Thursday, 17 July 2014

Cultural Vandalism or Lack of Thought?

A few weeks ago I learned of plans to modernise and extend the Museum of Free Derry or as it's known locally 'the Bloody Sunday Museum' following an investment of over two million pounds. My first thoughts were this sounds promising, I hope it helps enhance the area and ensures the history of the area is protected.

The museum of Free Derry contains artefacts from Bloody Sunday, Free Derry and the early days of what has become known as the troubles. The museum is situated in Glenfada Park, a location of immense significance and notoriety in that many of the Bloody Sunday victims were brutally murdered by members of the parachute regiment in 1972 in and around this area following a peaceful civil rights march.

In the Derry Journal last week I discovered how residents and others are opposed to one element of the redevelopment plans in their current form. As a consequence of the development the redesign will obstruct a world famous civil rights mural. I was baffled as to why the mural itself wasn't incorporated into the plans.

The Civil Rights movement will forever be inextricably linked to the Bloody Sunday massacre. The movement organised the march in January 1972 in opposition to issues such as , inequality, the erosion of civil liberties and the use by the British Government of internment without trial. Indeed the Derry Civil Rights Association banner carried on the march that day was used to cover some of the dead as they lay on the ground.

You often hear the phrase 'If stones could speak', in the Bogside thanks to the efforts of the world renowned Bogside Artists they do. Some of the world famous murals are snapshots into the turbulent history of the Bogside, they paint an accurate and engaging picture devoid of rhetoric and politics and we must do everything to help preserve them even if this means calling for a change in the Museum’s plans.
 Thanks to the murals my children are aware of the history of the Bogside, they know who Annette McGavigan was, who Manus Deery was, they know about Bloody Sunday, the Hunger Strike and the battle of the Bogside, events which shaped this city and it's people.

 The murals have also helped educate the thousands of tourists who view these murals each year to the history of the Bogside. In news reports these murals have time and time again provided a backdrop, in documents such as those produced by Derry City Council or the Derry Visitor and Convention bureau they have been presented as a must see attraction.

It would be hard to estimate the numbers of visitors who have come and visited the murals, however the Northern Ireland Tourist Board 2008 visitor attraction survey listed the number as 24,735 (for that year) taking this as a conservative estimate, we could easily say that the murals have brought 500,000 people to the Bogside over a 20 year period.

When considering figures such as those published by NITB I cannot begin to grasp the rationale of obscuring the civil rights mural, surely to incorporate the mural into the overall design would have been an exercise in common sense, but sadly common sense seems to be lacking here.

The key question is can this situation be sorted with compromise?

Many including myself would argue that the mural needs to be protected a view which is shared by lead campaigner Vincent Coyle whose father is included in the Civil Rights mural. Equally I would expect a similar outcry if someone was to suggest building over the bottom of the Bloody Sunday mural on Westland Street obscuring Michael Kelly & William McKinney.

What's even more ironic is just as plans are under way to obstruct the civil rights mural there are also plans within the Stormont Assembly to abolish the Northern Ireland Executive. The Housing Executive was formed in 1971 to address housing inequality thanks to the efforts of the  Civil Rights Movement .

Many of the issues raised by the Civil Rights movement still plague the people who live here today, issues which know neither creed nor colour. Unemployment, poor or non existent social housing, lack of opportunity and internment still exist, except now they have found new bedfellows in an increased suicide rate, increased child poverty and a continuous increase in the erosion of civil liberties with the use of secret courts and other tools that the Civil Rights movement would have taken an active stand against.

The more cynical side of me wonders if we have come full circle? Is the civil rights mural too much of a sad reminder of how little things have changed in over 40 years? Or could it be that the narrative of the civil rights mural does not fit in with the new narrative of normalisation and that is why it's significance can so easily be dismissed by those who should know better.

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