities in which they lived.
These community values found particular expression through the many historical societies which thrived particularly from the 1950s into the 1980s and beyond. Like the curators in the Folk Museum, these historical societies sought to represent the histories of their own more local areas believing that their own area and its inhabitants were special and worth investigating.
These very same communitarian ideals also found an echo in political circles.The Folk Museum was set up with support from both unionists and nationalists.Later, after 1963, the Ulster Unionist Party, led by the liberally-minded Terence O’Neill, was largely responsible for funding the Ulster Folk Museum’s early development. Very many people in the Unionist Party were happy to express a sense that Ulster had values that transcended both social class and Catholic and Protestant divisions.It was a sentiment that found echoes in nationalist hearts too. And, despite everything, it continued to exist throughout the troubles.
Folklore, Folk Life and Identity.
The idea of founding a national, regional or ethnic identity in the folk life of its poorer rural population did not, of course, arise with Evans.First, there was the wider “folk” movement which had provided an undercurrent of ideas in European culture since the eighteenth century but which blossomed in the late nineteenth century and again in the 1950s and 1960s.Much of this early folk movement had its focus in music. For example, Grieg, Kodaly, Vaughan Williams, Bartok and many more musicians used folk music to express national or ethnic identities.There was also a quieter but steady interest in the collection of folk narrative. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are perhaps the most famous of the early folk story collectors, but there were many others.Not least, there were such individuals as Lady Wilde and F J Bigger in late nineteenth century Ireland and later the collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission. And in the 1950s there was a stirring of interest in oral history.
This folk movement was never politically neutral, but one should not oversimplify its ideological thrust.Folk culture was sometimes appropriated by the political Right, sometimes by the Left, and sometime it was ambidextrous. For example, much (not all) of the country music found in the United States has rather a conservative tinge. But much of the folk movement that developed in the 1950s and 1960s (including skiffle and Bob Dylan) generally gave support to anti-racism, civil rights, socialism and much else besides.
On continental Europe, not least in Scandinavia, the folk movement had provided the first folk museums - the most important of which, historically, was Skansen in Sweden.These folk museums were mostly intended to help define the national identities of particular nations and ethnicities.It was particularly the Scandinavian folk museums that provided an inspiration that was taken up in Ulster.
Anti-sectarianism in the early Folk Museum.
To speak thus of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, however, is to raise the question of sectarianism.A central feature of the Museum from the beginning was that it was decisively opposed to sectarianism.
In this, it was not at all dissimilar to the rural localism that often (not, of course, always) managed to transcend sectarian division in much of the countryside.The journals of local historical societies show a remarkably consistent cross-community tendency, going back at least into the early 1950s, which remained little affected by the Troubles. Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a flurry of ethnographic accounts (e.g. Buckley 1982, Bufwak 1982, Glassie 1982, Harris 1972, Leyton 1975) which chronicled this rural communitarianism in Ulster. All these writers – like the inhabitants of the rural communities themselves - knew that this sense of community was tainted by sectarianism, but they knew it was genuine despite this. Estyn Evans himself was drawn to what B J Graham (1994) has called a “search for common ground”.And it was this communitarian tendency that was reflected in the Folk Museum.
It should be said, however, that in its early days, the anti-sectarianism of the Folk Museum had a flavour that was later seen as decidedly old-fashioned.The idea of “multiculturalism” that is now commonplace was scarcely understood in the 1950s and 1960s.
Many of Evans’s followers believed that what united the Ulster population was more important than what divided it. A major text of the time was Heslinga’s book (written in 1962 with a forward by Evans) “The Irish Border as a Cultural Divide”. Heslinga regarded the ancient earthwork called the Black Pig’s Dyke, which runs close to the present-day Northern Irish border, as a long-standing cultural barrier which divided Ireland North and South.The non-sectarianism of the Folk Museum was, therefore, at least partly founded in the view that Northern Ireland was significantly different from anywhere else; different from England: but also different from the South of Ireland.
When I came to the Folk Museum in 1975, it exuded a quiet but firm belief in a vast vernacular folk culture that was distinctive, yet common to the people of Northern Ireland. The job of the Folk Museum was to portray this common culture. There were no Catholic and Protestant house types; no Catholic and Protestant agricultural practices; no Catholic and Protestant dialects; no Catholic and Protestant pottery; no Catholic and Protestant field boundaries; family life was much the same on both sides of the divide, and so forth. It was a view that, in a time of bitter conflict, flew in the face of much received wisdom.It was actually rather refreshing (see Buckley 1988).
It was therefore possible to portray much of the way of life and traditions of Northern Ireland past and present in very great detail and with considerable accuracy, but without mentioning the fact that there were two hostile ethnic groups.
