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Ulster Museum

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The Museum's Impressive Exterior

Almost hidden amongst the trees of Belfast’s Botanical gardens; the Ulster Museum has held artefacts of historical importance for almost 200 years. A large number of topics and exhibits are covered by the museum including ancient, Northern Irish and Irish history (from prehistoric Ireland to more recent times), natural history and artwork. These areas feature a variety of relics from dinosaur bones to an Egyptian mummy and everything in-between.

Upon entry into the museum’s huge foyer, you’ll be amazed at the size of the museum itself as the outside can be a bit deceptive. In this area you’ll find the museum’s information desk, coat room, maps and guides, as well as the lifts and main stairways.  Here’s you’ll also find the first of many ancient wonders that you’re set to encounter. A medieval cannon, intricate brass oriental bells and the skeleton of an Edmontosaurus, a dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period and fodder of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, just to name a few. The Edmontosaurus skeleton alone is worth the trip down, though it is not the only dinosaur here, but it is only the beginning of what there is in store.

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Another of the Mummies in the Takabuti Exhibition

The first floor is devoted almost entirely to human history. You can discover these rich exhibitions by beginning at the beginning with the dawn of man in Ireland or travel backwards through time by starting with Northern Ireland’s darker recent history; the choice is yours. Starting at the beginning, you’ll get a taste of what life was like living in prehistoric Ireland with artefacts from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. The history exhibits continue onwards through the Irish Isles’ medieval history, the arrival of Christianity, the later Viking invasions and the Elizabethan through to the Victorian eras. The final exhibition displays the difficulties of life during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This section is home to some very striking images and harrowing tales from those who experienced some of the worst of it.

Straying from Irish history, another exhibition holds the mummified remains of Takabuti; an Egyptian mistress of a great house, laid to rest in her intricately painted coffin almost three thousand years ago. There is also a collection of objects salvaged from the ships of the Spanish armada when many of them wrecked upon the western coast of Ireland in 1588. The majority of these artefacts, which include gold jewellery and cannons, were recovered from the La Girona which wrecked off the Antrim coast leaving only 9 survivors of the 1,300 people on board; the single greatest loss of life to occur from the wrecking of the armada. Here you’ll find fine pieces of golden jewellery and cannons once used in an attempted invasion of Britain.

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A Flock of Different Birds in the Nature Exhibition

The museum is also known for its natural history exhibitions as well; the Nature section covers the origins of earth and the development of Ireland leading up to the ice age. As well as the Edmontosaurus skeleton in the main foyer; there is also a Triceratops skeleton a couple of floors above it. In this area, you’ll find a plethora of animals, volcanic rocks, crystals, meteorites and fossils from throughout history; from fossils 500 million years old to the fearsome Peter the Polar Bear; who arrived at the museum in the 70s. Irish Wolfhounds, wolves, owls, birds of prey, a giant woolly mammoth tusk  and a real dinosaur egg; these are just a few of the items included in the exhibit. As for stonier natural exhibits; there are a number of meteorite fragments from all over the world, Ammonite fossils from the Jurassic period and igneous stones similar to those that form the Giant’s Causeway. This, of course, doesn’t even scratch the surface of the nature exhibits. Like the historical artefacts; you could spend hours exploring here and still be surprised.

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The Fearsome-looking Triceratops

The museum’s top level is almost entirely reserved for a large collection of works of art. These range from traditional British, Irish and Italian paintings, modern works, ceramics, contemporary glasswork, woodwork, metalwork and textiles. Within this comprehensive collection are some works of particular note; Shepherds and Flocks by Jan Baptist Weenix, St. Christopher carry the Christ child by Jacob Jordaens (a well-known 1600s graduate of the Antwerp school of painting), A View of the Palace of the Dukes of Brabant by Jan van der Heyden and other works from Frank O’Meara, William Ashford, Thomas Bate and James Arthur O’Connor. Each of the pieces from the display are exquisite and range from rolling landscapes to majestic portraits.  

The Ulster Museum is a fantastic visit. There’s so much to see here that you could easily spend all day here and then cap it all off with a stroll through the Botanic Gardens just outside. Admission to the museum is free(though a donation is recommended) which is also phenomenal for the number of rare and wonderful exhibits. Throughout the museum there are also interactive zones where the kids can become immersed into the worlds of history, nature and art. There’s also a restaurant and café for a midday refuelling. On top of all this, there are guided tours available to help you gain some extra insight into some of the museum’s various exhibitions. All in all, if you’re in Belfast or nearby, the Ulster Museum is a must. 

Words and Images by John Temke

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