The curious idea of museums

IWM First World War Galleries

The new WW1 galleries (Photo copyright Imperial War Museum)

This article originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Journalism worth paying for.

What are museums for these days? Are collections passé? Northampton City Council’s decision to sell off an ancient Egyptian statue to fund a museum extension, after striking a secret multimillion pound deal with the benefactor’s family, outraged many local citizens. They’re unconvinced that arts should be measured and managed only for the economic “value” of what you can buy with the cash.

Before the urge to “engage” and “outreach” meant ripping out displays in favour of button pressing, funny animated character narrations (Stephen Fry as a “hilarious” gold bullion bar in the Bank of England museum is a particularly jarring example) and giant soft play areas, I loved the labyrinthine nature of old institutions: Glass cases full of giant crystals and meteorites that filled a whole Gothic gallery of the Natural History Museum; halls of terrifying and exotic Pacific island jade weaponry, conch shell armour and shrunken heads in ethnography collections from London’s Horniman to Newcastle and Berlin’s Dahlem Museums; and the strange diving bells and aircraft that still wait for the curious in the further reaches of the Science Museum.

It’s true, that far too many museums had musty rooms, testament only to a love of labelling ordering and collecting. Just how many scale models of merchant navy ships made out of matchsticks does any museum need? But in the race to draw visitors used to theme parks and video gaming, what has been lost? For every success such as York’s Jorvik Centre, purpose built with a “ride” complete with smells and sounds to bring Viking England alive, there has been a local museum which opted to replace rich collections of real objects that carry stories and histories, with lights and dial displays that broke within a couple of years and looked worn and tired.

So what could be more challenging than the once in a generation refurbishment and building of new World War One Galleries in London’s Imperial War Museum? A Museum of which it was once said its three biggest problems in attracting a broader audience, were the 3 words in its name. Designed by the same firm behind the atmospheric refurbishment of the fascinating Churchill War Rooms) the gallery combines audio and visual effects with objects carefully selected for purpose. I look at a large unscrolled map of Europe spread across a dark wooden desk. It comes to life: animated figures with the heads of beasts leap and fight across it; wearing imperial uniforms and helmets. It’s magical and satirical and engaging. It makes me want to know more about the complex imperial posturing and arrogance that sparked the war.

The IWM’s historian James Taylor says the display was inspired by the animations in Tony Richardson’s 1968 film of The Charge of The Light Brigade – a film which saw the new talents of British social realism turn their deference-destroying attitude to British history. Said Taylor, “The brief was this is not just putting a book on the walls”.

A grey military coat of the Kaiser stands over the map – an ominous symbol of his uniform-loving presence in the pre-war mind of most Europeans. In front of him, a clockwork dreadnought toy – a reminder of how Germany’s toy industry fed Britain’s middle class fascination with naval might and national power. Displays on the Home Front run in parallel to the front line displays. Carefully chosen and enlarged photographs of thousands of shells in a munitions factory – disappearing into the horizon emphasise the scale of the support and industry that kept the war going year after year.

A case of simple rifles with bayonets, of the kind used at the Somme, seems a rare old-style display. And then Taylor points out how they’re carefully arranged in sight of a massive German machine gun, to show their uselessness in the face of mechanized slaughter.

IWM First World War trench

WW1 trench (photo copyright Imperial War Museum)

The walk through trench (above) is carefully stylized; not an “experience”. It uses silhouettes, a giant tank and sound to emphasise the claustrophobia and the greyness. At the end footage of shell shocked soldiers plays on a small screen. Wide-eyed men twitching and shaking, hiding under their hospital beds.

Of all the objects one stood out: The Manchester Guardian’s giveaway map issued to lucky readers at the start of the enthusiastically-supported Gallipoli campaign. For anyone who has felt unease at some of the plucky Tommy nostalgic commemorative news coverage of recent months, the Imperial War Museum, is proof of how these institutions can still tell us so much through the objects they keep.

Further reading/listening

War, Woods and WW1 (Radio 3 Free Thinking special programme June 2014)

Imperial War Museum website

Northampton Museum’s Sekhemka statue now in private hands (BBC News July 2014)

The Big Issue magazine

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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