I was watching the local news earlier in the week, when an aggrieved woman who was being evicted from her house to enable an extension to the runway at Derry City Airport was tearfully explaining the extent of the injustice which had been dealt her. Casting around for a precedent with which to liken her predicament the net of her historical memory found one of a series of religious wars fought throughout Europe in the mid seventeenth century. “It’s just like Cromwell” she proclaimed.
This woman is not atypical and nor did it seem likely that she was a scholar of that period of history. In Northern Ireland it seems fairly unexceptional for someone to invoke a perceived hurt from 350 years previous to exemplify the unfairness of a local spat over compulsory purchase. Bearing this in mind, it is questionable whether we really need a museum to pour over the details and complexities of our recent Troubles.
That said, not all the ideas being floated by the Healing Through Remembering group actually involve revisiting in detail violence, hurt and the various historical interpretations which the communities perceive as the cause of the same. Ideas that have been submitted include a greenhouse of reflection, a glass tower, an underwater museum, a peace garden and a garden of remembrance.
In the context of our Troubles and the contentious issues they raise, such abstractions are perhaps the only way to remember in any helpful way. These ideas or similar ones provide space for reflection in which people can remember in their own particular fashion and draw an individual meaning which cannot cause hurt or offence to someone who takes a very different view of the conflict.
During my trip to watch Northern Ireland lose in Latvia last year I visited two very different places of remembrance. Travelling via Berlin I saw the Holocaust Memorial – a square kilometre of protuberant concrete blocks through which the visitor could wander and interact. The memorial made no reference to the Holocaust, either directly by providing a narrative, or obliquely through symbolism. The only reaction to such horrible events is to create an abstraction from which people draw their own meaning. The memorial is simply a means to facilitate remembrance. It enables the process, rather than prescribing what that memory should be.
In contrast, in Riga the Museum of Occupation provides a heavily loaded narrative of 20th century history. Latvian misdeeds are virtually ignored and a litany of perceived victimhood is the result. The effect produced in the visitor is not contemplative; it is not one of thoughtful remembrance. Either the visitor accepts the Latvian narrative or indeed they react against it and the effect is in either case anger or disputatiousness.
Of course I am not seeking in any respect to liken what Michael Longley derisively terms “our own tawdry little civil war” to either the Holocaust or the experience of Latvia. I simply draw attention to the different methods of remembering and the varying psychological effects this remembrance can instil. If Northern Ireland is to receive a museum to the Troubles, I strongly suggest that the more abstract and contemplative model is the one we should aspire to.