Shared history on display

Billy Steward pictured with Lundy. (3009SL07) Photo: Stephen Latimer
Billy Steward pictured with Lundy. (3009SL07) Photo: Stephen Latimer

But both are part of the city’s rich heritage and have a key role to play in the future.

The curators of the city’s museums are working closely together to do what they can to help attract more and more visitors to Derry - and to delve a little deeper than a cursory walk around the walls or glance at a couple of murals.

(3009SL08)

(3009SL08)

The Siege Heroes Trail at the Apprentice Boys of Derry Memorial Hall in Society Street has been going for a couple of years now, and tour guide Billy Stewart says a joined-up approach to history by looking at both sides of the debate is vital to people’s understanding.

“I think in the past we have had the situation where one community has been frightened to look at the other in case they are in some way corrupted by it,” he said.

“But I think the various museums in the city are moving together so that we present a non-threatening way of looking at the past.

“We present the history and the facts and people are free to interpret that in their own way and make up their own minds.”

The exhibition in the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall is open to everyone through the summer months.

Visitors can join Billy on a guided tour of an exhibition which is steadily growing and they are also encouraged to complete the Siege Heroes Trail around the city walls with the aid of a guide produced specifically to point out the places of interest.

It presents a quick history to the various gates in the walls as well as explaining the history behind the Apprentice Boys’ annual commemorations - the Shutting of the Gates in December and the Relief of Derry in August.

The exhibition in the Memorial Hall is a fascinating collection of memorabilia complete with a detailed model of how the walled city looked at the time of the siege in 1689.

The Memorial Hall also houses the effigy of Lundy which is burned in December.

“People know it as Lundy’s Day but it is actually the Shutting of the Gates which is being commemorated,” explains Billy.”

The museum has seen a marked increase in visits from schools from over the border which they see as a very welcome development.

They had around 90 visits from schools in the Republic as opposed to just 12 from Northern Ireland this year.

“There is massive scope for expansion in that area and other museums are aware of that as well,” says Billy.

“We understand that there is a reluctance for people in Northern Ireland to talk about the past. But I think the reality is that people are going to have to start looking at and talking about the past at some stage.

“Places like the museum here can provide the information and the talking points for people.

“The mistake is to try to get people to try to agree on some sort of agreed past. That’s not going to happen. What we are quite happy with is providing the opportunity so that, say, schools come here and they go to Free Derry on the same day so that they can get different viewpoints on history. I am sure that people are intelligent enough - secondary school kids of exam years certainly are - to start examining the facts and make up their own minds.

“It is not even a matter so much of them coming to some sort of definitive idea of what happened. It is more that there is an understanding that there are different points of view both in history and in our society. It is about accepting that people have the right to have those different points of view.”

Schools are a vital source of interest for all the museums in the city but of course, tourists are also an essential source of business as well.

Numbers of foreign visitors have been down in the past couple of years but in the longer term interest in the city’s rich past will be a big draw, Billy believes.

“There is massive potential for tourism but it can only grow if there is joined up thinking,” he says.

“Our biggest problem at the minute - and it is one which is faced by Free Derry and the other museums in the city, is that the majority of tourists coming here are coming on buses on a day trip from Belfast.

“They get four hours in the city and once they have met a tour guide and gone around the walls and had a look at some murals and had a bite to eat, it is time to get back on the bus.

“They just don’t get time to go to any museum, be it Free Derry or the Tower Museum or ourselves, and have the time they need to look around properly.

“We have had plenty of people here who have said they didn’t realise there was as much in the city and they just don’t have enough time to see everything they want to properly.”

The City of Culture in 2013 provides as much of an opportunity for museums anywhere else and Billy says it needs to be grasped.

“It would be criminal if it is allowed to pass without being used as a springboard for many years to come,” he said.

“But what we need more than anything else is the ability for people to come and spend bed nights in the city so that they have the time to wander around and discover things like here, like the Tower Museum, for themselves.

“All the museums in the city are working closely together and we are working on a proposal to have a joint ticket which over the course of a couple of days would give access to every museum in the city.”