Belfast's Best Permanent Museum Exhibitions
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From the timeless story of one of the world's most famous ships, to tales of how modern Ireland came to be, Belfast is easily one of the most fascinating cities on the Emerald Isle. Taking this into consideration we decided to hone in on a few specific institutions and find out exactly what it is that make them so great. Question in hand we took to Twitter, and after speaking to a couple of helpful travel and tourism figures managed to compile this list of the best permanent exhibitions in Belfast. So next time you visit the Northern Irish capital you'll have a head start on what to see and do in order to fully experience the city's vibrant cultural and political history.
1) The Ulster Museum (Botanic Gardens, BT9 5AB):
The range of permanent displays on offer at the Ulster Museum is likely the most eclectic in Northern Ireland. As the main branch of the country's National Museums organisation it centres around the fields of art, local history, archaeology, ethnography, zoology and much more. In their new Modern History gallery you can view thousands of artefacts relating to the evolution of Ulster from 1500-1968, not only in terms of the oft explored wars and conflicts, but artistic, technological and social as well. Another area in which the Ulster Museum is particularly renowned is geology. Two exhibitions seeking to imbue visitors with a better perspective on earth's geological history are 'Earth's Treasures' and 'Deep Time Episodes'. The former is a showcase of some of the planet's rarest minerals in their rarest configurations, while the latter delves into the physical formation of Ireland by examining its oldest fossil and rock finds. Be sure to also enjoy one of the Ulster Museum's Paleozoology exhibits. 'Fossils and Evolution' explains the complex causes and processes of evolution with its extensive collection of fossils and skeletons. It's quite possibly the only place in the world where the fish are larger than the elephants- and we're not just talking sharks!
2) Titanic Belfast (1 Olympic Way, BT3 9EP):
Now if you haven't heard of the RMS Titanic, where have you been living your entire life! If what you know comes courtesy of Jim Cameron then you'll at least know the famous White Star Liner sank near the coast of Newfoundland in 1912. But there's so much more to the legend- and that's where the Titanic Belfast centre comes in. Its 'Titanic Experience' encompasses the full history of the doomed cruise ship as well as the people, places and stories surrounding it. With the help of stunning reconstructions, special effects, countless artefacts and interactive displays you'll embark on a journey that takes you from the of height of Belfast's maritime prowess to the wreak of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic. In between you'll ride though the 1910s Harland and Wolff dockyards, experience what life was like onboard and explore the many myths and stories that arose in the wake of the sinking.
3) The Bobbin Coffee Shop (Donegall Square, BT1 5GS):
Though we'd heard of the previous two, this one pointed out to us by Jessica at Visit Belfast was a first. The Bobbin Coffee Shop is located on the ground floor of City Hall and features two of its own exhibitions: the 'Waking the Giant' exhibition and the 'No Mean City' photo exhibition. Note that City Hall also runs guided tours of the building Monday to Friday at 11am, 2pm and 3pm and on a Saturday at 2pm and 3pm.
4) The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (153 Bangor Road, Holywood BT18 0EU):
Though it's located a few miles east of the city centre this museum is a must if you want to experience Belfast as it existed around the turn of the 20th century. The 'Ulster Folk' portion is an open-air reconstruction of a typical rural Irish town from around about the 1900s. You'll learn about the daily routines of life, get access to extensive media archives and even be able to take part in cooking, sowing and handicraft activities. Conversely, the Transport Museum is were you'll encounter the largest railway gallery in Ireland, relics from the early days of Formula 1, and an original De Lorean DMC-12, the kind made famous by the Back to the Future movie trilogy.
5) Oh Yeah Music Centre (15-21 Gordon Street, BT1 2LG):
Right at heart of Belfast's cultural district, inside a former whiskey warehouse, is the often overlooked 'Oh Yeah' Music Centre. Founded by leading figures in the Northern Irish music industry and band members from Snow Patrol, this organisation's main aim is to make music production accessible to even the most disadvantaged local young people. It also functions as a venue for various annual festivals and hosts its own permanent exhibition. The 'NI Music Exhibition' is an audio-visual experience broken into four stages, each of which chronicle the development of Northern Irish Music from traditional folk to 20th century groups such as Them and The Undertones.
