MV war exhibition

Poster from the exhibition. Photo: Imperial War Museum.

Stephanie Bunbury, Imperial War Museum curates collective memories of conflict, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April 2015

 What World War I signifies is the thorniest question of all, because that varies from nation to nation.

A few weeks ago, the Booker-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro gave an interview to The Guardian in which he wrestled with the idea of collective memories and how they could be roused – as he believes Slobodan Milosevic used them in Serbia – to fuel wars.

Of course, every people has its memories and myths, not just dictatorships. “What is the means by which a country like Britain or France remembers?” Ishiguro mused. “Is it by means of the literature? Is it by means of museums? Is it official history books? What is it? It is a mixture of all those things but, in the end, it comes down to what ordinary people actually have in their heads about what happened to their country.”

“For some it’s a unifying thing – Australia is one place where I’d say it becomes a serious part of the national identity, as it does for, say, Canada.”

Samantha Heywood

Last year, after years of closure and preparation, the Imperial War Museum in London opened its new World War I exhibition. It was almost exactly a century since Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, the first blow in the war that people came to believe was so terrible that it must end all wars. The exhibition, as one would expect in the greatest museum of global conflict in the world, is vast. There are whole examples of our planes and guns, and fragments of theirs, a recreated trench, letters home and knives made out of scrap. There is a clear explanation of the failings of nerve gas. Meanwhile, walls and flat surfaces ripple with quotes from men at the front writing in their diaries about death and hunger but also, occasionally, about the beauties of the sky.

The travelling exhibition, which makes its first stop In Melbourne next week, is smaller – 350 objects as opposed to 1300 – and emphasises the experience of two fronts, rather than trying to cover the whole event chronologically, but it has the same mix of weapons, art and memorabilia. Something for everyone, one might say: the people wandering around when I first visit the museum in London range from a gang of French schoolchildren excited to find a word they recognise on the notations –  the word is “mine”, squealed triumphantly – to a scary couple in recreational fatigues posing by a Spitfire.

Read more

To see how other CAMD museums are telling the story of WWI and its impact on Australia and New Zealand explore our CAMD WWI Centenary Calendar of Events & Activities