Reflecting on the 2024 ICOM UK Conference: report from Namrata Sarmah

This week we are reflecting on one of our first 2024 Legacy Projects, visiting the 2024 ICOM UK conference.

From 8 to 14 April the ITP team travelled to Belfast in Northern Ireland to take part in the conference, with this year’s theme being Common Ground: the role of museums in divided communities

We were delighted to be joined by Namrata Sarmah, Freelance Museum Consultant and Researcher (India, ITP 2018); Nourah Sammar, MA Student, Academy of Korean Studies (Palestine, ITP 2009); Chantal Umuhoza, Curator, Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy (Rwanda, ITP 2018).

As well as attending the conference, the ITP team put together a programme of visits and tours, focusing on the theme of divided communities but also giving the opportunity for our fellows to see more of what Belfast has to offer in the field of art, culture and heritage.

During the week we….

Set the scene where we discovered and experienced first-hand the raw side of historic Belfast City, and its challenging recent history.

Travelled back in time where we looked at how the cultural sector in Northern Ireland preserves its later history and how it is presented to visitors.

Experiences and Attractions where we explored the cultural sector in the form of ‘experiences’ and ‘attractions’!

Across the week we will be sharing our three fellow’s reports. We hope you enjoy reading about their experiences and takeaways from our week in Belfast.

Today’s report is written by Namrata Sarmah, Freelance Museum Consultant and Researcher (India, ITP 2018)

Photograph of a group of people sat on and around a bench.

I struggled to craft a title for this post hence, starting my blog with an old picture from when I visited Belfast as part of the UK-Partner museum during the ITP 2018. My recent visit as part of the ICOM UK Conference 2024 has been enlightening meeting my old mates from the ITP and also a few new amazing members.

Despite its turbulent past; Northern Ireland has a dazzling career in terms of popular culture. C.S. Lewis was born here, the Titanic was designed and built here, and of course, parts of Star Wars and Game of Thrones were shot here. Yet, tourists and expatriates from my parts of the world generally gravitate towards England, and Ulster has remained an off-beat location.

Raw, honest, emotional narratives, founded on an ambitious city-wide story collection, is delivered through sensory, immersive installations. Having experienced the soul of Belfast inside, the journey continued outside by exploring more of the city through its stories.

Photograph of four women sat around a table smiling.

The story of Belfast is complex, multi-faceted and compelling. We started our first day by a black cab city tour which took us through the narrow streets of Belfast explaining the stories behind every mural. However the first evening of Belfast started at the Crown Liquor Saloon where we enjoyed dinner with the ITP Team. The Crown Liquor Saloon is both ageless and priceless dating back to 1826, a gem of Victoriana and one of the great bars of the world. The pub needs a special mention as it remains a unique visual gem, a veritable masterpiece in bar architecture, which has the distinction of being known to millions. The exterior facade of the bar is a riot of polychromatic tiles which clearly hint at the box of delights to be found within.

We also had the opportunity to visit Crumlin Road Gaol which was a unique experience learning about the history of the site from when women and children were held within its walls, through to the political segregation of republican and loyalist prisoners, and reflecting on why the decision was taken to close the prison.

We walked along the infamous Peace Wall which was a profound experience as it was built to keep Nationalists and Loyalists apart, therefore dividing communities.  Each message on the wall reflected the weight of history and the hope of a better future. Along here, our guide handed us a pen to write our own messages on the wall next to the thousands of others, kind of a tangible way to contribute our thoughts as a symbol of hope amidst the echoes of the past.

Photograph of two people writing on the Belfast Peace wall.

Finally we headed to the Titanic Quarters on the final day, which was actually my second visit, overlooking at the historic slipways from where the Titanic and the Olympic were first launched into water. Its exterior is clad in 3,000 aluminium plates creating a shimmering ice blue appearance, enhanced by the reflective pools of water surrounding it. Titanic Belfast opened in April 2012 as a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard in the city. The most fascinating display was the shipyard cable car ride. The small car takes visitors on a journey, revealing a fascinating insight into the sights, sounds and smells of the shipyard demonstrating what tasks had to be carried out in order to build the Titanic.

Photograph of 6 people, smiling.

Lastly, the ICOM UK Conference titled Common Ground: the role of museums in divided communities was a fruitful experience connecting with museum professionals around the globe (especially my dear colleagues from 2018 Chantal and Yohana) leading to engaging discussions and reflecting on issues of how to look at the future of museums being contextual, inclusive and relevant spaces.

This was not possible without the continued support of ITP and the trusts, foundations and individuals who have supported the programme and my entire career of museums.