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Heritage and Public History in Northern Ireland


An exciting conference, ‘New Approaches to Public History: research, practice, collaboration’ organised by Dr Olwen Purdue and colleague Dr Leonie Hannan at Queen’s University Belfast on 12-13 May, brought together heritage practitioners, owners of historic houses and academics to explore issues around the societal benefits, the opportunities and the challenges of managing built heritage and interpreting it for public audiences. Speakers included Sammy Leslie of Castle Leslie in Co. Monaghan who shared with us her vision for the family-owned house and estate which has been in the family for centuries, Ben Cowell (Historic Houses Association) and Heather Thompson (National Trust NI) who explored the economic potential of built heritage to a region, and Christopher Warleigh-Lack (Historic Royal Palaces) who shared fascinating insights into the knotty problems involved in interpreting the contested history of their latest property, Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland. The keynote address, delivered by Professor Ludmilla Jordanova (University of Durham), called for all historians to see themselves as ‘public historians’ and suggested new and creative ways in which to approach history and its audiences.

A new initiative,The Heritage Project was launched at the conference. This is a network of people interested in historic buildings and heritage across Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole, with a view to connecting with other such networks across the UK and internationally. Based at Queen’s University Belfast and including a wide range of members from heritage bodies, museums and privately-owned historic houses, the Heritage Project is a collaboration between scholars and practitioners that sees built heritage as both the subject of research and the means of promoting societal benefit. Northern Ireland as a region has a wealth of built heritage that has the potential to attract and engage large numbers of visitors, but often, through lack of resources, heritage sites are unable to realise this potential. The Heritage Project seeks to provide space for engagement, discussion, sharing of ideas and mutual support and to ally the wealth of evidence and professional expertise that exists across Northern Ireland and beyond in heritage sites, and particularly in country houses, with excellent academic research in order to unlock the incredible resource that exists in this region. Its aims are twofold:

  • To develop innovative, interdisciplinary and engaged research
  • To enhance public engagement with the region’s rich built heritage among local communities and international visitors thus promoting societal well-being and economic growth

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