Core course week 2: Museums of war

27 Oct
Percy Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled, 1919

Percy Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled, 1919

Notes from class: 12th October 2010

The core course is an interdisciplinary smorgasbord. Over ten weeks, tutors from not only the Museum Cultures’ home school (History of Art and Screen Media), but also other Birkbeck schools (history, archaeology, etc) present a topic, and with it a perspective on museums, for the class’s consideration.

The first week of classes proper (after week one’s introduction) kicked off with Gabriel Koureas, presenting his older work on the formation of the Imperial War Museum and its role in constructing and reinforcing hegemonic ideas of gender within the museum display; and his newer work on the construction of national identity in former colonies (in particular Cyprus) through museums.

Required reading was Sue Malvern’s History Workshop Journal article on the Imperial War Museum, and the chapter on the IWM from Gabriel’s own book.

The Imperial War Museum was, like the ICA, a museum born without a permanent home, that exhibited its first displays in 1917 at Crystal Palace, before finding a permanent home in Lambeth in the 1930s in a former asylum building (constructed around an architecture of permanent surveillance less inimical to the museum idea then than it is now).

Gabriel touched on the planned ‘hall of memory’, a collection of photographs of the war dead and accompanying testimonials, which were solicited from the general public but never displayed. The actual 1917 display was of large guns, accompanied by their authenticated and honourable histories; the history of the weapon substituted for the history of male warriors, who were altogether more fallible and fragile in their responses to the trauma of war.

The gun ‘Nery’ is still on display in the IWM today; its interpretive label is less detailed. There was some discussion in class about whether the current Holocaust exhibition at the IWM absorbs our traumatic responses to war, and leaves the rest of the museum ‘clean’ in its interpretation of armed conflict.

In contrast to the IWM, the Museum of the National Struggle in Nicosia, Cyprus, displays images of mutilated and dead bodies in order to reinforce a sense of national identity, and justice not yet seen.

Question I would have liked to ask in class but didn’t: when Gabriel talks about the role of the museum in reinforcing national and gender identities, I wonder whether it’s possible to separate out collecting and display activities. I’m interested in the existence of a collected but undisplayed archive for the ‘hall of memory’ and whether its display now (perhaps by different or online means) might still have any power to affect our understanding of World War I.


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