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The reopening of the Ulster Museum in October 2009, after a 3 year refurbishment project, marked its first major redevelopment in nearly 40 years. Funding totalling almost £18m was provided by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Heritage Lottery Fund and a number of private benefactors.  The project included a complete renewal of the Art, History and Natural Sciences galleries and provided an opportunity to redisplay and reinterpret objects from these collections.

This initiative, described as one of the most important cultural projects in Northern Ireland, has resulted in a dramatic but sensitive transformation of both the interior and exterior of the building.


The visitor experience begins outside the museum in the picturesque setting of Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. The project architects have redefined the museum’s relationship with the gardens by removing a barrier of dense planting such that, from the newly created entrance to the building, visitors can now view many of the wonderful aspects of the gardens.

On entering the building, visitors begin their journey through an impressive light-filled atrium, some 23 metres high, which leads to the Art, History and Natural Sciences ‘zones’. The previously cluttered, oppressive, dark spaces, created in the early 1970s suffered from a lack of daylight. This has now been addressed in dramatic fashion, with daylight streaming into the building to give a sense of openness and vibrancy. Polished steel and glass walkways now connect the galleries providing enticing views and opening up the building to an unprecedented extent.

These galleries, designed by Haley Sharpe Design of Leicester, working closely with ClickNetherfield, provide seamless displays through the five levels of the museum.  Almost 200 new showcases have been designed with careful attention to detail regarding their object content, the display and preservation needs of the objects and the aesthetics of display. The detailing and finish of all cases in the entire museum are to the same exacting standard. As well as cases used for general displays, considerable effort has been directed towards constructing bespoke cases for particular collections’ highlights. For example, one of the museum’s most famous exhibits, Takabuti, an Egyptian mummy, rests in a case almost 2.5 metres square allowing visitors to view her closely from every aspect and marvel at her preservation. Similarly, visitors to the George and Angela Moore Gallery of Applied Art which houses the museum’s collection of glass, ceramics and jewellery are treated to a stunning display of specimens in lofty ‘sky scraper’ cases almost 4 metres high.  Most dramatically, a 12 metre high display tower ‘Window on our World’ scales four floors and features iconic objects from around the world, many of which are too large to display in the surrounding galleries. Skilfully integrated into the structure are two 8 metre long cases, one on the ground floor the other on the top level, which introduce flexibility and allow the museum to display many more of its exciting treasures.

This project has been an example of excellent team work involving staff from all levels across the organisation cooperating with national and international experts across various disciplines.

Roy Service, Project Sponsor (Ulster Museum Redevelopment), National Museums of Northern Ireland


Editors note The Ulster is Short listed for the Art Fund prize you can vote for it at in the first month after re-opening 100,000 visitors came through he doors.

Other awards for Ulster Museum

The Ulster Museum’s design team led by Hamilton Architects picked up a prestigious RICS Award this week. The Ulster Museum was awarded the RICS Community Benefit award at an award ceremony in the Great Hall at Queens University Belfast.

The Ulster Museum was awarded at the Museums & Heritage Awards for Excellence ceremony on 12 May in London

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