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Encountering the contentious past through community based museums

This paper addresses theme 3 of the conference call: Education in Post Conflict Societies. It reports on a pilot study involving key stage 4 pupil visits to two community based museums in Derry / Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Both museums represent their own community’s perspectives on contentious aspects of the city’s past. The Siege Museum commemorates Protestant resistance to 1688-89 siege of the city by James 11.  Through the lens of the Apprentice Boys organisation it examines its commemorative role particularly in regard to marches between 1969 and the present, which have both been a source of tension and, more recently, accommodation. The Free Derry Museum is dedicated to remembering the events of Bloody Sunday 1972 and has close associations with those who campaigned for “truth and justice” in regard to the British army’s role in that event. The research documents the responses of two GCSE groups from different schools, one predominantly Protestant and the other Catholic. Data was collected through observation, pre and post visit questionnaires, a post visit focus group in each school and follow up semi structured interviews with two teachers. The data was analysed through the filter of Bakhtin’s (1982) idea of ‘internally persuasive discourse’. Previous research (Barton and McCully 2005, 2010, 2012) examined  students’ engagement with history through the NI History Curriculum and informal learning in the community. It identified that students tended not to follow Wertsch’s (2002) appropriation / resistance model to contentious narratives. Instead, to make sense of the learning they encountered in the classroom and community they wrestled critically with these sometimes contradictory histories in order to make sense of them for themselves. However, in doing so, they were unlikely to move too far from the dominant views of their own community background. This research questions, would this pattern of internally persuasive discourse hold good in the emotive environments of the two museums or would each provoke partisan responses on the part of students depending on background. Initial analysis suggests that community perspective remains influential on students’ thinking but that personal engagement, with testimony and artefacts, particularly in the Bloody Sunday context, is a powerful tool in challenging (and reinforcing) established templates.