The World Cultures collection numbers some 4,500 items. It is closely linked to the history of the Ulster Museum and primarily covers material from the Arctic, Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania (including Australia and New Zealand). Most items were acquired in the 19th and early 20th centuries, by members of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, and were later transferred to the ownership of the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery and subsequently to National Museums NI.
Whilst the motivation behind the acquisition of ethnological material can appear strange today, it reflected curiosity about the wider world and a desire to present diverse cultures in Belfast. However, the European bias and power imbalances that characterised this collecting leave a complex and sensitive legacy to address today. Whilst some material was acquired legitimately, the collection does include objects acquired by theft and violence, through means now deemed highly unethical. The implementation of a new approach to the World Cultures collections is a priority for National Museums NI, and some of the projects we are working on are detailed below. We aim to be open and collaborative in our actions, to include multiple perspectives and encourage dialogue.
‘Inclusive Global Histories’ Exhibition
This exhibition is currently on display at the Ulster Museum. The aims of the exhibition are to increase public awareness of the World Cultures collections, to be open about their problematic origins and status within museums, to celebrate rich cultures from across the world, to discuss our approach to decolonisation and to involve audiences in discussions about the future of these collections. The exhibition has been supported by a range of partners from marginalised communities in Northern Ireland and Indigenous communities internationally. The exhibition highlights a number of our live projects and partnerships. To find out more about visiting the exhibition see Inclusive Global Histories at Ulster Museum.
Partnerships with local marginalised communities
National Museums NI is working with local marginalised communities to explore the world cultures collections and discuss challenges such as acquisition, ownership and interpretation. Groups such as the African Caribbean Support Organisation for NI, Belfast Multi-Cultural Association and Active Citizens Engaged have shared their stories with us and are showcased in the Inclusive Global Histories exhibition.
Global Voices, Local Choices Project
National Museums NI, in partnership with the African and Caribbean Support Organisation Northern Ireland (ACSONI) and Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC), is working on a new decolonisation project, funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund. The partners will be working to engage marginalised communities, availing them a fair opportunity for their community representatives to assert their right to make choices relating to National Museums NI’s World Cultures collections and how they are interpreted.
The project will raise awareness and understanding of these collections, and how a decolonisation approach can be implemented in a fresh and inclusive way through creativity. Bringing diverse cultures and perspectives into Northern Ireland’s local and national museums, it will be a learning experience for all partners and participants.
Read more about the project here.
Digital Benin Project
National Museums NI is participating in the Museum am Rothenbaum’s digital platform project, Digital Benin. With its commitment to assembling all of the dispersed Benin royal arts into a merged online database that includes in-depth oral and historical research, we recognise that Digital Benin will be an asset to museums, the global community, and to Edo stakeholders in Nigeria and its diasporas. The Digital Benin project is being developed in close cooperation with the Benin Dialogue Group, which includes the Royal Court of Benin, the Edo State Government, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria and all European museums with important Benin collections. National Museums NI has three looted spears from Benin in the collection.
Devolving Restitution: African Collections in UK Museums Beyond London
Funded by Open Societies Foundation and the Art Fund
This project commissions scoping, provenance research, and writing that builds understanding and starts to unlock the immense scale, range and diversity of African collections in UK museums outside London. The programme brings together museums and grassroots diasporic, community and activist groups across the UK for six events, each addressing a different theme in African collections’ histories and opening up new dialogues with African claimants. This work aims not only to move forward the traditionally London-centric nature of debates about decolonisation and restitution in UK museums, but also to actively support and amplify the claims of African-based organisations and communities for the return of African heritage.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
Following National Museums NI’s participation in the ‘Return of Cultural Heritage’ scoping project 2018-20, contact with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) resumed in early 2021. We have shared images and documentation of the Australian collections with AIATSIS who have selected and helped interpret the collection for display in Inclusive Global Histories exhibition. They also hope to share and discuss these items with communities back in Australia.
Museums, Empire and Northern Irish Identity
Museums, Empire and Northern Irish Identity is a research partnership between the Centre for Public History in Queen’s University Belfast, National Museums NI, the Northern Ireland Museums Council, Irish Museums Association and University of Maynooth. It has three objectives.
- Colonial Legacy: To improve and sustain the development of understanding of Northern Ireland’s World Cultures collections as an under-addressed colonial legacy, that raises social justice concerns about relationships within the British Empire. The project is surveying global human history collections across Northern Ireland, and developing recommendations for their future exploration and use, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Museums Council and other museums.
- Ethnographic Collections in Contemporary NI Life: To understand whether and how objects in Northern Ireland impact and connect with contemporary identities and politics in the region. Being delivered through community interviews and workshops, the project is asking people living in Northern Ireland whether, and how, they relate to these collections, and about their perspectives on colonialism and the British Empire.
- Interdisciplinary Research Group: To bridge academics, museum professionals and activists to develop research in the field of global objects in Irish museums. Initially delivered through a major conference, ‘Ireland, Museums, Empire, Colonialism’ on 8-9 April 2022, through this objective, the project is scoping future research needs and partnerships in this rapidly developing area.
National Museums NI welcomes enquiries about the repatriation or restitution of material in the World Cultures collections.