This week I joined my university class on a field trip to Enniskillen castle to visit Fermanagh County Museum and the Inniskillings Museum. We were there not just to have a look round the museums, but also to get a sneaky peek into future plans and find out more about telling the story of Fermanagh with the help of the local community. I’m a big fan of local museums, they have a cosy feel about them and their collections are more appealing because you have knowledge of where the objects came from, there’s an innate sense of connection and belonging.
Firstly we took a tour round the museums with the education officer, Catherine, who showed us her favourite parts of the collection. There was a large map of Enniskillen in relief, showing how it looked in the eighteenth century, when local people still lived on the island. It showed clearly the workers’ houses with thatched roofs and the military barracks, now the police station. The map shows how unusual Enniskillen was because there was a Catholic church built on the main street before the time of Catholic emancipation, and it was right opposite the Anglican church.
One of the rooms housed a William Scott exhibition, as he lived in Fermanagh, and Catherine told us about the recent exhibition of children’s artwork, with 80 children being able to go a trip to the Ulster Museum to see the William Scott exhibition there. The Belleek pottery display was really interesting, there was a wide range of products, including some of the original copper presses used to add detailing into the ceramics. I particularly liked the Gladstone chamberpot, which had a picture of Gladstone on the inside, for the landlords who were against his land reforms, and giving of rights to tenants.
In the centre of the castle buildings the original keep from Maguire times has been restored so you can appreciate the thickness of the stone walls, and where the spiral staircase used to be. Upstairs in the keep is the Inniskillings museum, with a great collection of medals and memorabilia from all the places the soldiers have served. My favourite pieces were a collection of postcards from the First World War, that were embroidered by soldiers at the front and sent home.
Next up we had a talk from the Museum Manager Sarah who told us about the process of securing funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the refurbishment of the site to make it a more coherent experience for visitors and to repurpose some unused buildings to be able to develop the museums further. She told us about the ‘History of Fermanagh in 100 objects’, which sounds like a great project and a chance for the local community to get involved with the museum and it’s collections. The challenge in this project is that the museum wants local people to help in choosing the final 10 objects to make up the selection and tell the story of Fermanagh. It must be so difficult to narrow down the choice to just 100! Local historian Marion Maxwell explained the difficulties she’d had to overcome in finding out the story behind cardboard packaging for Derrygonnelly butter, which was a fascinating story involving company invoices, BT archives and lots of thinking outside the box. This is where the local community are a great resource, as someone will invariably know more information or have a story relating to an object. I think this project will be a lovely way to engage the local community by ‘crowdsourcing’, maybe along the lines of the 10 Most Wanted used by the Museum of Design in Plastics, with specific information being requested about objects. Or people could be asked to submit their stories about the proposed objects, with the best ones making it into the exhibition. To make the project more inclusive museum staff could visit local schools, community groups and church congregations to explain the project with some of the objects to raise awareness of the museum.
We were asked to deliver a package to Queen’s University after our visit, can you guess what’s in the envelope the lovely Kylie is handing over to the radiocarbon lab?
It’s a sample of bog butter found locally to Fermanagh County Museum. People used to bury butter in the bog to keep it from going rancid in the days before refrigerators were available, and the museum have a large ball of bog butter in the collection that they are getting carbon dated to find out exactly how old it is. So in this inconspicuous padded envelope is the sample, I did feel a bit like we were on a very important James Bond style mission to deliver it safely. I’m excited for the great unveiling of the results, and hopefully I’ll get to see the inside of the top-secret lab too!