Ulster Museum exhibition of former Sinn Fein mayor offers insight into Belfast’s past struggles

A collection of 2,000 items donated by a former Lord Mayor of Belfast is on display.

They include a trash can lid with a portrait of Che Guevara and a high visibility City Hall flag protest vest.

The collection was amassed by Tom Hartley, who became Sinn Fein’s second Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2008.

From Falls Road, he also served as general secretary and national chairman of the party.

The exhibition, titled A Collector’s Story, is on display in the Ulster Museum’s Belfast Room until January next year.

Mr Hartley said: “I am delighted that the Ulster Museum has recognized my contribution in this way. Significant moments of history and change can be seen in small, fleeting things that may seem inconsequential at the time. Collecting material is important because over time it will become an archive for future historians.

Mr. Hartley has contributed to earlier Ulster Museum projects, such as Collecting the Troubles.

William Blair, Director of Collections at National Museums NI, said: “Tom has been a supporter and friend of the museum for many years now. Another exhibit is the Ulster Museum’s Troubles and Beyond gallery, and it’s a more permanent exhibit. We identify where you can see more of Tom’s gifts in the main exhibit.

“Tom clearly has a keen interest in local history and is well known for his Belfast Graveyard Stories tours, but he has also seen history unfold over the past few decades. His instinct as a collector is very strong. He sees meaning in things that others may consider unimportant.

The exhibit has just opened, but Mr Blair expects a similar reception to Mr Hartley’s previous contributions.

He added: “So far the feedback has been very positive. Tom is obviously a well-known figure in Belfast and his roots are very firmly in West Belfast, so perhaps there are certain elements that have particular resonance in the cultural history of West Belfast.

“But I think it provides interesting insight and an opportunity for others in society to get a sense of the developments Tom is experiencing, given his roots.”

Mr Blair said the exhibition contains artefacts which represent Northern Ireland’s historic and modern struggles.

He said: “There is a dustbin lid with a portrait of Che Guevara, which is a very interesting object. Obviously, trash can lids have additional significance in terms of the recent dispute. They would have been knocked to the ground as an early warning system if the army entered Nationalist areas.

“Another is a high visibility vest that relates to the City Hall Flag protests of a few years ago. It highlights that Tom’s collection is not limited to any particular narrative.

“We’re big on contemporary collecting, so part of the challenge is to collect the present and have that instinct to recognize things that are important. It’s an interesting challenge. We all have our own perspectives and it is a good conversation starter.

Leave a Comment