The Murals of Belfast: Politics and Conservation
Through the extent of this study, I aimed to understand and evaluate the complexities of commemoration in urban environments either in a transitional phase or an ongoing identity crisis. With a heavy focus on Belfast, Northern Ireland, my curiosity was first peaked by the political murals and I asked what role they played in the ongoing process of healing and reunification after 30 years of civil war. Starting with academic articles, journals and books, I gained a strong knowledge of The Republic of Ireland’s and Northern Ireland’s political history, as well as a second-hand view of the situation as it sits now. I followed this with interviews with Professor Bill Rolston, who has written extensively on the murals and the politics of Belfast; Amberlea Neely, who works for PLACE Architecture and thus provided me with a working planners insight and opinions on the practicalities of reunification in the city; former Belfast police officer James Crawford, who explained the gradual emotional, family and religious divisions that played into the start of the Troubles and ongoing distrust felt between various groups in Belfast; and Robin Wade, who designed the permanent Derry Museum exhibition dedicated to the Troubles with delicacy and honesty while under heavy criticism from all angles. This paper is structured in a similar fashion, giving the reader an overview of the political history and situations leading up to the events of the Troubles that permanently changed the built environment of Belfast. I then outline the changes that were made and the difficulties architects and planners now face in their efforts to reverse some of these divisive changes. A large section of the paper is devoted to the analysis of the murals, giving the history, development and current situation of both the loyalist and nationalist murals. This section closes with a short description of the more recent collaborations by muralists of these traditionally opposing sects. Continuing on with the theme of regeneration and collaboration, I looked into other recent efforts for renewal and reunification, highlighting both their successes and failures, and why each effort met these outcomes. Using São Paulo as a comparative study, I looked into the ways that the built environment of a city can fuel sociological divisions, which I then compared to the structural changes made in Belfast leading up to, during, and after the Troubles. Reunification is not only a matter of structural reorganization, but is also a matter of the mind, whereby I analysed the ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality I found embedded in many of the people I spoke with. I focused much attention on the Re-imaging Communities project, which aimed to replace the threatening imagery from the murals with new murals designed by the relevant communities. The final section of the paper is devoted to the politics of remembrance and commemoration, using Hiroshima and the Berlin Wall as main case studies. Here, I look into who decides what to commemorate, how to commemorate it, and what affect this has on the local community.
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