Preserving heritage and understanding the past

28 Apr 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 8 Jul 2015

Paul Mullan, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Northern Ireland
Paul Mullan, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Northern Ireland

Scope meets Paul Mullan, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Northern Ireland. 

Paul Mullan used to be in advertising in London, selling Coca Cola. By the time he got into his 30s coke had lost its fizz for him and he came home to Northern Ireland to pursue his first love, of history and archaeology.

He was involved in setting up the Navan Centre in Armagh and fronted a BBC Radio Ulster series on heritage. From there he went on to set up the St Patrick’s Centre in Downpatrick before becoming operations director of the National Trust, from where he took on his current role with the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Heritage Lottery Fund supports a vast range of projects: from restoring buildings; to preserving the landscape, investing in museums and supporting story-telling projects.

“A lot of the challenge is around encouraging people who are doing interesting things to do things in an even more interesting way,” he says.

“It’s not just about giving money out it’s about getting people to look beyond themselves to the types of audience they want to build up and how they connect with their communities. And central to that is to show how museums and heritage can really benefit peoples’ lives.”

So why is investing in our heritage important?  

Mullan in unequivocal. “It’s about who we are as people. It’s a bit like saying why bother about part of our personality? It’s what makes us human. It’s the values that come from a better understanding of the past.

“Here we are in Northern Ireland, a place where people have looked at history in monolithic terms, single narratives which are unchanging. These single narratives are put up in competition with each other. But the more you look into and understand history the more you realise that it’s more complex than that.  History can often be about manipulation and misunderstanding seldom about the truth. So I believe that heritage leads to a better understanding of ourselves leading to a much better place

“Heritage brings people together and the point about history is that whenever you try to create historical apartheid you end up creating problems more often than not."

“Tony Blair said if we can only get rid of the past we can concentrate on the future. Nonsense. Isis today are trying to wipe out Assyrian temples because they don’t want any sense that there was something there before. Yet something there before makes us richer and more interesting people

“I believe that the role of HLF can help to reawaken more sophisticated understanding of the past.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund has funded many projects in Northern Ireland that help tell the story of the First World War, and during the current “decade of anniversaries” it is anticipated that many projects telling stories around the seismic events that culminated in the partition of Ireland will also receive grants. Mullan is pleased with that prospect.

“There are many different ways of approaching that - our experience is that the more people recognise the different narratives, the more settled they are.  It’s not about challenging peoples sense of nationalism or unionism but it does become easier for a nationalist to respect a unionist and vice versa. If you understand their position it is much better than simply disagreeing."

So does this approach extend to preserving buildings as well?

Yes, says Mullan.

“What’s point of investing in preserving a building unless people are interested in it? Every piece of built heritage has people attached to it.

“Ultimately uses of buildings change but we still need to celebrate the great heritage that was there. it is really important that whoever goes on to use that building understands what the building stood for."

Mullan’s office is in what used to be a linen warehouse and he loves the working environment.

“I enjoy the fact that there was so much industry in this building and that linen from here was exported all over the world. Heritage buildings are great spaces and it is so important that their stories are as much about the people and the communities they are linked to as the stones, or bricks and mortar.

“New buildings are not always as interesting. They don’t have the history and character imbued within them."

So what about “Troubles” architecture? Should the peace walls be preserved from a heritage perspective?

“We rely on people coming to us for support, we don’t go around saying you need to do that or this. We’re always making choices between projects – they have to score well in terms of heritage, community and people and it is down to those organisations to get that across.

Regarding peace walls and whether they should come down from a heritage perspective: from society’s perspective they should come down when appropriate, but holding on to a few parts so that that story could be told would be a good thing.”

“We hear this debate in South Armagh – some people are saying we should recreate one of the watchtowers, but they could have preserved one. It is the same as the peace walls if they come down because they are too painful for people to see up."

How are cuts impacting on the HLF’s work?

We still have the same amount of money we have had for the last number of years and are very much open to business but we are perceiving some challenges amongst some organisations being able to ask us for money. “

Mullan is referring to applications which require funding from other sources to be approved. He stressed that the HLF will be flexible in its approach to applications and may, on occasions be prepared to put in higher percentages in support than it has done in the past.

The message to potential applicants is that it is worth having a conversation about the leve of support from the HLF.

Many community groups are limited capacity to make applications and are really struggling. How are you flexible with them?

“We do go out and explain how to make applications. We encourage them. We don’t stand off; we proactively advise."

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