The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland is a division within the Department for Communities. It houses a wealth of archive material relating to the Decade of Centenaries. Our ambition was to make available, engage and publicise these rich resources to mark the various centenaries. Starting in 2011, when we loaned a copy of a page of Ulster Covenant signatories to a CRC launch event at Ulster Museum, PRONI has continued to deliver a programme of activities and events relating to the Decade.
These have included, amongst others: various lecture series on the Ulster Covenant (2012); Volunteers (2013); A joint series on the start of the war with NMNI (2014); a conference on Gallipoli (2015); events to mark the Battle of Jutland, Somme and Easter Rising (2016); and the Battle of Messines (2017). PRONI also produced resource packs on Suffrage; a First World War Guide; teacher lesson plans on recruitment and women in First World War.
We have transcribed letters and journals from 1914-16 which are available on the PRONI website. PRONI has collaborated with broadcasters and other media outlets including the BBC, RTE, Doubleband Productions and others. However, our greatest successes have involved partnering other organisations, who include amongst others: Community Relations Council, Nerve Centre, Living Legacies, Belfast City Council, University of Kent, History Hub, HMS Caroline, NI First World War Committee etc.
What worked well and what, if anything, didn't?
One of the more successful centenaries that PRONI marked was the Battle of Messines (May-June 2017) when we linked with a number of partners and made full use of the Department for Communities communications and press teams.
By working with the Government of Flanders, we were able to bring over a leading international expert, Piet Chielens, the curator of In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, Belgium. Piet also organised for a Memorial Book and accompanying exhibition of Passchendaele Chairs to be exhibited at PRONI over the course of the Messines centenary. Over 500 visitors viewed the exhibition.
A parallel programme of activities was also provided for schools. In conjunction with the Nerve Centre, we delivered workshops to six different secondary level schools. The schoolchildren learned how to make their own graphic novels that told the story of the Battle of Messines and received tours of PRONI and saw original First World War archives. The BBC filmed one of the classes, which was broadcast on NI news.
The final strand was a programme of four lunchtime lectures by experts including Tom Thorpe of the Western Front Association, Historian Stephen Stanford, Dr Tim Bowman and Nick Perry. In terms of what would have worked better - there still is a challenge for different institutions to better coordinate their activities to ensure they do not clash with one another's events. For example, a number of the PRONI lunchtime talks coincided with talks being given elsewhere in Belfast.
The legacy of this and other projects is stronger links with our partners, particularly the Government of Flanders and the Nerve Centre. PRONI routinely films all its talks and makes them available on our YouTube channel meaning they have longer impact. And finally, the Memorial Book was signed by a number of PRONI visitors and will return to the In Flanders Field museum where it will go on permanent display.