Time Travellers at Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (Eileen Musundi, ITP 2008)
Written by Eileen Musundi, Head of Exhibits Section, National Museums of Kenya (ITP 2008, Senior Fellow 2013)
On Tuesday morning, with a light shower blessing our way, we set off to experience what life was like in Ireland 100 years ago at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, which is part of ITP UK partner National Museums Northern Ireland.
The Folk Museum is located in serene, lush green countryside. We were met by Hannah Crowdy (Head of Curatorial, NMNI) and Jenna Collier (Visitor Services Assistant Manager, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum) and Hannah gave us an introduction over tea, cakes and fifteens. The Folk Museum was established following an Act of Parliament in 1958 and it aims to preserve the rural way of life and traditions, living memories, stories, dance and music.
Buildings have been dismantled, relocated and rebuilt brick by brick on location in the museum grounds. Care has been taken to lay out whole streets, retaining the original widths of roads and streets. The full context of the original look of the houses is retained, so cottages are set out with their small gardens, and some are even growing vegetables and are maintained by the local horticultural society.
Sophia, an intern from Germany, was our guide for the morning. She was appropriately dressed in costume for the day, in a long skirt and an apron. We started off in Tea Lane, so named because the locals used to sell a cuppa to passing workers on their way to the factories. We knocked on the door of the dressmaker’s house and out she came, speaking totally in character like a housewife busy with her daily chores but quite willing to welcome us into her house for a chat.
We sat in her warm, cozy living room and she chatted to us about her family and her work as a skilled seamstress. We also got into character and pretended Heba was getting married next month and ordered a wedding dress! Enid is called a ‘first-person interpreter’ and I think is a very creative and enjoyable way of experiencing the life of the ordinary rural folk of a century ago.
We visited the building of the Church of England, complete with gravestones (but no graves) in the church yard. The bank manager’s house which is across the street is more prosperous than that of the folk in Tea Lane. The bank building next door is a replica, but so exact that we would not have known just by looking at it. Learn more about the buildings here.
We had a chat with the photographer in his studio and he brought to life the people in his photographs by telling us their histories.
We warmed our hands in the cheerful peat fire in the Reverend’s house, and learnt how the chimneys were cleaned by releasing geese to fly up the chute and scrape off the soot with their flapping wings!
At the doctor’s office, we enjoyed first-person interpretation and had a go at making pills. We pretended we were from the future and by asking lots of questions, ended up appreciating the great strides medicine has made.
Some interactive sessions with the willow basket maker, Bob, and the linen cloth weaver, Rosie, rounded off an exhilarating morning. See how regally Meltem sits in the Throne specially commissioned for Game of Thrones! Bob’s talents are also evident in the flying dragons in the Ulster Museum, which we saw on Monday.
After a warming lunch of Irish stew, we walked down through the cemetery of the original owners of the land, to the Transport Museum.
The first part of the Transport museum, housed in a huge domed building, contains lots of train engines grouped in a circular formation. Most of the exhibits are roped off but one was open to entry. Other galleries look at cars, carriages, commercial vehicles and flight.
The story about the Titanic and her sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic, has its own gallery called TITANICa. The setting is solemn, and the light dim, to preserve the fragile paper exhibits and artefacts from the wreck of the Titanic, but also, I think, to convey the sense of tragedy that we are all aware of. You can visit the TITANICa exhibition virtually by following the link here.
All too soon it was time to take the train back and head back to present-day Belfast, discussing whether Jack and Rose were well matched in the epic film!