Carrickfergus and ‘The History of Ordinary People’

In this week’s blog, QUB student Lily West discusses the Public History MA’s recent class trip to Carrickfergus Museum to learn more about best practices and how to display history.

On 13 November, Queen’s Public History MA class travelled together to the Carrickfergus Museum and Civic Centre in County Antrim. Our aims were to speak to staff, learn more about the museum’s goals, look around the displays, and offer feedback. We spoke with the curator, Shirin Murphy, and she gave us a talk on the museum and what it hopes to accomplish in the future.

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Fig. 1: The outside of the museum. Source: https://discovernorthernireland.com/Carrickfergus-Museum-Carrickfergus-P9032/

After touring the museum for a little less than an hour, we went back to speak with her again, this time about our feedback and potential routes the museum could take in the future. As a learning exercise, this activity not only helped us learn what to look for in a public history site but also hear from an expert on how to balance long-term improvement goals with what is realistic.

‘Our labels are too small… we know’, curator Shirin Murphy joked, laughing, as soon as the topic of feedback was approached. She went on to explain that, while the museum wants to update its labelling system to make them easier to read, it’s more prudent to wait and do so in the future alongside major overhauls of the museum displays.

Other than the labelling, however, most of our feedback was directed towards things that could be added rather than changed. The museum offers an overview of the history of Carrickfergus, one of the most archaeologically explored places in Northern Ireland. It explores that history from medieval times to the modern period. There were various prehistory tools, many of them made of bone or otherwise damaged material. For items from earlier times that have no modern equivalent, or that we don’t automatically recognise as tools to perform a function, we said it might benefit to have audio-visual guides showing how they were used in the past.

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Fig. 2: One of the museum displays. Source: https://www.nimc.co.uk/find-a-museum/museum/profile/carrickfergus-museum/

The museum itself is incredibly well-organised, with a focus on the “experiences of ordinary people” in the town’s history.[1] The rooms have calming low lighting, avoiding the harsh fluorescent lighting that can make it hard to focus in other museums. The labels are brief but informative, giving relevant information without getting too wordy. There are various audio-visual displays and interactive opportunities, providing an easy way for visitors—especially children—to engage in the history.

One of the most valuable parts of our visit was undoubtedly the talk with Shirin Murphy. She spoke candidly and helpfully with us about the realities and logistics of building up a collection and deciding what goes on display. She also spoke about handling the difficulties of juggling public expectations and governmental standards with the museum’s own goals. At all times, things like budgets, accessibility, and inclusivity must be kept in mind.

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Fig. 3: One of the museum displays. Source: https://www.midandeastantrim.gov.uk/things-to-do/museums-arts/carrickfergus-museum-and-civic-centre/carrickfergus-museum/

Beyond the issues of navigating public history expectations, however, she also spoke at length about the massive potential for success. We discussed the various interactive opportunities in the museum, including the ongoing, popular “Minecraft at Carrickfergus” activity. This collaborative effort allows visitors, especially children, to recreate early modern Carrickfergus using the online game, getting them involved in the practice of historical models.

Overall, this class visit proved to be incredibly helpful in giving us hands-on experience from experts on how to navigate the complicated, ever-growing field of public history. From seeing successful technological and audio-visual techniques such as the current Minecraft project, to giving and receiving feedback on how sites like the museum can move into the future, we learned more about the realities of modern-day museums and how they remain accessible, engaging, and relevant.


Lily West is an MA in Public History student at Queen’s University Belfast with a particular interest in medieval and early modern Europe, and in particular women’s history


[1] “Carrickfergus Museum.” Accessed November 27, 2019. https://www.midandeastantrim.gov.uk/things-to-do/museums-arts/carrickfergus-museum-and-civic-centre.

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