The art of war

The Imperial War Museum in London, whose First World War Galleries have just opened, says its interest is social history more than the military. What does that mean for the visitor?


You have to stare down the barrel of a gun to walk into the Imperial War Museum in London. The barrels of two guns, to be precise: a pair of massive 15in weapons that could fire their enormous shells 25km from the British battleships they were mounted on in the first half of the 20th century. Guarding the museum’s main entrance, they can make you feel very small and helpless.

And if you are Irish, with a less than comfortable relationship with empires and their armies, you have to stare down something else as well on entering this place: the gut feeling – the prejudice, even – that you are about to witness an orgy of militarism and triumphalism.

The first impression when you enter the museum itself is breathtaking, but it also tends to confirm such jaundiced feelings. A radical redesign by Foster & Partners, whose credits include the reinvention of the Reichstag, in Berlin, and the creation of Bilbao’s metro and London’s Millennium Bridge, has opened up a vast new atrium as a towering basket of light, from ground level to the fifth floor’s glass dome.

But that light is darkened by the shadows of more spectacular weaponry, a Luftwaffe V2 rocket and an RAF Spitfire and Harrier jump jet among them, dwarfing the humans who walk beneath. Well, what did you expect? It’s an imperial war museum, isn’t it?

A much more complex and challenging impression emerges, however, as you tour the broad galleries that surround the atrium. The exhibits, many of which have no immediate association with warfare, are arranged in clusters of six or seven. There is often no obvious connection between them, and they come without explanatory labels directly attached. Instead, you have to wander until you find a single panel, on which each object in the group is identified. This may be irritating at first, but it forces you to think – and wonder about their significance – more than you might do otherwise.

A large brown trunk, set in the context of Nazi propaganda exhibits, turns out to have carried the luggage of a Jewish couple, Leonhard and Clara Wohl, west from Germany with their children, in advance of their own planned departure. But their actual journey took them east, to the camps, and they never got to open the trunk again.

In another cluster, a large bedsheet is especially baffling at first. It appeared to have been remade into a kimono, and is covered with minute embroidery. There are names, signatures, diagrams and a strange lexicon of unusual words. This garment had been secretly created by Margaret Wanklin, a British nurse, as a meticulous, cleverly coded record of life in a Japanese internment camp near Hong Kong. It seemed all the more poignant for not being explained straight away by an adjacent label.

Such objects fulfil a central aspect of the museum’s mission, and one that is obscured rather than clarified by its name. The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 and, at least in theory, was never a propagandistic enterprise but an exercise in recording, in memory, for the whole community.

“This is not a military museum, like the National Army Museum. It is a social history museum,” says Bryony Phillips of the IWM. Space is given to the impact of war on the lives of women, factory workers and civilian victims, as much as to battle campaigns and uniforms.

Phillips also points out that the exhibition clusters relating to the second World War, and more recent conflicts, are organised as “episodes”, from which visitors can piece together their own histories, rather than as a single linear narrative. She says that the opinions and analysis presented are always those of contemporaries, not a retrospective historical interpretation, and that this offers everyone a democratic opportunity to engage with these experiences from their own perspective.

Spitting Image

That’s a noble aspiration, and much in the museum reflects such a plurality of ideas, from Spitting Image’s portrayal of a militaristic Margaret Thatcher to Colin Self’s sculpture Nuclear Victim (Beach Girl), which marries the erotic licence of 1960s popular art to the nuclear death wish in appropriately gruesome detail.

Disturbingly, though, these high principles don’t translate well to the museum’s latest showcase, the First World War Galleries, which are already proving to be its most popular exhibit ever, just two weeks after opening.

The visitor’s experience here is very linear indeed, as you have to pass through the exhibits in one direction, along a single route that begins in 1914 and ends in 1918. The way this experience – undoubtedly often an extraordinary one – is constructed fosters an unfortunate sense of inevitability, both in the outbreak and unfolding of the war. It largely ignores the great what-ifs: the alternative scenarios that make history both interesting and instructive.

If the great French social democrat Jean Jaurès had not been assassinated by a French nationalist in July 1914, might his rhetoric have swung the powerful French and German unions against the war at an upcoming meeting of the socialist International? Unlikely but worth considering. And certainly worth dreaming about.

And what if the German Marxists and anti-militarists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, so feared by the kaiser and his bankers and generals, had succeeded in igniting a revolution during the war, as Lenin did in Russia? Unlikely, too, but no more so than Lenin’s unexpected success, and worth a lot more than the bare mention it gets here.

On the other hand, the German atrocities against civilians in Belgium in the opening weeks of war get a significant amount of images and words, which come perilously close to endorsing the blatantly propagandistic use the Allies made of these events.

The best evidence has long been that the German army did not set out to systematically kill, much less mutilate, women and children, although there were certainly individual excesses. But from this exhibition you might well think they had.

But that army did, inexcusably, kill several thousand male civilians in cold blood. The fact that a handful of Belgian civilians had spontaneously entered the combat as snipers outraged conventional military propriety – much as the IRA’s “irregular” warfare in Ireland later outraged the Black and Tans – with similarly grim results for noncombatants.

That said, the exhibition is impeccably fair in its treatment of both the 1916 Rising and our War of Independence, giving the perspectives of all the protagonists rather than treating the rebels as traitors, which was surely the majority contemporary view, not only in Britain but also, albeit briefly, in Ireland.

Overwhelmingly rich

Overall, the richness and diversity of the material presented are extraordinary, and often overwhelming.

There is a heartbreakingly innocent letter from Alfie Knight, a nine-year-old Dubliner, to Lord Kitchener, asking to serve as dispatch rider.

The decidedly less innocent realities of the war are conveyed in many ways, perhaps most strikingly in a large display of primitive clubs, rather like tomahawks. They were made by bored soldiers and used in unconventional silent raids on enemy trenches, sanctioned informally by officers to boost morale.

Yet despite the effective emphasis on the horror and pity and waste of life in many exhibits, the supposed highlight of the show – immersion deep in a stage-set trench, with a tank looming overhead and explosions all around – feels utterly fake. Three young girls are playing happily with their smartphones beneath it, understandably oblivious to its supposed significance.

Where crass “realism” fell flat, imaginative art triumphed. A parallel exhibition, Truth and Memory, made up mainly of paintings commissioned by the war office during the first World War, exuded the rancid, ghastly smell of war without end.

Almost from the outset, and sometimes against their stated intentions, much of the work by war artists such as Paul Nash and CRW Nevinson is relentlessly bleak, featuring devastated landscapes where the only humans either wander lost or lie dead.

The Irish painter William Orpen is well represented, his luminous brushwork lending a lurid glow to apocalyptic scenes of brutality, putrefaction, terror and despair.

None of this material would be a tonic for the folks back home or encourage laggards to rush to the flag. Somebody in Whitehall at the time must have believed that recording the reality of this unprecedented war was more important than propaganda. Tony Blair would have fired them at once.

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