War: what is it good for?

Maurice Davies, 25.03.2014
Maurice Davies on commemoration fatigue
I've been travelling around over the past week - to the north west, north east, east and west midlands, and south east so far. I'm feeling a bit exhausted by all the trains, but have been struck by a common theme.

Everywhere I've been, museum people have mentioned not the imbalance in government funding, not whether museums change lives and not even funding cuts. The dominant preoccupation of museum people in England appears to be the first world war.

The centenary marking the start of world war one is not till the end of July, or June if you count the assassination of archduke Ferdinand, but museum people are already worried about their audiences getting great war fatigue.

There's grumpiness that the BBC has jumped the gun, so to speak, by already running major programmes on the value of the war and the build up to it.

And the National Portrait Gallery has also got in quick with its moving World War One portraits exhibition: a wonderful show, especially the remarkable and sensitive Henry Tonks drawings of faces of injured soldiers. No audience fatigue was in evidence when I visited; rather it was too full to see things properly.

But museums throughout the country are getting worried that they're going to be expected to do world war one exhibitions every year until 2018; in some cases that may be more than one a year thanks to the enthusiasm of members of their governing bodies or influential local military types.

"At least there was only one 2012 and it only lasted for a few weeks," one exasperated museum manager said to me.

Another suggested that this long-running approach to commemoration is not very British.

"Normally, we mark the anniversary of the end of things," she observed. And marking the end of something terrible gives more opportunities. A museum could, for example, organise a festival to celebrate the centenary of the end of the war, but that wouldn't be appropriate for any earlier stage.

So museums fear almost half a decade of empty first world war exhibitions, relieved only by a dash of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, 200 years of Waterloo and various 75ths of world war two.

How did we let history - and heritage - be reduced to this?


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Phillip Vanderwarker
Visitor Services Assistant
24.11.2016, 20:04
Strangely, the anniversary of the First World War seemingly escaped the attention of the Imperial War Museum. London made a small gesture, yet despite a collection of WWl aircraft and a designated Land Warfare building, the Duxford division displayed no such interest.
Have we become embarrassed by the modern glut of bereavement of celebrities, roadside memorials and mass public grief at the drop of a hat, whereby the intended respect for the fallen of public service has lost it's meaning?
MA Member
28.03.2014, 22:47
Perhaps it would be best for museum managers fearing empty first world war exhibitions to make a decision not stage any and instead change lives by using other collections of material culture. The Great War is a rich stream to draw from, just as sporting heritage is but it shouldn't be compulsory, especially if there is no enthusiasm. However, if instead of typecasting the military, the museum managers you met on your travels entered into a conversation they might discover some truth about conflict to share with audiences, The NPG show indicates there's a fascination and public appetite to understand what happened 100 years ago and with their imagination and skill museums have every opportunity to broaden horizons, even of the anoraks! Having recently conducted 'outreach' with men returned from tours of duty in Afghanistan, I learnt something about contemporary perspectives of the Great War and feel better equipped to interpret its artefacts as a result. War is as old as man and in 1000 years time the Franco Prussian, First and Second World Wars may be categorised as stages in the same battle for european dominion. It would be good if 3018 marked a millenium of permanent armistice but I think with the world being just as violent today as its ever been in its history, combined with the technological development brought about by war since 1914, man might not live that long.
Chris Wood
MA Member
31.03.2014, 12:12
'Anonymous' makes a very good point about long-term perspectives - which 100 years does give us, after all. What worries me though is his or her suggestion that talking to current service personnel (involved in Afghanistan - a much less defensible conflict than British involvement in WW1) brings "some truth about conflict". It is _A _ truth, but comes from people literally at the front line that may not have the big picture any more than the average tommy or poilu in the trenches of the Western Front. If we only value the perspectives of those involved directly in the violence, then we certainly won't be helping create the "permanent armistice".
MA Member
02.04.2014, 00:27
I’m not sure the soldiers of the First World War were familiar with the term ‘Big Picture’. True, many regulars and Kitchener volunteers were escaping hunger and unemployment; but fighting men were not naive to what was at stake. Whether their violence is more defensible than actions of those under orders today, I’m not sure the peace campaigners I have been speaking to would make a distinction. Sitting here in my safe European home, it’s easy to take for granted the freedom and stability that allow UK museums to ask such questions, when choosing to reflect upon this centenary.
Chris Wood
MA Member
17.12.2015, 13:00
People living in conditions of comparative stability and freedom surely have a duty to look objectively at history. That is not taking anything for granted, including the fact that the celebration of war only serves to perpetuate it. My original point was that those on the front line, whether justified or not, only have a limited view of what it's all about - they are the ones doing the dirty work for the politicians. Would you expect a plumber to be able to give a more accurate picture of the global water cycle than anyone else?
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
31.03.2014, 10:30
That's a very helpful point. Just to clarify, I don't think anyone I spoke to was 'typecasting' military people at all (although I might've been!), just nervous about their potential influence on what the museum would be expected to do.
MA Member
05.04.2014, 22:34
Thanks, it's important to try and make important points. Thanks for the clarification, it's easy to misinterpret what you have written, because what you have written. You are flipping great guy and even though you are going from the MA
Chris Wood
MA Member
28.03.2014, 13:34
There are some odd things currently. I'm surprised that Maurice found people grumpy that the BBC has "jumped the gun" - why should the BBC wait for a specific date to seek to help people understand what was going on a hundred years ago? It's not about marking a specific day (11/11/18 perhaps excepted), it's about learning from our history.

The other odd thing is the expectation some people have that there should be a positive spin on the commemoration, indeed that it should be a celebration of "our" success! This comes particularly from some regimental institutions and ex-military enthusiasts, and is frankly jingoistic. Have we learned so little in a hundred years? Surely as museums we should be helping people understand what led to war and encouraging them to think about how to avoid it in future - or indeed today, the historical resonances of the current situation around Crimea are troubling, after all.