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Ulster University hosted an international, interdisciplinary symposium examining critical heritage, activism, and social change.

This event focused on participatory approaches in addressing difficult pasts and was held on the Belfast campus on Friday 19 January.

Heritage is about the production and construction of knowledge in the present about the past; it is a social process – and the symposium had three interlocking strands:

  • memorialising historical institutional abuse (HIA)
  • multicultural and intercultural heritages
  • heritage after the NI conflict.

An ‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’ (AHD) often witnessed in the professional heritage sector is notably absent of marginalised or disempowered groups in the co-creation of heritage initiatives. These groups are rarely, if ever, involved as collaboration-leads in their co-design, implementation, and monitoring.

The AHD embodies assumptions about what heritage is and how it should be understood - as museums and/or official state memorial processes have often failed to adequately reckon with difficult or ‘dark’ subjects in the recent past. There is now more of an awareness by professionals, activists and communities to challenge these perspectives which was a key focus of the symposium.

Delegates included victim-survivors, academics, museum professionals, advocacy non-governmental organisations (NGOs), memory activists, heritage organisations, practitioners, and policymakers, and this event gave them an opportunity to voice their opinions, critique the AHD and examine whose knowledge should be prioritised, who are the experts and who should decide.

It also presented the opportunity to explore first-hand experiences and expertise from Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, England, Denmark, Australia, and Canada, and allowed attendees to draw out tangible lessons and best practice.

Examples of bottom-up participatory co-created heritage projects were also showcased from grassroots local, national, and international case studies.

Speakers included:

  • Lorraine Daniels: Indigenous member of the Long Plain First Nation, Canada. Residential school survivor. Executive Director, National Indigenous Residential School Museum of Canada.

Title: ‘From a Place of Hurting to a Place of Healing’

  • Sarah Smed: Museum leader of The Danish Welfare Museum, a trained historian and museum activist.

Title: ‘We are marked by it. Voicing the history of Danish special care’

  • David McGinniss: Activist, Postdoctoral Research Associate on ‘More than our childhoods’ project. Co-director AshTree Projects.

Title: Whose Pain? Whose Shame? Integrating Heritage and Histories in Ballarat, Australia

  • Alison Lowry: Artist, Ulster University Graduate and MA National College of Art and Design Dublin. 

Title: (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths.

  • Michelle Charters: Head of the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

Title: Activism and the Role of the International Slavery Museum

  • Lilian Seenoi-Barr and Naomi Green: The North West Migrants Forum 

Title: The Black History and Heritage in Northern Ireland Project

  • Donna Namukasa: Musician and Community Activist  

Title: Music as Community Activism: Challenging Racism Through Intangible Heritage

  • Seán Murray: Filmmaker and Lecturer

Title: ‘Reclaiming Cultural Memory: Storytelling in the Post-Conflict Era’

  • Paul Mullan: Director of the National Lottery Heritage Fund in Northern Ireland

Title: 'Ethical Remembering of the ‘Troubles’

On the second day an (invitation only) roundtable was held in collaboration with the International Coalition Sites of Conscience (ICSC). Justine Di Mayo (ICSC) did a wide-ranging presentation that set out the Coalition’s work globally and the challenges and lessons learned. Participants discussed their own hopes and aspirations in conducting co-designed, participatory and collaborative projects.

Professor Patricia Lundy and Dr Philip McDermott (Senior Lecturer, Sociology) who organised the symposium noted:

"The event was timely as several regions grapple with imminent policies on memorialisation of state and/or institutional violence.

It brought together stakeholders and beneficiaries who collectively were able to explore participatory co-design approaches to heritage.

It also presented an opportunity to discuss new ways in which to embrace multiple voices about difficult subjects, generate a sense of ownership, and create pathways to justice and social change."

The event was sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Impact Accelerator Account.