New IWM show takes visitors into the heart of the Troubles

This small but cleverly designed show at the Imperial War Museum in London is centred on personal testimony, which starkly demonstrates the complexities of the Troubles and the enduring need to hear from all sides

“The first casualty of war is the truth,” is an expression quoted with such regularity now as to have become almost trite. Yet if ever there was an exhibition that embodied this notion, it’s the Imperial War Museum’s Northern Ireland: Living with the Troubles.

The exhibition, which is the first the IWM has devoted to the Troubles, is structured around the voices of those who have been directly affected by the conflict during the 30-year period from the late 1960s to 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and introduced a fragile peace.

Included are recordings of voices from all sides, including republican and loyalist paramilitaries, British soldiers, local police and ordinary civilians. The recordings often offer contrasting memories of the same events, which illustrate the complexity of the times, and how uncertain retellings of history often are.

Top: View of a hastily constructed barbed wire fence that runs across a terrace street to mark a dividing line between republican and neighbouring loyalist areas of Belfast. Photo: Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images; A soldier on patrol walks past IRA graffiti sprayed onto a wall in Newry, County Down
A mural on Rockland Street – Donegal. Street in Belfast affiliated with the loyalist group the Red Hand Commando

If you’ve come to the show to try and get a handle on this devastating period in Northern Ireland, you may well end up more confused, which is in part the intention of its curator, Craig Murray, who wants visitors to come out and “do your own thinking, do your own reading, and maybe arrive at your own conclusions as to what happened in this near 30-year period”.

Murray’s own voice is featured in the show via comments displayed around the space, but he avoids offering any conclusions on the information shared here, instead letting the audience build their own impressions of what may – or may not – have occurred over the decades.

“Whether you agree or disagree with what people say in there is largely up to you, that’s what it’s about,” he explains. “One of my motivations for doing this was to increase the understanding of the Troubles here, on this side of the water, because it is not well understood, it is often avoided and some people wish it would just go away.

“Very often we hear it from politicians, political commentators and journalists but we don’t hear these people apart from in soundbites from interviews. What you’ll hear is their lived experience, their truth, and I’ve allowed them to tell it without judgement.”

A photograph of a riot in Derry’s Bogside in response to the Hunger Strike of 1981
A British soldier checks distant activity in the pedestrian shopping precinct through the gunsight of his SA80 support rifle during a patrol in the centre of Newry, County Down

The exhibition is given only four rooms so its story is told in broad strokes, taking in the early triggers for the Troubles, the intense violence of the 70s and 80s, and the bombings and hunger strikes. It also acknowledges the way normal life of a sort continued around the conflict – with these accounts among some of the most heart-wrenching.

Artefacts from across the decades – including propaganda posters and other ephemera of war, as well as a copy of the Good Friday Agreement pamphlet, help bring the story to life, as do a number of large-format photographs on display. But it is Murray’s focus on the voices of those affected that brings an emotional complexity to the show, elevating it beyond a simple history lesson.

The exhibition finishes with a film created in January which features opinions on how the future of the country may play out. It is a hard listen, and sharply demonstrates how the variety of viewpoints on the state of the country and where it may be going continue today. If there is hope here, it lies in the ability for people to keep sharing and keep listening.

A poster supporting the H-Block Hunger Strike of 1980 inside the Maze Prison
This booklet was issued to all people of voting age and outlined the peace deal that became best known as the Good Friday Agreement

“It remains very resonant today,” says Murray. “The Good Friday Agreement may have stopped the killing but many of the problems have got worse, or still exist in some form or another, or were never dealt with. So it is very much a situation that’s ongoing, it’s live in many senses and it’s become more pertinent over the last year or so…. This exhibition I hope will encourage people to learn more about the Troubles and more about Northern Ireland.”

Northern Ireland: Living with the Troubles is at the Imperial War Museum in London until January 7;