Friday, 28 May 2010

The Ulster Museum controversy (1)

I indicated recently that I would post some general observations on  the issues I had raised in my letter to the trustees of the Ulster Museum and this is the first of them.

Back in 1988 the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum had a magnificent exhibition entitled Brotherhoods in Ireland.  It told the story of the many fraternal organisations that have been such a feature of life in Ulster for hundreds of years.

They included monastic and medieval organisations such as the Knights Templar, the Knights of St John and merchant, craft and religious guilds.  There were also the 'charitable and convivial brotherhoods' such as the Freemasons and the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes.

Friendly Societies were a significant feature of life in the 18th and 19th centuries as a 'poor man's life assurance'.  These included the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Irish National Foresters, and the British Order of Ancient Free Gardeners.  In the long run, however, National Insurance and competition from insurance companies led to their decline and today only the Irish National Foresters survive as an organisation.  There were also temperance brotherhoods such as the Independent Order of Rechabites and the International Order of Good Templars.

Finally we have the Orange Order, the Royal Arch Purple Chapter, the Royal Black Institution, the Independent Orange Order and the Knights of Malta, as well as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of St Columbanus.

The 1988 exhibition was comprehensive and informative and showed that many of these organisations had much  in common, with their lodges, passwords, degrees, regalia, banners and processions.  This was a high quality exhibition that was truly a credit to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.  It showed what can be done.

Of course this was a special exhibition but even a general exhibition on the history of Ulster must take account of and give adequate, appropriate and proportionate representation to the main fraternal organisations, especially the Orange Order and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, both of which have played a signficant role in the political history of Ulster.  The Orange Order has always been associated with Unionism and the AOH was for many years the power base of Joe Devlin and the Nationalists.  Devlin was president of the AOH from 1905 until his death in 1934.  We cannot understand the history of Unionism without acknowledging the role of the Orange Order and we cannot understand the history of Nationalism without appreciating the role of the AOH.

Moreover, do these organisations not lend themselves very naturally to incorporation and representation in a museum?  It is the artefacts in a museum that make it special for the visitor.  The interpretation is important but without artefacts there is no museum and both the Orange Order and other fraternal organisations have plenty of artefacts, with their regalia, banners, symbols and warrants etc.

I have seen such artefacts in museums in Scotland, England and the Irish Republic and is it unreasonable to expect similar representation here in Northern Ireland, the place where both the Orange Order and the AOH were founded?

As we seek to build a shared and better future in Northern Ireland we need to increase our understanding of each other and of our cultures, our histories and our traditions.  Our museums and other cultural institutions  have an important role to play in that process of mutual understanding and we must do all we can to encourage them in that role.


  1. The storm about your comments related largely to your "request" that creationism be represented alongside exhibits that focused on Darwinian natural selection. The points you make above ignore this (although I would take exception to your fixation with with minutae of "fraternal organisation" culture - most of which is the antithesis of culture and is hyperlocal in nature and fixated with perpetuating religious based sectarianism). Although you also seem to be on such a vocation.

    However, on the point of your bizarre notion that the world was "created" around 6,000 years ago by a deity - and that the Ulster Museum should represent this view - you need to mount an adequate defence. You seem to be intent on making the Museum an international object of ridicule.

    The Museum has always been an educational resource and has presented historical, natural historical and scientific facts to enquiring minds. You are now suggesting that the Museum undermines its remit by including your particular nuanced version of nonsense in its exhibits. And for that reason I'd suggest that you do a disservice to your office and to the young people of Northern Ireland who frequent this wonderful educational facility.

    Please issue a public apology for your appalling behaviour.

  2. Editor - I stated that I would post some general comments and that is what I intend to do. In this way I will be able to deal with all the issues raised and I intend to do so in a thoughtful manner. As indicated in the title this is only the first post, so perhaps a little patience is required.
    As regards your comment on what I said, you say that you 'take exception' to what you describe as a 'fixation' with 'fraternal organisation culture'. I find that comment rather unclear and almost incomprehensible. Should a museum not seek to tell the whole story, even the parts that you may not like and to which you 'take exception'? Are you suggesting that those things to which you 'take exception' be airbrushed out of the museum?

  3. Hello Nelson,

    With regards the `controversy` may I say it is the `usual suspects` driving an atheistic and/or secular agenda. I visited the Ulster Museum last summer on it`s reopening and found it very educational including the small Williamite exhibition and the various military and Orange regalia. There is huge scope to expand on those themes and the ulster plantation including Ulster-Scots elements. `Some` people seem outraged at at the idea of creation being presented yet I seem to recall when studying evolution in Biology in Scotland we were presented with various possible forms of evolution including the debunked Lemarckism. I also recall being taught using the debunked images of Ernst Haeckel in school biology textbooks as proof that human embryo`s had vestigial gill slits yet the images had been falsified and proved so in 1874 yet were being used in official Scottish curriculum in the early 1990`s.

