Prisons Memory Archive: researching and identifying appropriate software for a digital interactive archive.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Ulster
Department Name: Faculty of Arts


The Prisons Memory Archive (PMA) is a digital interactive audio visual archive of the stories of those who experienced the political prisons during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The prisons played an iconic role during this period, influencing and in turn influenced by outside politics and society. The central role played by the prisons during the violence and in the peace process alllows their story to operate as a micro-story of the Troubles. However, the story of the everyday regimes has never been comprehensively told. As a result of the Belfast Agreement of 1998, political prisoners were released. The audio visual recordings were made at the site of the now disused prisons during 2007 and 2008.

There are three main aspects to the research. The first issue is one of inclusivity, with the PMA recording as full a range as possible of participants. One of the aims of the project is to make available these memories in a public archive, so that we are encouraged to listen to 'other' stories in a post-conflict society, where whose story is told and listened to continues to be an area of contestation (Consultative Group on the Past Report, 2010: 76). Our aim is best summarised by Jackson as 'a way of doing justice to the multiple and ambiguious character of human reality by regarding others not as inhuman but as ouselves in other circumstances'. (Jackson 2006: 250)

A second aspect is collaborative story-telling and listening, where we underpin our commitment by agreeing co-ownership of the material with participants. This allows them to be authors of their own stories, an important part of any healing process for someone who has undergone a traumatic experience. Dawson argues for 'the importance of story-telling as a means of mastering , or coming to terms with, these intractable psychic realities' (Dawson 2009: 126), while Jackson notes, 'in telling one's story with others one reclaims some sense of agency' (Jackson 2006: 36). The interactivity of the archive will allow for editorial control to be shared with the audience. Michael Frisch argues, 'With accessible, meaningful, fluid, and non-priviledge access to the content of oral history, the authority of the mediating intelligence or documentary authorship is desplaced by a shareable, dialogic capacity to explain, select, order, and interpret.' (Frisch 2006: 113)

A third aspect relies on the materiality of the site to stimulate memory telling. While we engage in conversation with participants, it is primarily to seek clarification on something that they are already addressing. There is no list of set questions; instead we have taken the life-story approach of oral history which for Leydesdorff et al, 'allows room for contradiction, a holistic richness, and complexity. It gives the opportunity to explore the relations between personal and collective experience, by focussing on remembering and forgetting as cultural processes' (Leydesdorff et al. 2004:12). The creation of an open-ended interviewing technique, along with sharing the direction of the narrative, allows participants to engage more fully with their material surroundings.

The PMA archive will be hosted at national museums in Belfast, London, Dublin and Boston, with selected material available online at the PMA website The model of interactive multi-narrative documentary, and its use in post-conflict situations, has already been developed by the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California and at the Rwanda Heritage Centre, Kigali.

Consultative Group on the Past Report, (2010).
Dawson, G (2005 ), 'Making Peace with the Past'. Manchester University Press.
Frisch, M (2006), 'Oral History and the Digital Revolution' in Perks, R and Thompson, A, 'The Oral History Reader'. Routledge.
Jackson, M (2006), 'The Politics of Storytelling', MuseumTusculanum.
Leydesdorff et al. "Trauma: Life Stories of Survivors'. Transaction.

Planned Impact

The ability of society to witness contested stories on the same screen will be a major test of its ability to successfully emerge out of violence. Michael Jackson argues, 'in telling their story with others one reclaims some sense of agency, recovers some sense of purpose, and comes to feel that the evetns that overwhelmeded one from without may be brought within one's grasp'. (Jackson 2006: 36)

The category of society most to benefit is the the victims and surivors sector in the UK and Ireland; in its widest sense this includes those who have been affected by the violence of the Troubles, both at the individual and the community level. The opportunity to have a story told and heard for the first time has proven cathartic for both tellers and audiences (letters of thanks after recordings, at public discussions and on written evaluation forms - see CV 'Unheard Voices'). The vicitms and survivors sector in NI has over 35 groups; there are three Victims Commissioners with statutory duties, and a Victims Office in the devolved NI Assembly. The UU's Centre for Media Research is hosting a 'Storytelling' symposium on Feb 25th in Belfast in order to share best practice within this sector,with Victims Commissioner Brendan McAllister providing the keynote speech.

While discussions continue over the role of a Truth Commission in NI, policy-makers have shown a keen interest in story-telling as one way of addressing our violent past. The Consultative Group on the Past Report observes, 'archives of stories from all sides could provide a resource, accessible to the general public, from which all might learn to acdknowledge the perspectives of the other side.' (Consultative Group on the Past: 76) NI Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, warns that 'the value would be highly dependent on the extent to which individuals would be prepared to tell their story.' The PMA will address some of the issues identified by policy makers, with its inclusive interactive digital approach allowing narratives allowing 'the other' to be acknowledged.

The Community Foundation for NI has a record in supporting ex-prisoner self-help organisations, and the PMA can be utilised as an example of how those with competing narratives can share the same space. This aspect of community development, where voices that have been previously hidden or isolated, are validated and encourage similar iniatives in story-telling.

The museum and education sector will benefit from the design and audience possiblities that the PMA offers for permanent exhibition and online contribution to curriculum development. Key Stage 4 on Citizenship has been identified as the most appropriate area for intervention; 'Unheard Voices', produced by the CMR, is currently being adapted for this purpose by the WAVE Trauma Centre. Museums that have indicated and interest in hosting the archive include Imperial War Museum, the National Library, Dublin, and the Northern Ireland Museum Council, a network of 35 museums in NI. The long term benefit of the PMA will become more apparent as a generation who were born after the Troubles seek out understandings of its legacy, with first person testimony invaluable to those narratives.

The Conflict Transformation Centre, on the site of the old Maze and Long Kesh Prison, is currently under development by the First and Deputy First Minister, and I sit on its Arts Reference Group. When complete, the PMA will be hosted at this Centre and will benefit from the expected large tourist visitor numbers anticipated.

I intend to add to my film-making skills by developing software management skills; an overall understanding of the best software and hardware that will enhance the telling and viewing of stories from a violent past.

'Historians May Be Best at Dealing with the Troubles', Belfast Telegraph, 17.11.10
Consultative Group on the Past Report, (2010)\


10 25 50
Description The technical and aesthetic requirements of audiovisual online resources are advancing quickly and require substantial funding to realise successfully.
Exploitation Route The research was carried out several years ago and much has been achieved in the intervening years by others, e.g.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The findings enabled us to imagine a different approach to creating an online site for storytelling from a conflicted past in a contested present. The PMA is one of many bottom-up projects that have filled the gap left by NI government failures to address the legacy of the past, despite three official reports recommending oral history as one such method - Bloomfield (1998), Eames-Bradely (2009) and Hass-O'Sullivan (2014). We have subsequently run many workshops and talks based on the PMA in single and mixed community settings - see for further details - and received positive feedback. The award winner was invited in 2014 to address the Party leaders at Stormont on the role of oral history in peace building.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Media Fund
Amount £9,250 (GBP)
Organisation Northern Ireland Community Relations Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2014 
End 06/2014
Description Visual Voices: Prisons Memory Archive
Amount £500,500 (GBP)
Funding ID HG-14-08259 
Organisation Queen's University Belfast 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2016 
End 12/2019