Remembering the First World War
Yesterday I was lucky enough to visit the newly-refurbished Imperial War Museum in London, and to learn more about its ‘Lives of the First World War’ project.
Before getting to the project, I need to say that the refitted entrance hall and galleries look stunning. The hall is narrower than it used to be, but you still get that ‘wow’ moment of seeing a Spitfire and a Harrier Jump Jet suspended from the ceiling like Airfix models, sharing the space with a V-2 rocket and a V-1 flying bomb. Elsewhere, the increased amount of display space (achieved by digging out the Museum’s basement level to create a sunken main hall) has enabled more room to be given over to post-1945 conflicts. Displays on post-war Britain now segue into events in the Falklands, the nuclear arms race, and the ‘war on terror’.
There is also, until next March, a comprehensive and brilliant exhibition of First World War art from the Museum’s holdings entitled ‘Truth and Memory’ (http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-london/truth-and-memory) which brings together just about every WW1 painting that you’ve seen reproduced on the cover of a textbook or collection of poems to create a survey of the artistic response to, and legacy of, the War.
The new First World Galleries (http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/first-world-war-galleries) are rightly attracting a lot of attention, and it’s easy to see why. Displayed chronologically but with a clear sense of the larger narrative of the War, they draw the visitor into the unfolding conflict, from stalemate on the Western Front to the crises on the Home Front, before leaving you back in the main hall all too aware that this ‘war to end all wars’ was sadly nothing of the kind.
For me, though, the highlight was learning more about the ‘Lives of the First World War’ project, and getting to see (in the Museum’s Explore History Centre) how the online archive works and how, by asking members of the public to contribute any information they have alongside the more official sources, it is hoped that eventually each of the 8 million UK and Commonwealth men and women officially engaged in the War in some form will have a record of their actions. In a way, the site functions like a social media profile: photos and documents can be added, cross-referenced with other sources, and allowing a profile, both official and anecdotal, to be built up over time. In an age where remembrance is often a sign of absence and a recognition of those no longer here, the project asks that people collectively revive those who served in WW1 through memories and material evidence. ‘Constructed’ digitally, the goal is a memorial made up of the stories of those it remembers. It’s hard to think of a better response to the tendency of war to turn individuals into numbers and statistics than this: the technology of the present as a site of memory for the events of a century ago.
If you would like to know more, or join in the project, see the link below.