One can of course condemn this approach, not least because it was, in one very important respect, seriously misleading.But this is to indulge in hindsight.Moreover, given the fact that, for much of the 1970s, blood was often quite literally flowing down the streets of many Ulster towns, this emphasis on a common culture was probably quite a sensible approach for the Folk Museum to take.I, for one, am willing to assert very firmly that George Thompson, who created the Folk Museum, was a very remarkable man, whose Museum was a beacon of civilized values in almost impossible circumstances.
The Second Phase 1974-1996
The ideas of Estyn Evans and his followers dominated the Museum from its inception in 1958 to the retirement of George Thompson in 1986 and indeed, Evans’s ideas remained a central impulse in the Museum until the retirement of Thompson’s successor, Alan Gailey, in 1996.
Nevertheless, there was a major change when, after 1974, there was a significant expansion in the Museum’s curatorial staff.By no means did everyone in this new group entirely share the views of Estyn Evans.Several were indeed social anthropologists who had been taught in a broadly Malinowskian tradition. Although Thompson, Gailey and others remained resolutely devoted to Estyn Evans, these people had the wisdom to let the newcomers plough their own furrows. New members of staff mostly bent the knee in Evans’s direction, but they belonged to a later generation.In addition, they did not entirely accept the need to construct a shared communal identity based around the notion of vernacular culture.
What the newcomers did share with both Thompson and Gailey was a strong - indeed passionate - sense that the lives of ordinary country people – especially the farmers and artisans - were important for their own sake and that it was worth while conserving and celebrating the culture of these people in a museum.It was this shared enthusiasm that held the Museum together.
In this second period, there were, however, new changes of emphasis.
The development of an urban area in the Open Air Museum most strenuously occurred in this period.New galleries were built, allowing for larger and better exhibitions.The new influx of staff brought a renewed emphasis on field research.Research and publication had always been central to the Museum’s work, and Alan Gailey’s individual publication record, in both its quantity and its quality, was impressive by any standard. Nevertheless, with the influx of newcomers, the quantity and quality of Museum publication began to explode.
Ideas of multiculturalism, which in the 1960s had been very primitive, became more sophisticated in the 1980s. Gradually, it became plain that it was not enough merely to represent that culture which Catholic and Protestant members of the population had in common.Rather, one should also look also at the culture which Catholics and Protestants did not share.Gradually, the Museum began to build churches and other buildings that reflected sectarian allegiances. Religious and even political emblems began to find their way into the dwellings of the open air museum.Eventually, there were exhibitions on topics such as “Brotherhoods” and “1690” that deliberately explored and recognized social division. The “way of life and traditions of the people of Northern Ireland” therefore began to include both common and divergent traditions.Commonality and diversity were both accorded due respect.
The government’s EMU project (Education for Mutual Understanding) also had an impact.There was built a considerable residential centre, disguised within replica buildings.Its main function was to allow mixed groups of Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren to stay in the Museum, for several days at a time, to come together to take part in educational experiences.(see Buckley and Kenney 1994).
As the 1980s progressed, however, so too did the pressures to adopt a more commercial approach. There grew a new emphasis on marketing, and on staging attractive “events” partly to demonstrate the culture, but also to attract visitors.
Whence the Collections?
On the face of it, it may seem silly to ask where the Museum’s collections come from.Clearly, they almost all come from the population of Northern Ireland who gave or more rarely sold their objects to the Museum. In reality, however, the fact that they do come from the population is the whole point about the Museum.
There are two aspects to this. There is of course the object itself, which ends up in a store, and is then brought out to be used in an exhibition.But second, curators needed the information that would illuminate the nature of the object – who used it how it was used and so forth.For the objects collected by museum curators in a Folk Museum are often very ordinary indeed.The Museum’s stores do contain some individual objects which are very fascinating.The majority of its objects, however, consist of such quite commonplace objects as hammers and screwdrivers, shirts and skirts, pianos and farm implements.These objects are not and never were very interesting in their own right.Rather, they are interesting because somebody who knows about them can explain why they are of interest.
It is therefore not enough just to collect objects or even merely to find out about the object.Object-oriented information is important to a museum curator, but this importance is limited.Rather, one must also find out about the lives of individuals and the nature of society in the past or the present, and then find objects that will explain and illustrate the historical or ethnological narrative that emerges.
Museum people will often speak disparagingly of exhibitions that are “a book on the wall” and will insist that a good exhibition must be “object rich”.They mean by this that an exhibition ought not to consist entirely of captions and photographs. These phrases, indeed, are a useful defence against those (administrators, outsiders) who would have a curator put together an exhibition on some fashionable or topical subject, but with no available objects.
An exhibition, however, must also be “story-rich”.It is almost never worth displaying objects unless one also has an adequate storyline.
