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THREE 1798 BICENTENARY EXHIBITIONS COMPARED JOHN TURPIN 1798 Fellowship of Freedom, The United Irishmen and 1798, National Museum of Ireland, May 25, 1998–spring 1999, accompanying book by Kevin Whelan , published by Cork University Press, IR£4.95. Up in Arms, The 1798 Rebellion in Ireland, Ulster Museum, April 3–August 31, 1998, compiled by W.A. Maguire, accompanying catalogue, paperback st£9.95, hardback, st£25. National 1798 Visitor Centre, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, 5 June 1998–continuing (hand-leaflet only). today’s historical commemorations, consisting of large public exhibitions and related publications, have replaced nineteenth-century unveilings of public sculpture. The target audiences for recent historical exhibitions, like that of past commemorative events, is not primarily academic, but rather the community at large. These modern multimedia exhibitions represent a new genre, different from traditional museum displays and far closer to the world of commercial entertainment. Whereas the promotion of public awareness of the past through the study of material culture has been the educational mission of museums and galleries since the nineteenth century, today the museum is only one player in the modern world of historical commemorative exhibitions. The role of stage plays, historical films, painted transparencies, waxwork displays, reproductions, dioramas, photography (and especially modern commercial processes of enlargement), all have become germane to contemporary commemorative exhibitions in museums and heritage centers. The centrality of the display of original objects in any exhibition claiming to reinterpret the past—once axiomatic in museums—is now being challenged. Consumer-friendly technology, borrowed from commercial sources, has become increasingly visible in museums , with varying degrees of success. THREE 1798 BICENTENARY EXHIBITIONS COMPARED 261 In this review of three exhibitions commemorating the 1798 Rebellion —at the National Museum of Ireland, at the Ulster Museum, and at the National 1798 Visitor Centre at Enniscorthy—I will consider issues not only of academic content, but also the too often neglected issues of reception and the use of new modes of presentation. Although a number of other displays around Ireland commemorated the ’98 Rebellion (for example , the restoration of Wicklow’s historic jail), the Dublin, Belfast, and Enniscorthy exhibitions bear comparison: all three were undertaken with “official backing” and sought to make an impact at a national level. The 1798 bicentenary commemorations in Ireland have been extensive; new scholarly research on all the aspects of the Rebellion has resulted in publications revealing not only new information about the event, but new interpretations as well. A century ago in 1898, celebrations throughout nationalist (but not unionist) Ireland were dominated by the “Faith and Fatherland” view: the Rebellion took place because the Catholic peasants, cruelly goaded by vicious British soldiers and led by their priests, rose up in defense of their faith and families against British Protestant colonial aggression. Absent was any mention of the United Irishmen, the role of Protestant intellectuals, Catholic militiamen, or of the European context of French revolutionary ideology; 1798 was seen as the first in a chain of rebellions leading inexorably to Fenianism and to twentieth-century republicanism , culminating in 1916 and Irish independence. In this deeply nationalistic and sectarian interpretation in 1898, the struggle to recover the fourth green field continued; such a view of the Rebellion represented a reaction against the original loyalist interpretation—an equally sectarian Protestant reading of history. Recently, however, historians have put the Rebellion and the role of the Society of United Irishmen securely within the broader context of the political movement toward liberty in North America and France. Furthermore , because of the increasing recent secularism and decline in traditional Catholic nationalism in the Republic, this new interpretation has gained favor. The secularist and pluralist message of the United Irishmen of the 1790s is now welcomed as an alternative to the traditional Catholic–nationalist stress on political violence. In Northern Ireland, public memory of the 1798 Rebellion has been radically different from that of the Republic. As Northern Protestants, who formed the backbone of the United Irishmen in the North in the 1790s, were transformed into staunch unionists and attached to the British connection, they became increasingly repelled by and alienated by the THREE 1798 BICENTENARY EXHIBITIONS COMPARED 262 Catholic nationalist appropriation of 1798. Although scholars were...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 261-268
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-31
Open Access
No
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