Museums focused around the very worst in mankind, are perhaps the most challenging institutions to create and operate. The balance between describing the horrors, while enticing an interest to visit and re-visit, is not an easy one. The exhibits have to be informative, but also invoke emotions – only, not so much that the audience find it hard to stay.
This issue of MNI is inspired by a commemoration in Canada, (where I write this from), of the WW I-battle at Vimy Ridge. Not only the (excellent!) War Museum in Ottawa, but practically every cultural institution in the country have created something special for the occasion. But how is human tragedy commemorated and displayed in a way that makes the audience come, stay and listen? We will take a look at a few military museums around the world and see how they are dealing with this important challenge but first, why do we need museums about the darkest chapters of human history?
We should never accept that human beings are capable of tremendous cruelty – but as long as people suffer from conflict, we have to learn why and how it happens and how to prevent it. To be able to learn these lessons, we have to be able to stay and listen.
A military museum have to convey the tragedy. The not so glorious reality of war which is never truly depicted in the TV and Movie-versions. The unimaginable horrors on the battlefields, in the trenches, the POW-camps, and the atrocities committed, the soldiers and innocent civilians whose life ended or changed forever. The sounds, the smells, the casualties, the real effect of the cruel weapons and tactics devised by us humans.
But the military museums can also describe whatever good that comes from conflict. People who live through conflict becomes Survivors. They move on, they learn, and create solutions to problems. Conflicts, in spite of it all, are also the source of nations, philosophies, narratives and inventions that affects us in our daily life. Medical advances: triage, first aid, amputation, transplants, surgery, surgery instruments, hygiene and sanitary solutions to prevent infections. Technological innovations: topographical maps, sonar, radar, aviation, radio, computers, internet, robots, controlled explosives to safely access natural resources and building our infrastructure. Social solutions: methods for conflict resolution, organizations such as the Red Cross and the UN, the laws of war and many of our human rights conventions. All of these – unfortunately – are born out of war.
And not to forget, a military museum are not confined to historical accounts. They can also very much be part of the present day discourse! Perhaps one of their most overlooked but important role. At a military museum where I interned, veterans from World War II worked alongside veterans from the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The elderly and the young helped each other to deal with their physical, emotional and psychological wounds, while at the same time having a daily purpose. The seniors felt they were still needed, they kept busy and shared their experiences with people of different ages everyday. And the younger veterans, who came to the museum as part of their physical or psychological rehabilitation and re-entry to non-military society, could choose to either work behind the scenes with collection management, or with the exhibit displays, or take a more interactive role and holding talks or guiding visiting school children.
A military museum is also a place where civilians can deal with their emotions and questions. A place that helps them to understand what their family member(s) and/or friends and/or neighbors have gone through, or are going through. Or what their Nation is, or have been involved in.
Most nations has a Vimy. The stories about wars or specific battles can take on an almost mythological character and are used for various reasons throughout time. The narrative around The Battle of Vimy Ridge have changed over these 100 years but lately it has been referred to as “the birth of a nation”, a phrase coined by the late Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Laureate, Lester B. Pearson. During his time in office he worked hard to solidify the federation of Canada into a nation, from symbols like the maple leaf and the new flag, to make the country officially bilingual, to promote it a peacekeeping nation. By referring to the battle at Vimy Ridge as the birth of a nation, he also hoped to appease the Quebec sovereignty movement. Vimy was the first time that all four divisions of the Canada Corps, and Canadians from coast to coast to coast, served as a unit.
It was also a step closer to complete self determination. Canada’s external affairs were at the time still governed by Great Britain but the Canadians achievement secured the nation a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles. Hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers had died in previous attempts to take this strategic point from the Germans. The Canadians were used as a vanguard for the final attempt. Methodical planning and rehearsal of the charge, the use of elaborate tunnel systems and new ways of making topographical maps, made it a success at the expense of thousands of young Canadians – and many more Germans.
Nation building is a powerful and complex issue. In times of hardship it has enormous emotional power. Museums used to be built as a mean for this nation building. But can museums show the past for the present good? Today many Canadians argue against the notion of Vimy as the “birth of a nation”. For one, it feels like an insult to the indigenous population. And the celebration-aspect feels wrong for many.
Yet, others remind us how these commemorations and exhibits makes people take the time to learn and to think about past sacrifices for the democracy we can enjoy today, as well as the horrors of war and the danger in thinking of it as a “simple” solution to our geopolitical issues. And the unspeakable things the soldiers that time saw and experienced has to be worth something. Is it not our duty to acknowledge what our neighbors, parents, grandparents and great grandparents went through?
As I was preparing this issue for the weekend of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9, my native country Sweden suffered a(nother) terrorist attack. Several people were killed and even more were injured. And a few days before that, the world watched in horror as 80 Syrian civilians were killed in an atrocious gas attack. A few days after that, dozens of Coptic Christians were killed in their church in Egypt. As I am writing this and in the weeks while you find and read this post, many more people will die and suffer from war, and terrorism. Why should we look back at the old battles when our present day is so violent?
Commemorating a war from long ago can perhaps easier be dealt with rationally, than the seemingly constant news of terror attacks and wars. Working on this issue actually helped me deal with the present. We live in a violent world that is difficult to understand. It is all to easy to react with ones base instincts. Learning the facts – as well as the human side to conflict – makes us better people. In my mind, museums serves as islands between the instant, shallow, opinionated and perhaps not all too factual news and social media coverage that trigger our base instincts, and the slower but more thorough factual academic research, which can feel detached or difficult to understand. A museum can be both emotive, factual, and raise open ended questions, all at the same time. And they can do all this for a multitude of different learning styles, backgrounds, languages and ages. One visit can be an eye opener – and each visit after that can add further layers of understanding.
A military museum can challenge perceptions and our propensity to see the world in black and white, something much needed in the aftermath of collective trauma when emotions and thoughts are accelerated. A single museum, or a single exhibit, have the power to convey a new narrative on a historical event or a contemporary issue, to thousands of people in one go. So lets take a look at some museums around the world who deals with these hard lessons…
Text and photos: Anna Larsson Berke, 2017 ©