    I see you have raised the ire prominent US Atheist & Biologist PZ Myers enough for him to blog about you.

    Northern Ireland culture is apparently cuckoo
    PZ Myers


    Ulster-Scots Online
    The Orange Chronicle

  4. Dear Nelson,
    Orange Brethren in Manchester, England support you 100% in bringing this very important issue of hosting fraternal exhibits in established museums into the public domain. It is intriguing that you have had such a negative response from 'the editor' who seems to use language in the furtherance of an aggressive white wash approach against this important part of social history in Ireland.
    We are also very concerned about the 'side stepping' of Orange Fraternal history in Manchester's museums. Manchester has the richest history of Orangeism in England and there currently is no public exhibits for Orangeism, although there is for Oddfellows. (Even though they have Orange artifacts in their records.) Perhaps the Directors in Manchester's museums are rather 'odd fellows' too?
    Visit us at -

  5. Nelson, the reason I suggested that you were 'fixated' on 'fraternal organisation culture' was because you focus your attentions on this so-called "cultural issue" to the exclusion of all other aspects of culture. Northern Ireland needs to define itself beyond the - as I described it - hyper-local. As a society we are plagued by the problem of our politicians mirroring back sectarianism rather than distancing themselves from it. Ironically, despite being such a small place we are actually very good at producing cultural richness - just look at the ability of our wonderful education system to create world-class musicians, artists, poets and dramatists. However, you focus entirely on your own narrow view of "culture" - which isn't really culture at all.

    As a Culture Minister you need this encourage this society to embrace the new. You need to challenge our community to think culturally beyond the tribal swamp. Instead of insisting that "fraternal organisations" be represented in the Ulster Museum you should be demanding that as a society we reflect the totality of our cultural richness - not the incessant narrowness of sectarian culture. You have an ethical responsibility, I'd suggest, to encourage this society to move on rather than move back.

    I await with interest how you will defend your insistence on creationism being represented in an institution of knowledge and learning. I would still suggest that you owe the museum and the electorate an apology.

  6. Jeff - I assume from the above that 'Editor' and Jeff Peel' are one and the same person. In response to your last post I would pose two questions.

    1. You claim that I am 'fixated on fraternal organisation culture' and that this is 'because [I] focus on this so-called cultural issue to the exclusion of all other aspects of culture.' What exactly do you mean? Is that acusation made in relation to the current debate or is it made as a general accusation against me?

    2. Do you believe that organisations such as the Orange Order and the AOH should be excluded from the Ulster Museum? Should they be given a cursory or minimalist treatment? Or should they be incorporated in a way that reflects their role in our history and society?

    For anyone reading this blog who may not be aware of it, I think I should explain that you were the founding chair of the Conservative Humanist Association, an organisation which defines itself as 'humanist' but is essentially 'atheist'. Indeed you have freely acknowledged that you are an atheist.

    You also have an anti-Orange agenda, which is reflected in your posts but which was reflected even more clearly on your own blog when you said about members of the Orange Order, 'I certainly think that people who choose to join a clearly sectarian organisation must have sociopathic tendencies.' The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a sociopath as 'a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behaviour.' To describe tens of thousands of people, most of whom you have never met, as socipaths is simply bigotry.

    Overall it seems to me that you enjoy being gratuitously offensive, arrogant and intolerant. However I am committed to building a more tolerant and inclusive society, where our cultural institutions recognise the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland, and that diversity, whether you like it or not, includes the Orange Order and the AOH.

  7. Jeff - what is wrong with `hyper-local` it is called the Ulster Museum after all so whilst it certainly has a larger remit for being a general museum, surely it also has a remit for local Ulster related history, culture & science?

  8. Nelson, I tried responding to your questions - submitting as I did before. But I think you may have blocked me. Anyway, if you want to know the response just pop over to and the answers are there. Cheerio.

  9. Jeff - I did not block you but I have read your response on your blog.

    As regards the first question you say, 'It's very difficult for me to answer', but I was merely seeking clarification of the meaning of your original charge. Surely you know what you meant!

    My second question had three options - 'Do you believe that organisations such as the Orange Order and the AOH should be excluded from the Ulster Museum? Should they be given a cursory or minimalist treatment? Or should they be incorporated in a way that reflects their role in our history and society?' To this your answer is 'No'. I take this to mean that you agree they should not be excluded and I welcome that.

