Imperial War Museum: Making a New World - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Imperial War Museum: Making a New World


This week I visited the Imperial War Museum, London on a research trip to the archive. The reading room closes for an hour's lunch break and I decided to take advantage of it by visiting the museum's current temporary exhibitions.

The displays are grouped together under the title Making a New World: When the First World War ended, being held to mark the centenary of the Armistice. It consisted of four galleries, each its own mini-exhibition into one aspect of the immediate post-war world, exploring that almost unimaginable point in time when the belligerent nations tried to come to terms both with the war and with the peace.

The first gallery I visited was the one entitled Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs. This was much as you'd expect from such an exhibition, looking at the returning soldiers, the repair of the battlefields and the political aftermaths of the war. It was nonetheless really interesting, with the photos blown up and mounted with glass to make them all the more striking. Some of these photos, such as that of the waterfront in Istanbul, were huge and gave a really striking impression of a city which in 1919 was emerging under a new regime. Also in the same area were photos of the Irish Civil War, a much-needed reminder that conflict in Britain did not end with the Armistice.

For me, the most impactful part was an army recruitment poster which was displayed across from a number of smaller photos of the destroyed villages of Verdun: whole communities which had been wiped off the map. The poster offered young men the opportunity to 'See the World!', in exactly the same way as the boys' adventure stories had at the turn of the century. Adventure and excitement really were the foci here and not one mention is given of conflict or loss, themes which today we would consider to have been overridingly prevalent in post-war Britain.

Of course, this poster is the army's own advertising so is always going to show themselves in a positive and attractive way. Yet the fact that this was published and that there was no widespread public outcry against it is indicative of some of the post-war attitude to the military. This was an army that had just won a global war and for many had provided them with four years of good work and excitement. Despite the risks, hardships and losses that affected everyone, the attractions of serving particularly in the British Empire  are clearly evident above that of working in places like the mines.

Another poster I really appreciated was one from the YMCA indicating their post-war work. Little information was given about what this actually consisted of, but it fit in well with the accompanying objects highlighting the work of charities in caring particularly for injured veterans.

While the Renewal section did well to demonstrate this balance, the more artistic installations did more to reinforce modern conceptions than to reflect sentiments of the time. Mimesis: African Soldier is a film, or in the artsy terms of the description a 'multimedia installation' by John Akomfrah, which highlights the involvement of African soldiers who serve with all of the European colonial powers during the First World War. Some of the footage, including that which has come from the IWM collections, is brilliant war footage showing the African soldiers in action, firing artillery and charging posts. I'm sure that like much of the Battle of the Somme footage this was filmed in training, but it remains important and engaging evidence for the African involvement in the war.

However, interspersed between this old film were modern artistic shots, which mainly showed water running over artefacts, old uniforms and dead horses, as well as actors dressed in uniforms of the period, looking out into the distance. I have to confess, I didn't really get what this part was about. The river in which the objects were being flooded didn't look to me to be particularly African, or representative of any front of the war; it could have just as easily been in South Wales. Over the top of all of this was a constant haunting music which didn't seem to enhance the silent footage.

I have to say, this film wasn't for me at all. In total it is 75 minutes long, so there may have been better parts, yet the portion I saw did not seem very engaging. In terms of representing African soldiers, I think there are much better ways this could have been done. For instance the Peronne Museum in France has devoted individual sections to the kits of and describing the work of the different African units, which I find to be much more convincing through the artefacts and the personal stories. The film was commissioned by 14-18-Now, the public body for arts commissions for the centenary. I realised as I was leaving this exhibition that this was probably the last of their works that I was going to see and to be honest, I don't mind. Modern art about the war really isn't for me.

The other artistic exhibition in IWM's temporary displays is Moments of Silence. The introduction for this described 'a national Hall of Remembrance' which was planned by the British government after the war. It was never built - the national memorial instead became the Cenotaph - yet is an interesting tribute to the ways remembrance was being thought of in those early days. I was excited to learn more about the plans, yet this wasn't what the exhibition turned out to be about.

The first space was one where lights were falling to look like water (see the photo) and the second was entirely dark, just with sounds of engines and the Last Post. The idea was to focus on the silence, yet it was a bit odd and you couldn't help but accidentally bump into other visitors.

From this darkness you then walk through into a narrow hall of bright light, lit by walls made from screens which rotated through displaying the names of the casualties listed with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and those of the Iraq War, as well as displays of all of the memorial inscriptions included in IWM's memorial register. This was last part was fascinating, seeing the repetition and the different wordings used. I would have liked if this could have been three separate sections as I think it was a really convincing way to display such large amounts of information while capturing the visitor's attention.

The final section of the temporary exhibition also focused on sound, but in a far more literal way. I Was There: Room of Voices played the audio of personal recollections of the Armistice from those who experienced it, taken from IWM's archive. Personally, this wasn't the most suited for me as I have a short attention span, but I did like that they found a way to display such a wealth of information as is held in the sound archive. You could also take away cards about some of the individuals  which gave a snippet of their story and reminded you to find out more through the website (iwm.org.uk/iwasthere).

Overall, these exhibitions were interesting but I don't think they would be worthy of a special effort to get to the museum. Renewal is small, yet does well to demonstrate many themes of the 1919 world and is a good coda to the First World War galleries downstairs. However, I really do think I can live without centenary art.

Kathryn

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