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The Troubles and Beyond. The Impact of a Museum Exhibit on a Post-Conflict Society

Eggers Hall, 341

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The Moynihan Institute, and the program for Comparative Politics / International Relations is pleased to host Laia Balcells, Provost's Distinguished Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University. Her co-author Elsa Voytas, assistant professor of political science at IE University's School of Global and Public Affairs in Madrid, Spain; and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College, will unfortunately not be in attendance.

Can museums influence the way visitors think about past violence and modern-day politics? Although the impacts of symbolic transitional justice (TJ) policies such as museums have largely been overlooked, we hypothesize that they can shape perceptions of groups involved in violence; and preferences toward public policies to address the past. In cases where museums recount multi-sided violence, reconstructing the conflict can be a difficult and complex undertaking—if museums are a reminder of past discord or are perceived as biased, they might reinforce prior beliefs and heighten societal divisions. In May 2022, we conducted a field experiment at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where sectarian violence during the Troubles (1968-1998) periodically erupted between largely Catholic republicans and predominantly Protestant unionists. We randomly assigned a sample of university students to visit one of two exhibits in the same museum: a treatment exhibit (Troubles and Beyond, recounting the Troubles-era violence) or a placebo exhibit (Elements, a natural science exhibit about the periodic elements). We measure visitors’ attitudinal shifts and gauge persistence of the effects for the following six months through follow-up surveys. We complement the results from the field experiment with a survey experiment embedded in a regionally-representative survey in Northern Ireland. Our results suggest that while symbolic TJ policies have little effect on attitudes in post-civil war settings, they might polarize some social groups along the master cleavage of the conflict.

Laia Balcells is a Provost's Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. She was an assistant professor of political science at Duke University (2012-2017), and a Niehaus Visiting Associate Research Scholar at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (2015-16). Her research and teaching are at the intersection of comparative politics and international relations. She focuses on issues of security, peace and conflict, with a special interest in civil wars, terrorism, nationalism and ethnic conflict, and transitional justice after conflict. Her first book, "Rivalry and Revenge: the Politics of Violence during Civil War," was published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics).


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