A myriad of multi-media museums and exhibits are engaging, educating, and entertaining students across Northern Ireland.

Learning in Northern Ireland has been a hot-potato issue for generations; the 1923 Education Act, granting free primary and secondary level institutional learning for all, was embraced by some communities and rejected by others. In 1947, the Act was revised to include university level schooling. By 2000, the Act had been semi-repealed, with small annual tuitions imposed. Since that time, schooling costs, both in ‘State’ (Protestant) and ‘Maintained’ (Catholic) schools have soared.

“It is one of our foremost challenges,” explains Derry-Londonderry Deputy Mayor John Boyle, a long-time area resident and councillor. “Not only do we need to invest in attracting students to our schools, but we need to find new ways and means to keep them here once they have graduated.”

A former schoolteacher, Boyle believes that education is the key to the region’s future growth.

“The love of learning, and of ideas, will ensure a peaceful and prosperous tomorrow for our young people. Ideas inspire communication which, in turn, creates connections. As we have seen, the worst thing we can possibly do as a community is to stop talking with one another.”

And while enrolment at all levels has been steady over the past two decades, other public institutions have taken a lead in learning.

The Siege Museum and Exhibition in downtown Derry-Londonderry hosts a permanent display of the history of the Siege of Londonderry (1689) and of the Associated Clubs of the Apprentice Boys of Derry. Included in the museum are artifacts, video, audio, and other interactive forms of media. Visitors can also experience one of the finest collections of meeting rooms used by the Loyal Orders; the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the Orange Order, the Women’s Orange, and The Royal Black Institution.

“We just love seeing young people walk through these doors,” shares manager Billy Moore. “And they love seeing the period costumes, the replica ships, cannons and swords – it makes it all very real for them. This isn’t a boring old history book or lesson – it is our heritage, here and now, brought to life through an engaging experience.”

Moore adds that museum staff are also involved in many outreach and community initiatives, including sharing information, resources, and best practices with other local institutions.

“It helps to generate greater dialogue and understanding between our communities.”

One of those likeminded facilities is the newly-expanded Free Derry Museum, located outside Butcher Gate – one of four arched entryways along the city centre’s 17th century Derry Walls – just a few blocks down the hill from the Siege Museum.

Located at ground-zero of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre in the Bogside district, the one-floor exhibit honours those who perished or were wounded during a peaceful civil rights demonstration on January 30, 1972.

“It is said that if we are unwilling to learn from our history, then we are doomed to repeat it,” states site director John Kelly, whose brother Michael was among the 13 murdered by British paramilitary that day. “That is one of the core messages we teach visiting school children, whether they are from here or away.

“The wee young ones are certainly the most inquisitive,” he continues. “They aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions, some of which might seem quite obvious, but – for whatever reason – rarely seem to be asked by adults.”

Kelly says that older students marvel at the centre’s multi-media displays.

“Along with authentic articles – such as handwritten notes, imagery, art, posters, banners, clothing, and even weaponry – the audio and visual elements give the kids a modern, present perspective on the past. We also offer an in-house app for their mobile devices, and many of them enjoy greater engagement with the exhibit via that method.”

Similarly, in Bellaghy – less than an hour’s drive southeast of Derry-Londonderry – the Seamus Heaney HomePlace uses a myriad of mediums to edify audiences of all ages about the life and work of the region’s finest scribe.

“I like to think that Seamus himself would have approved of what we are doing here,” smiles manager Brian McCormick, who also happens to be Heaney’s nephew. “Like the man himself, and his writing, HomePlace is deceptively simple and modest.”

Sure enough, behind the bright and spacious two-floor veneer are a maze of playful and interactive displays that include touch screens, video reels, audio recordings, photographs, block and sliding puzzles, jigsaws, hats and helmets, objects to see and touch, and a special creative zone where visitors can dress up, write, draw, colour, craft, or simply sit down and read.

“We work with many schools across the region,” notes McCormick, “and the students are always engaged, educated and entertained. The hope is that most of them will leave here with a greater appreciation of Seamus, his poetry and prose, and the arts in general.

“Perhaps the most important thing, however, is to get our young people thinking and talking together, and thus inspire a life-long love of learning.”

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