Louise Purbrick presented at the Modern Design History Seminar on Wednesday, February 22, 2017. Her talk was entitled “Keys to the H Blocks: The Materiality of Conflict and Imprisonment in Northern Ireland.”

Long Kesh/Maze prison, often referred to as the “H Blocks” due to the shape of its cell units, was once Northern Ireland’s largest prison and it remains one of its most important sites of contention. Since its closure in 2000, its partial demolition shows the contested nature of the material culture of the 1969–1998 struggle, euphemistically known as “The Troubles.” Its suspended development as a place of conflict resolution or cultural heritage has prevented open public access to the history of the prison. Fear of the past has played some part in the prohibition of historical interpretation of the materiality of imprisonment, but at the same time numerous H Block prison artifacts have been easily accepted into the humdrum rhythms of buying and selling that punctuate a domestic economy in Ireland and abroad, particularly in the Irish diaspora. Often sold by former prisoners and their families, as well as by former prison officers, objects from the jail’s past are given as birthday gifts, used to complete personal collections, or just earn some extra cash for a household budget. This talk focused on one of the many eBay sales of the material culture of Long Kesh/Maze—the live auction of the keys to the H Blocks. This group of mundane metal things were sold in Dublin in 2010. Their sale raises the obvious matter of the commodification of contemporary conflict, but also that of the attachment to the material forms of political imprisonment and the desire to possess a part of the past.

Louise Purbrick is Principal Lecturer in the History of Art and Design in the School of Humanities at the University of Brighton. Her research is devoted to the understanding of materiality and she has written about the meaning of things that circulate within sites of conflict, landscapes of exploitation, and everyday domestic worlds. Purbrick has published a number of articles on the material history of Long Kesh/Maze prison and the conflict “in and about” Northern Ireland. She is currently completing an Arts and Humanities Research Council project, Traces of Nitrate, which examines the political legacies of nitrate mining in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.