The Union Flag: Change and Diversity

The current exhibition in the Naughton Gallery at Queen's explores 'the evolution of the British banner'

It’s not everyday that the Naughton Gallery at Queen's morphs into the Shankill Road. At least that is how Neil Jarman, who has published academic articles on conflict imagery in Northern Ireland, describes it as he surveys the barrage of Union Jack flags hung here, there and everywhere at the opening of the gallery's latest exhibition. It's as timely an exhibition as we're likely to see all year.

The Union Flag: Change and Diversity showcases the evolution of the British banner from its emergence in 1606 to its current incarnation and beyond. Die-hard vexillologists may also appreciate the dozens of commemorative renditions on view. They mark everything from the Diamond Jubilee to the centenary of the 1912 Ulster Covenant

Co-organised by Dominic Bryan, director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, and Gordon Gillespie, a research associate there, the exhibit grew out of the Flags Monitoring Project, a survey carried out by the institute from 2006-2010, and funded by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The project counted political symbols on Northern Ireland’s main roads and town centres.

‘There is quite a long-standing issue with the way flags are used to demarcate public space in Northern Ireland,’ Bryan comments. He notes that the main finding of their research was that ‘attempts by government’ to use ‘a protocol to reduce the number of flags flying had utterly failed'.

Along the way, however, the pair began to collect some of the flags they had documented, with the preponderance of those on display purchased in shops ‘in loyalist or unionist areas of Belfast’, according to Bryan. A notable exception is ‘one we’ve had screen printed, which is the Union flag without the Scottish Saltire'.

Flags

The centre of the gallery’s long exhibition space tells the ‘historical story’ of the Union flag, from the 1606 merging of the English Cross of St George with the Scottish St Andrew’s Cross, to the current 1801 version produced after the Act of Union, to reflect the addition of Ireland by the inclusion of the Cross of St Patrick.

The surrounding perimeter is lined with a variety of improvisations around the theme of the Union Jack, which takes its name from the term for a small flag flown at the bow of a ship. Meanwhile, images of the Union flag as it is incorporated within the Northern Irish landscape – from gay pride parades to nationalist murals – are projected against one wall.

Gillespie, who estimated he has more than 120 flags in his personal collection, compares the loyalist proclivity for flag invention to the nationalist tradition of imaginative mural making. '21st century advances in technology have also made it easier to design and cheaply purchase a variety of localised interpretations from globalised production centres in the Far East,' he says, 'although some aspects appear to be lost in translation.'

For instance, an image of an Orange Order march, printed on one flag, depicts Asian-looking Orange men striding by a ‘comfer shop’, which Gillespie believes was likely meant to be a reference to the ‘corner shop’.

For Bryan, a social anthropologist whose work has explored the nature of symbols and ritual in Northern Irish public space, ‘it’s the bigger questions [flags] ask about the nature of society’ and its values that fascinate him, including their potential to brand, territorialise and even, on occasion, subvert dominant social structures.

The diversity on display in the gallery, he asserts, would be less likely in the United States, which treats the Stars and Stripes in a more respectful manner. ‘In the invention of America, in the gluing it together, there has been a need to create a sanctity or sacredness around the symbols,’ he maintains.

So what about the Tricolour, will that be up next? Bryan isn’t so sure. ‘You do not have the diversity with the Irish Tricolour. You get Celtic badges put on it. You’ve had the letters IRA put on it. But you can’t change the colour without changing the meaning,’ he notes. ‘For obvious reasons, it hasn’t had the history that the Union flag has had, good and bad.’

The Union Flag: Change and Diversity is on display at The Naughton Gallery at Queen’s until June 10 2012. The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 4pm.