The great drive in modern museums is towards the “aestheticisation of objects”.In a museum concerned with the lives of ordinary people, whose collections consist of ordinary, everyday objects, there is a temptation to treat these ordinary people as if they were artists and to treat these objects as if they were works of art.In an appendix, I have described one such disastrous exhibition where ordinary objects were “aestheticised”.Here, I shall merely assert that an exhibition must contain both elements.It must certainly be “object rich”.But it must also be “story rich”.An exhibition must “tell stories with objects”.
Much of the Ulster Folk Museum’s strength has always been the willingness of its staff members to do field research, with the aim of finding out not only about objects but also about the way of life and traditions of the populace.
Curatorship is not confined to museums.Every institution, every social group, every family, every village is likely to have its own curators or buffs.Such people look after the culture of that group.And it is with these individuals who look after the culture of their particular organisation or social group that museum curators in a folk museum must be engaged.
If you ask the members of an Orange lodge or a church or a scout troop about the nature or the history of that organization they will probably not know much themselves, but will direct you to the person who does know about it. Such a person is in effect the curator of that knowledge. For example, the Orange Order has individuals who know about the ritual around which that organization is built. There are also people who know about the history of their individual lodge or about the history of the organization as a whole. Most families, for example, have somebody who is interested in that family’s history. They collect photographs, draw up family trees, search the census returns, go visiting long lost relatives and so forth. In addition, there are those interested in particular topics.There are Titanic buffs, Vauxhall Viva buffs, drama buffs and the rest.My son’s father-in-law, for example, is a long-standing railway enthusiast, and for many years he had a large railway engine in his back garden.
The work of the curators in museums is not in principle very different from that of these amateur curators that look after family histories and the histories of churches, lodges and sports clubs.Museum curators just do their work on behalf of a wider community. It is, however, largely by creating and maintaining links with the curators of smaller communities and organisations that a museum curator concerned with the ordinary objects of ordinary people can discover and sustain an appreciation of what these objects signify.
It is not that such people provide the objects which form the collections in the Museum’s stores.Amateur curators are often willing to lend their objects, but they mostly want to keep their own collections intact rather than give them to museums. What they do is to allow the curator to develop the all-important story-lines that put objects in a context where they make sense both the curator himself but ultimately to the Museum visitor.
Managerialism: 1998 and beyond
The major idea on which the Folk Museum was founded was the continuing notion that the “way of life and traditions” of ordinary people in Ulster were inherently interesting and should be preserved and celebrated. Until the mid-1980s, this idea was completely unchallenged.Implied was an egalitarianism – a communitarianism - that played down the importance of income or social standing as a criterion by which a person should be judged.
Since then, however, many changes have taken place in society generally.Especially, there has been a growth in the relative economic and political power of the business and managerial classes, and the corresponding decline of the liberal professions and especially the skilled working class. This change coincided with the decline of the industrial and agricultural economies and with a decline in the self-confidence of rural communities.
Throughout society, this development has been reflected in the devaluation of professionalism and skill, especially where that professionalism was not directed towards achieving bureaucratic targets or the making of money.In the media, there has been a noticeable reluctance to celebrate skill and knowledge, and to propagate those more easily marketable features of popular culture which involve frivolity, froth and ephemera. Supporters of this new emphasis say they dislike “elitism”. Its opponents say they are “dumbing down”.
Again, throughout society, there has also been a quite startling reassertion of social class and on hierarchy based on income and power.Correspondingly, there has been a drifting away from egalitarian, communal values. Not least, this has had an impact in the workplace. In an Ulster context, William Kelleher captures this process very well in two excellent chapters in his book, The Troubles in Ballybogoin (2003, Chs 6-7).These chapters look at a community enterprise, a glass factory in County Tyrone set up by the local parish priest but with cross-community support.Kelleher intelligently traces the abandonment of a communal spirit within the factory. In its place came an aggressive managerial style and an increased social distance between the different social strata within the workplace.
Museums, I have said, tend to be conservative places, so, for a good long time, in the 1980s and 1990s, many of the implications of this managerial revolution washed over the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, affecting it, but only superficially.Since 1998, however, there have been drastic changes, centrally, the union of the different museums in the Museums and Galleries, Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum had previously been dominated by two successive directors, George Thompson and Alan Gailey, who were revered by their staff for their knowledge of the people and popular culture of Northern Ireland, which all took to be the central subject-matter of the Museum. Similarly, the curatorial departments were led by individuals with respectable scholarly reputations who formed the basis of the Senior Management Team.
