Ulster American Folk Park Visit
written by Jasmine Green, University of South Florida
Today we visited the Ulster American Folk Park at the Centre for Migration Studies, which features both indoor and outdoor exhibits depicting what life was like for Irish immigrants as they made their way from the home island to the new world in America. The museum explored stories of people from several different religions and social classes, but specifically focused on the story of Thomas Mellon, who was a particularly successful Irish-American immigrant who went on to become a judge and a businessman. Overall, the exhibits themselves were very thought provoking, prompting us to consider complex concepts such as the strength of nationalism, the possibility of finding yourself at home in two different places (diaspora), and the roles that different groups played in making Irish immigrants feel either welcomed or displaced in America. The park gave us the opportunity to interact with staff members who were acting out the various roles within the scenery, making the experience truly interactive. We were able to learn about the way people dressed, what they ate, how they spoke, what motivated them to move or change their lifestyles, some of the struggles they faced both at home and abroad, and we even got to hear a few real-life examples of cases that have been studied at the center. The indoor exhibit also included a section about the Titanic and the hundred or so Irish migrants who are known to have survived the disaster and made it successfully to America. This was a particularly interesting exhibit to me because it seems such an unfair tragedy to have experienced such a traumatic event on top of already coping with the loss and confusion of leaving your beloved homeland.
After exploring the museum, we were given the opportunity to talk over our reactions and questions as a group. A few main points of discussion include whether or not all Irish immigrants wanted to be assimilated into American culture, how open Americans were to this possibility, how Irish family members back home felt about the people who had gone abroad, and what life was like for the immigrants who were eventually able to return home to Ireland. In my opinion, however, the most intriguing topic of discussion was how the same story can be told from the perspectives of several different cultures and hold such stark variations between each of them. More specifically, we discussed how museums in the United States (particularly New York) portray a very bleak outcome for Irish migrants, while the museum in Ulster chooses to concentrate on the rather exceptional story of the Mellons. Also, as another group member pointed out, both museums tend to ultimately write out the role of Native Americans in their stories, and even when they are mentioned, it’s in a very dim and often violent light. Although none of these versions are entirely inaccurate, they are each incomplete in their portrayal of what history shows us actually happened during these years, and they also tend to favor the actions taken by the narrating side. Today’s lesson taught me that humanity has the tendency to selectively focus on the aspects of our histories that support our current situations, and yet great value can be found in overcoming this inclination