This research project emerges from the challenges national cultural institutions face when presenting history through visual culture in a measured and reflective manner which must satisfy the education and expectation of different types of audiences.

These challenges can include limitations of the exhibition space, limitations of collections, conservation restrictions, addressing collective identities, sensitivities of survivors, image copyright limitations and audience expectation.

This research is being undertaken during a valuable time for Ireland to engage with its past openly and creatively on a substantial platform. In 2016 in particular, Ireland celebrated the centenary of the Easter Rising - the pivotal event in the creation of the modern Irish state which is widely recognised as a historical event upon which the cultural identity of Ireland is founded and consolidated.

The sites selected as case studies - the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) and the Ulster Museum - each have a significant function in facilitating collective reflection, celebration and engagement in commemorating significant moments in Ireland’s political history.

Using grounding principles of visual culture, museology and material culture to undertake a stylistic and iconographical analysis of commemorative exhibition displays; this research project directs attention to the visual processes employed when representing difficult subject matter, raises questions about the ways in which exhibition displays can perpetuate particular aspects of violent events; and how this is bound up with how we continue to remember and (re)interpret the past.

What worked well and what, if anything, didn't?

The Easter Rising of 1916 - a failed rebellion against British rule - is the pivotal event in the creation of the modern Irish state. Commemorating the Rising presents many pressures for museums including how to commemorate a moment of political violence to different audiences, the threat of reducing war memorabilia to technical objects and making death visible by combining the effects of language, objects and imagery.

My research examines the challenges of displaying death and violence through images and artefacts in 1916 commemorative exhibition displays at three national cultural institutions in Ireland. The exhibitions I have selected as case studies are ‘Proclaiming a Republic’ at the National Museum of Ireland (Dublin), ‘Creating Histories’ at the National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin) and ‘Remembering 1916: Your Stories’ at the Ulster Museum (Belfast). These exhibitions have had a significant function in facilitating collective reflection and engagement with Ireland’s centenary programme in 2016.

My analysis to date has indicated that the images and artefacts in these commemorative exhibitions are displayed in a way which confronts the tensions and violence of the 1916 Rising which were overlooked in previous exhibitions.

This is largely achieved through the display of ordinary objects with visible traces of use such as James Connolly’s bloodstained vest which he wore during the rebellion. Such an artefact requires an examination of the actions carried out by the cultural institution in collecting and conserving the object; an analysis of how the visible traces of use authenticates the artefact as a tangible link to a nation’s past; and an analysis of the narrative strategies of its display.

My research project uses commemorative exhibitions to link together the three disciplines of visual culture, material culture and museology using Whitney Davis’ A General Theory of Visual Culture (2011) as methodology. It is envisaged that outcomes of this project will be transferrable to exhibitions outside of national cultural institutions, outside of Ireland and to other exhibitions which relate to difficult subject matter such as ‘Kraków During Nazi Occupation 1939-1945’ exhibition at Schindler’s Factory (Kraków).

Further Information

Siobhán Doyle,