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Derry's heroes of the Atlantic

In the news as the site of protests and violence when John Major visited Northern Ireland in May, the Tower Museum in Derry is ironically an award-winning museum which has been highly praised for its conciliatory approach to the city's history.

To attempt to tell Derry's story might seem fraught with danger, as even its name, Derry or Londonderry is disputed. But when the Tower Museum opened its permanent exhibition in 1992, it was to widespread approbation.

Winding through a maze of tunnels and cellars built in the 17th century, there is nothing musty or stuffy about it. Alive with audio-visual presentations, illustrated with artefacts, life-sized models and detailed explanatory texts, it tells Derry's colourful and dramatic story from its geological formation to the present day.

In presenting the Tower Museum the award for the 1994 European Museum of the Year, the judges commended it "for the great courage of the local authority in attempting to use the museum as a bridge between political and religious factions in Northern Ireland, a function which it has fulfilled with conspicuous success".

The current Atlantic Memorial Exhibition that the Prime Minister eventually saw after being delayed by demonstrators, takes visitors up the Tower through a three-layer account of the city's involvement in World War II.

This could be seen to be appealing to Unionist rather than Nationalist sympathies, but "We're not pandering to anybody," Brian Lacey, museum services director for Derry City Council, explains. "We are commemorating an important part of our history, a moment when the Allies and the Germans became part of our local history.

Derry played a key role in the North Atlantic, becoming the largest convoy escort base in the United Kingdom and the main United States communications base in Europe. It was also the official point of surrender from German U-boats and photographs record the strange sight of them packed along the River Foyle's banks like sardines. Matching the standard and variety of its permanent exhibition, while making ample use of archive footage and photographs, the displays are full of surprises, whether small, like the eerily-singed scrap of parachute silk, or large, like the one-and-a-half tons of torpedo which, the joke goes, was easier to get into the museum than John Major. The exhibition reveals how, one way or another, the war involved the whole community. The economic depression of the 1930s had hung heavily over Derry and the war created 2,000 local jobs. The city boomed with 20,000 sailors and servicemen passing through and the pubs, dances and cinemas were flooded. US servicemen, with the advantage of a common language, integrated particularly well with all sectors of the community, finding many a GI bride. Startlingly, Derry was also responsible for most of the 30 million shirts Northern Ireland produced during the war. With peace, the city slumped again.

"The museum opened before the ceasefire," Lacey continued. "Now the peace process is underway, people need metaphors for it. We hope the Atlantic Memorial Exhibition offers one. It finishes with European Union President Jacques Santer's words: 'The only war that exists in this Union is the war of words'.

"The Tower Museum forms an integral part of the political discourse here. After all, the great irony of John Major's visits was that Sinn Fein's Mitchell McLoughlin was waiting inside the museum to greet him. What an interesting moment that would have been."

The Atlantic Memorial Exhibition runs until October, though it may find a permanent home in Derry's original workhouse in the Waterside area where currently, as one resident put it, "There is nothing." It will be another ground-breaking development for a museum that offers many interesting moments.

Tania Rice The Tower Museum, Union Hall Place, Derry. Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 2-5pm. Story of Derry: adults Pounds 2.50; children and concessions Pounds 1; senior citizens free; family pass Pounds 5. Groupschool rates (10 or more): adults Pounds 1.50; children 50p. Atlantic Memorial Exhibition: Pounds 1. For further information call: 01504 372411.

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