John Gray on the pros and cons of the new look museum after a three year refurbishment
The fanfare of publicity that greeted the reopening of the Ulster Museum after a two year closure and £17,200,000 makeover made much of old favourites - ‘Takabuti’, the Egyptian mummy, and ‘Peter’ the polar bear. It worked: in the first ten days of the reopening the museum was invaded by almost 60,000 visitors. When I visited, Takabuti was still surrounded by admirers.
There is something deeply troubling about both exhibits. Takabuti caused a voyeuristic sensation when first exhibited in 1835 and we appear to remain oblivious today to the body-snatching involved. The unhealthy anthropomorphism of naming a polar bear ‘Peter’ was a marketing device for Belfast Zoo, otherwise responsible for his miserable caged existence. At least the Ulster Museum now tells us that ‘the polar bear is a threatened species and few zoos now exhibit them’.
What then is the effect of our £17 million. The main investment has been in the building. The original 1924-1929 structure and its always controversial ‘brutalist’ 1963-1971 extension remain broadly intact. It was largely the originality and pioneering nature of the latter that justified the museum’s listed building status, and led to a campaign against the proposed reconstruction (www.ulstermuseumbuilding.org.uk/alternative).
The front entrance is no longer a gaping cave mouth, rather an open glass facade. The museum now looks outwards, but to tell us what? That it is a café and a shop? Museum artefacts do not appear until we are well inside the building, and the information desk is only discovered after a further journey to the central hall. What an extraordinary statement of priorities!
The central hall remains impressive, but the grey patinas of concrete have been replaced by white surfaces, and the play of natural light has been eradicated - the originality of the space has suffered as a consequence. Once occupied by massive and inert machinery it now features a multi-tier ‘Window on Our World’ displaying an eclectic selection of visually dramatic artefacts, but with little other logic.
The central hall also provides a lift / staircase block leading to all other levels. It should accordingly eliminate one of the more maddening or, alternatively, endearing features of the building as it was - its capacity to disorientate, and hence its ability to lead one to the unexpected. Curiously, despite the new access infrastructure, it remains easy to get lost.
We are told that the reconstruction has enabled a dramatic increase in gallery space. How much of this gain is due to clever building design, or due to the move of technical and administrative services out of the building is not clear, but the unifying of gallery space in the 1920s building and the later extension is cleverly done.
In a strange chronological reversal the ‘History Zone’ starts with ‘The Troubles’ and proceeds backwards to prehistoric Ireland. How the Museum now treats ‘The Troubles’ in the light of past criticism of evasion has to be something of a litmus test. Here a museum exhibition that does not include a single original artefact fails at first base. Visitor centre style wall panels bombard us with facts at the expense of illumination. Different panels tell us that the Troubles started in October 1968, or, alternatively, in 1969, and none of them explore why the Troubles started at all. Richard Kirkland’s 1996 criticism that ‘absence acknowledges unfinished business just as it bespeaks a form of timidity’ still stands.
This is all the more unfortunate because the ‘Discover History’ room next door with its hands-on artefacts is engaging for children and adults alike. Elsewhere there is much more scope than before for exploration of our history in its wider Irish context, and industrial triumphalism is a less dominant theme as we explore the harsher realities of post-partition Belfast.
The museum has not taken on the creationist challenge frontally with any celebration of the Darwin bicentenary, but as we move in we meet the Edmontausaurus who we are categorically told lived '65 million years ago’. Generally the nature zone and the applied arts benefit from increased space, and ample opportunities for interactivity.
What then of art? The flagship re-opening exhibition is Constantinople or the Sensual Concealed, a major retrospective by Sean Scully. As with much modern abstract art the appeal of this is decidedly obscure. In the context of the re-opening this suggests a new ambition; to place the Ulster Museum centre stage in the world of modern art. In the meantime the specifically local or Irish art actually in its collections seems to have disappeared, though a re-appearance beckons by March 2010. It seems a misplaced order of priorities.
Much as no-one could tame ‘Peter’ the polar bear, the attempt to tame the old building by giving it a new consumerist makeover leaves a sense of unease. Equally serious questions remain about how the museum will develop the use of its extended space.