Within discussions on the Museum’s role in providing a narrative of history, it is intriguing to bring this idea to the context of conflict. I visited both, the Imperial War Museum and National Army Museum to consider how these institutions deal with presenting such a violent and delicate subject matter. When retelling historical events the museum’s purpose seems to be to piece together the remnants of information and objects to complete a story. These two establishments use the tools of curation to complete this task but with very contrasting perspectives in result.
From the onset, looking to the names of these institutions begins to unravel the narrative to be revealed. With the titles ‘Imperial’ and ‘National’ there is an immediate sense of importance and authority over the information they provide. The inclusion of ‘War’ suggests the area of exploration is much broader in comparison with that of the ‘Army’. When the intention is to represent the Nation’s army, is there any other way to do this than patriotically? This was my immediate thought however I was not aware what span of history they would cover inside and it is often seen that the detachment of history allows for the critique of ones own people.
When first exploring the collection what is most obvious in the display in the amount of objects used to craft the narrative of the Army’s journey through history. This gives an impression of a thorough and reliable account however as the individual rooms uncoil themselves within the museum the detachment of the glass case has an effect on the responses we develop. I saw this notably in the display of weapons. The intended narrative was suggested to be in evolution of the tools of war and their design. This is problematic when thinking warily that each of these actual swords had featured within the hand of person in battle and had most probably claimed the life of another. Now, they sit removed from their original meaning as one amongst many, admired for their intricate ‘beauty’.
Contrastingly the IWM presents the ‘A Family in Wartime’ display as an inclusive experience, with interactive elements including models, video and audio devices. The museum expresses the idea of individuals within this landscape of war as their apparent prevailing narrative tool. By focusing on a single family the curators seem to create a narrative indicative of the hardships of many during wartime. In telling the story, including personal details, of each family member and their associated narratives, of being a wife, child or father, they become vehicles for information about the army, healthcare and food rationing system etc. to be revealed.
By putting a face behind the history, the information becomes personable and therefore heightens the emotion when the struggles are revealed. The display consists of different domestic installation, with noteworthy objects featured and isolated in a more selective manner. The presentation also includes an abundance of photographic portraits to reinforce this family narrative. This is possible due to the technical advances of the age whereas the Army museum makes use of mannequins to illustrate their narrative of warfare scenarios. In comparison to the honest eyes of a young girl, these plastic and dated bodies feel like costumes, taking away from the severity of the subject matter in hand. The efforts to humanize are based in the desire to provoke emotional catharsis or response. Although the Army museum does not seem to achieve this so effectively in the permanent collection, I found this more so in the IED exhibit. Emmanuel addressed the issue of museums becoming like shops, with meaning lost in the presentation of objects. Here when presenting a soldier’s uniform the objects retain their power, with the two shoes placed together next to other kit and personal tokens. Instead of coming across as a ploy to present a ‘best of’ example’, the response is empathetic as we can relate to this simple yet symbolic imagery.
To further consider the emotional aspect of addressing issues of conflict, the IWM’s display of the Holocaust is unavoidably affecting. From the very entrance, that warns that children under a certain age should not enter there is an immediate sense of mood and gravity. The irony here is that curator tries to control who views this chapter of history within the museum due to issues of sensitivity, when the exhibit sees largely how these horrendous acts were inflicted upon children of these very ages. Aspects of the display are extremely upsetting however we constantly see many atrocities broadcasted across the news everyday. By having a power over this physical space they maintain control however this seems to feed on a issue Emmanuel discussed, where often political correctness is not about facing up to history but rather trying to negate it.
The text and the written word that feature alongside the atmospheric visual and audial display provoked the most emotional reaction in myself. Whilst being surrounded by instruments to provide information the dim lighting maintained a feeling of austerity. The introductory text speaks- without cold detachment- of the ‘massacring’ and ‘mass extermination of a whole people’ and immediately sets a tone that is maintained. The information is possibly so effective in engaging emotional response due to the brutal honesty, with graphic descriptions of violent acts pasted in large text on the walls illuminated in spotlight. As the sequential layout that tries to piece together the fallout of the Nazi regime unfurls, quotes from individuals that were persecuted and from media with their brutal condemning voice pull emotionally on the viewers. What was especially poignant was that although such hatred was repulsive to hear now, this was commonplace during the time. By dehumanising the Jewish people through language and by categorising them using symbols, it was shown how it became easier for the Nazi’s to control their troops to commit such heinous actions upon fellow human beings.
Clothing and letters were also presented carefully within cases. The way the ephemera was displayed within the space felt less like confinement of dated historical objects but rather as the belongings of an individual to be remembered and safeguarded. The concept of masses of similar objects displayed together creates its own narrative, evoking realisations of the scale on which the brutality took place. The emotional impact of this display provoked the query as to why visual aids and objects are so prevalent in the retelling of history. If we didn’t have this material evidence would history collapse and these events be any less important? With the news being a curated narrative of its own this is where the museum’s importance comes into practice. It is not enough just to feel the magnitude in the moment; it is the resonance that is crucial. In a way, these ornamentations of lighting and object display make the subject matter more emotionally charged and raw. In situ of this space we physically have to face up to the pasts, in contrast to the news and the ease with which we can change channel.
On reflection although war and conflict are sensitive issues I now realize they are possibly the most important to explore. It is only by learning that we can implement change. Often with the gallery or museum, display is about reveling in the beauty and splendour of world. However we cannot only look to history for spectacle, the process of looking back and thinking forward should be akin. In both museums there is an awareness of war and conflict over time, historically but also at present. It is then dissatisfying to me that there should even be a contemporary section, when the purpose of learning history is so that it is not repeated. In as much as you see the evolution of warfare, it is clear the destruction is greater but the accountability is less as weaponry takes not only a single life but masses within a single action.
I wonder why it is that as a society we find it matter of fact to condemn the atrocious actions of the past yet circle around issues that are overwhelmingly present today. As we assess the presentation of conflict passed, it occurs to me to question how today’s stories will be seen and remembered. Will the narrative be the same which we are shown today or will it have completely changed, where ideologies accepted now are possibly universally condemned. Will the museums of the future give either a more evaluative reflection of our faults or a skewed reality for the sake of a desired narrative? It is said infamously that ‘History is written by the victor’. It is then the question as to who does the act of retelling. Are curators influenced by political message or can they explore these issues more critically? If we really were to try, I wonder whether curation could reshape and challenge an accepted idea or narrative.
National Army Museum: London
Imperial War Museum: London
A Changing World. [Online image] Available at: <http://www.nam.ac.uk/exhibitions/permanent-galleries/changing-world-1784-1904> [Accessed 3 Nov 13]
National Army Museum. [Online image] Available at: <http://www.coolplaces.co.uk/places/uk/england/london/chelsea/2908-national-army-museum> [Accessed 3 Nov 13}