With the coming of MAGNI, the thrust of the Museum’s activity has been directed towards administrative change and to the generation and saving of money.There is also a new emphasis on serving the targets set by government officials and on satisfying the needs of the managers of external commercial companies who, it is hoped, can deliver both revenue and “bums on seats”. “Partnership”, in this new world, indicates cooperation with business or government institutions.There is no pressure to form partnerships with local organisations, or with the buffs – the amateur curators - who know about railways or their sports team or the history of their locality
Curatorial work, therefore, lost its former central importance.Senior staff are now chosen not because of their scholarly or curatorial competence, but because of their expertise in administration. Between 1998 and 2005 the curators were not at all represented formally on the Senior Management Team, and it seems unlikely that this Senior Manager Team will ever again be dominated by curators.As administrative staff have increased, there has also been a considerable shedding of staff – especially curatorial staff - through natural wastage, but encouraged by a voluntary retirement scheme.
I have discussed the growth and development of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and its collections, showing how its origins arose out of social and political processes from the 1950s onwards. My personal worry is that in the twenty-first century, trends in the wider society, reflected in administrative changes in the new MAGNI, will lead the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum to abandon its original curatorial commitment to the traditions and way of life of the people of Northern Ireland. I fear the Museum will lose touch with the ordinary people, and more specifically with the buffs - the amateur curators - who sustain popular culture on the ground.And I worry that it will instead devote itself to making money, to hitting targets and to helping business.It would be a pity if this fine institution were to cease to be a museum of popular culture and instead become a museum of managers satisfying the needs of other managers.
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Objects that “speak for themselves”: an alternative approach to folklife:.
The main alternative to “telling stories with objects” is to “allow objects to speak for themselves”, to treat objects as works of art.My belief is that this latter approach is usually disastrous.The material culture collected in a folk life museum consists of shovels and buckets, chairs and tables, buildings and hedges.None of these is a work of art.Works of art speak to those who look at them. The objects collected in folk life museums were never intended to speak to anybody.It is the curator’s task in a folk museum to bring objects to life.
Here are some notes I made after visiting the Museum of Mankind in London. For me, this experience encapsulated the folly of allowing everyday objects to “speak for themselves”, of making a folk life museum into an art gallery,.
Enemas and Art: Museum of Mankind, 26 April 1993
I went, innocently enough, into a gallery on the ground floor.The exhibition was called Images of Africa, and was based around artefacts collected by Emil Torday in his three expeditions to the Congo peoples of Central Africa, 1875-1931.At the beginning of the exhibition is a quote from the great man.It reads:
'I have not chosen objects for their beauty but for the interest they may have for the anthropologist, and I hope that in this I have acted for the best'.
The exhibition was set in a darkened room where spotlights illuminated elegant objects in cases.There was a case of masks, a case of wooden snuffboxes, one of wooden cups, and one of pottery vessels.There were textiles.There was a splendid mask in its own case.
One had a vague notion that they were all ritual objects or works of great aesthetic beauty, but already I felt some unease that I did not really know what the objects were or why anybody had produced them.Nevertheless, as in a cathedral, it would have been churlish not to be trapped by the atmosphere of reverence, the reverence due to beautiful objects.In view of the opening quotation, this was a bit odd.
In a case were some elegantly carved hollow cones.Each cone was about four inches across and had been fashioned out of a hard black wood.They were indeed rather beautiful, and I looked at them with the veneration that seemed appropriate.I then wondered what they were supposed to be.So I looked for the caption.
The caption was small.Indeed, the caption was appropriate to an exhibition of art objects.Here, as with any art, the object itself was important and it dwarfed the individuals who gave it birth.Information on the caption was just “background” information.
Peering at the small caption, I discovered that the little cones were enemas.They were artefacts that enabled a healer to administer liquid medicines into their patients’ bottoms.
I took in this new idea.And suddenly the absurdity of the exhibition dawned on me.The exhibition invited members of the public to look at these objects as though they were works of art.Indeed, in the gallery, the objects seemed almost numinous.But these objects were neither artistic nor religious.They were in fact medical appliances.They were intended to be stuck up people’s backsides.
The reason for the elegance of the cones also became suddenly clear.An artisan had indeed fashioned these with great skill out a hard black wood.But the carver had not been trying to produce works of beauty.Rather his intention was entirely worthwhile, but far more mundane.He had created an artefact which, when used, would not leave splinters in the patient’s bum.
It was as though somebody had recognised the undoubted craftsmanship in a set of dentures, and had turned the dentures into an artistic display.
Of course, we live in an era in which artists turn house bricks, Campbell’s soup tins and urinals into “art”.But, tired though this kind of thing sometimes is, the artists that produce such work do it knowingly and ironically, cocking a snoot at the idea of art.Here, however, there was no irony.Here was only a crass neglect of the people whose objects they had been.
The exhibition did not reveal the craftsman to the museum public.Rather it stood in the way. Careless of whatever meaning the object may have had for the carver, or for the healer, or for the patient, the curator had turned the object into something comfortably meaningful for him and his suburban friends.It was understandable and safe: the enema had become an art object.