6) Crumlin Road Gaol (53-55 Crumlin Road, BT14 6ST):
While not strictly an exhibition it is a very prominent and popular Belfast visitor experience. By booking one of Crumlin Road Gaol's daily guided tours you can travel right to the core of some of the darkest events in Northern Ireland's recent history. It's one thing to hear about important figures from the country's political and criminal history, very much another to stand on the spots where they languished, and in some cases, were executed. During the tour you'll visit areas such as the Holding Cells, the Governors Office, C-Wing and the Hanging Cell.
7) The Belfast Barge (1 Lanyon Quay, BT1 3LG):
With the prominence of Titanic Belfast it's sometimes easy to overlook this other historical gem. The Belfast Barge is a museum vessel docked at Lanyon Quay which is dedicated to the preservation of the city's maritime industrial heritage. As modern Belfast reinvents and develops itself here is a place that acts as both a safe haven and fitting display space for the artefacts and articles of yesteryear. See historical photographs and fascinating descriptions of the Harland and Wolff shipyards, view the original schematics for the ‘SS Canberra’, and indulge in a wealth of audio/visual archives which bring to life the experiences of the men and women who worked in the shipbuilding industry.
8) SS Nomadic (Hamilton Dock, Queens Road, BT3 9DT):
There's plenty to do on this historical White Star Liner, form paranormal tours to weddings, but what makes it stand out for the purpose of this article is its 'Nomadic Experience'. This exhibition focuses on the ship's illustrious career and the lives of its crew. It's also an intriguing reflection on the fleeting phenomenon that was the golden age of Transatlantic travel. What makes the overall experience so uniquely immersive is that the Nomadic herself is an original from the same family as the RMS Olympic and Titanic. It even ferried some of the Titanic's most famous survivors to Southampton, from where they would set out on the doomed maiden voyage.
Everything throughout the ship's interior is authentic and excellently restored, allowing you to get as close as possible to being an international traveller in the 1910s without somehow venturing back in time. See the dramatic contrasts between the first-class quarters and crew quarters, then explore the nuts, rivets and machines that make everything function. In addition to traditional displays the SS Nomadic is also filled with fun interactive activities, such as dress-ups for the kids and puzzle games.
9) Northern Ireland War Memorial (21 Talbot Street, BT1 2LD):
It may be called a memorial, which it is, but it's also a museum recounting life in Belfast during World War II. The experience is divided into four permanent exhibitions: The Blitz, Ulster Home Guard, Women of Ulster and the American Presence. Together they provide invaluable, often intimate, insights into the people and their daily struggle to support the war effort and weather frequent attacks by the Luftwaffe. Head over to the War Memorial website to learn more about each of the museum's aspects.
10) The Irish Republican History Museum (5 Conway Place, BT13 2DA):
The complexities of Northern Ireland's infamous period of political turbulence are thoroughly recounted at this museum in West Belfast's Conway Mill. Founded and run by individuals with a passion for the preservation and display of artefacts relating to Irish Republicanism, it seeks to educate visitors and provide clarity to a murky and often misunderstood subject. Not only are the Troubles examined, but the events of the preceding centuries are also put into perspective, with some of the exhibits looking as far back as the United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798. Most of the items in the museum's collection were donated by hundreds of individuals and families, lending an important personal aspect to the intended message. A few of these artefacts include a jacket worn by Mairéad Farrell, a cell door from Armagh women's prison, and numerous posters and paintings depicting the social conflict.
11) The Linen Hall Library (17 Donegall Square North, BT1 5GB):
Though there's no specific exhibition we've included this institution because of its relevance to Northern Irish literary culture. Founded in 1788 it has amassed thousands of items relating to the country's culture, history and politics. For example, it houses a 250,000-strong archive relating the Troubles, as well as the entire Northern Ireland Theatre and Performing Arts Archive.
12) Royal Ulster Rifles Museum (5 Waring Street, BT1 2EW):
The final institution on this list is one where you can delve into the history of Northern Ireland's most prolific infantry regiment. Learn about their founding in 1793 as part of a wider military expansion to meet armed threats by the First French Republic, then move onto their many subsequent engagements. You'll see artefacts from the Peninsular War, deployments in Egypt, India and the Second Boer War, and 20th century operations such as those in Mandatory Palestine, D-Day and Korea.