    However you ignored the rest of that question. How then should they be included? Should it be in a cursory or minimalist way or in a way that reflects their role in our history and society? Perhaps you could tell me which of those two options is the right approach, as regards the extent of the inclusion.

    Finally, as regards the Orange Order you repeat your charge of 'sociopathic tendencies' and say, 'You are also correct that I did indeed suggest that those who join the Orange Order - and other sectarian organisations - might have sociopathic tendencies. On reflection I agree with that statement. I used the word tendencies - I didn't label them each and all members as sociopaths.'

    Your earlier statement was 'I certainly think that people who choose to join a clearly sectarian organisation must have sociopathic tendencies.'

    I see that you have replaced 'must' with 'might' and that you now claim that you didn't 'label' every Orangeman in this way, although that is in fact what you did.

    You also say, 'I'd imagine that most members of the Orange Order consider themselves better or superior to Catholics (or Irish Nationalists).' You'd 'imagine'! Is that the basis on which you condemn tens of thousands of people as having socioipathic tendencies?

    Are you suggesting that I, as a member of the Orange Order for more than thirty years, have 'sociopathic tendencies'?

    I did indeed describe your views as arrogant but that had nothing to do with whether we agree or disagree. I know many people who can disagree without being disagreeable. It is your sweeping and cavalier condemnations of others, without any evidence, that I find arrogant.

  10. I wouldn't have a problem with an Orange exhibition. However, it would have to be fair and balanced. The Drumcree section would be interesting - could the Order stand back and allow itself to be portrayed negatively?

    I'd have no problem with an Ulster Scots and Protestant settlement exhibition either. I think the problem with the letter was that it was completely one-sided; I feel it should have been written in another capacity, since a minister should be more impartial and always representing the whole community. Ministerial letters are always seen as more than mere suggestion.

    I do feel very uncomfortable with the Creationism suggestion. I just think museums should be about science and history, and an exhibition of Creationism in a museum would seem to be equating religious belief and science, or putting a square peg into a round hole. I'm not sure I would be happy as a taxpayer funding this, although I'd be OK with the other ideas, so long as they were presented objectively.

  11. Gonzo - Thank you for your post.

    If you have not seen the section on the Orange Order in the Ulster Museum I would encourage you to go in and see it. It is a single board with five or six sentences of text and that is it. There is not a single artefact and yet it is artefacts that make a museum. This contrasts with the adjacent sections on the Volunteer movement and the United Irishmen, both of which have cabinets filled with interesting artefacts. It looks very much as though this board was put in as an afterthought. The Ulster Museum has many interesting Orange artefacts and some of them at least should be out on display.

    As regards being 'one-sided' I have also asked the Museum to consider the fact that it has ignored the Ancient Order of Hibernians. I have no desire to act in a one-sided manner and I have not done so. I have acted throughout in an impartial manner and will continue to do so.

    It is rather surprising that the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement of 1606, which preceded the Flight of the Earls and the official Plantation of Ulster is not mentioned in the museum. This event was described by A T Q Stewart as providing the 'bridgehead' for the ongoing settlement of Lowland Scots in Ulster.

    I intend to continue this series of posts and I think that these will clarify the context of my letter to the trustees, even in relation to the issue of alternative perspectives on the origin of the universe and the origin of life.

  12. Nelson, you choose to ignore all the substantial points made in my response - focusing instead on linguistic pedantry.

    Jeff Peel

  13. Jeff - I'm still waiting for answers to my questions. They were simple questions and simple answers would suffice. The 'substantial points' to which you refer were not answers.

  14. Nelson

    Appreciate your reply.

    While many will no doubt have their own views on whether Orangeism and the Plantation should have their place in the Ulster Museum, I cannot think why, properly contextualised, they shouldn't.

    I feel the only real debate here is the one over Creationism, and I look forward to your defence of it. We will probably disagree, but the argument must be had, and your engagement on this blog is admirable.

    It may also be useful if you copied your letter onto your site, now that the nature of your request to the Museum is in the public domain, for clarity's sake. If you feel you have been partial, and others are not presenting it as such, it may help clear up any misunderstanding.

  15. Gonzo - I appreicate your point that publishing the full text of the letter would help to clarify what I said but I am reluctant to do that at present because the letter was sent to the trustees and as I understand it they have not yet had a chance to consider it. In due course the letter will come into the public domain but it is clear that it was leaked by some malign individual who had no respect for either the trustees or the museum.