Within the Botanic Gardens is the Ulster Museum which reopened in 2009 after a long redevelopment programme. Retaining its original eighty-year old shell, the Museum now incorporates a bold modernist design and sheds light both literally and figuratively on subjects from the North’s troubled history to Ireland’s geological past. The grand open-plan ground floor, which also features a much-improved café, introduces some of the museum’s themes via its “Window on the World” displays which include everything from an impressive dinosaur skeleton to an Alexander McQueen dress. From here it’s best to head up to the third floor to explore the art exhibits. The undoubted highlights here are the modern art collection (featuring Francis Bacon’s macabre Head II, Bridget Riley’s unnerving Cataract IV and Stanley Spencer’s parochial The Betrayal), and the stunning landscapes and rural scenes by painters such as Belfast’s Sir John Lavery, plus Turner’s highly symbolic Dawn of Christianity.
The second floor features the “Nature Zone”, depicting the Earth’s origins and Ireland’s development up to the Ice Age. Far more engrossing are the first floor’s history galleries which begin with Neolithic remains and Bronze Age finds (including a remarkable three-foot wide decorated shield), before taking a detailed look at the medieval period – two exhibits to look out for here are the somewhat skew-whiff stone inauguration chair of the O’Neills of Clandeboye and the silver gilt arm-reliquary supposedly created to house St Patrick’s hand. The Armada gallery includes plenty of relics from the ill-fated Girona which sank off the Antrim coast in 1588, while the Ascendancy section includes a remarkable rag-bound tally-stick, used to record the number of prayers said during the then illegal outdoor Catholic service, as well as highlighting the effects of the Great Famine.
From here the exhibits quicken up a pace, especially when focusing upon the War of Independence and the North’s resistance to Dublin rule, before looking at Belfast during World War II and concluding with a disappointingly bland space devoted to The Troubles.