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Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

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Chapter 10

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LEST WE FORGET

Presentation, Commemoration and Memorialisation of the Great War1

Kevin Fewster

The centenary of the outbreak of the Great War in 2014 was marked across Britain by a veritable bombardment of events and programmes. As one commentator writing in the London Evening Standard newspaper reflected just before Remembrance Day:

This year’s centenary of the Great War seems to have lost all proportion. It has become a ritualised overlay to any and every public activity. The BBC cannot get away from it. Not an evening is allowed to pass without footage somewhere of trenches, barbed wire, explosions and bodies…. We have Great War dramas, proms, poetry readings, fashion shows, gardening programmes, even Great War bake-ins… and, last weekend, Great War Antiques Roadshows.2

Not surprisingly, museums were very much to the fore. Both the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Navy Museum, Portsmouth, underwent major overhauls in preparation for the centenary (although, surprisingly, the National Army Museum is closed for rebuilding until 2016). Museums up-and-down the country were (and still are) staging exhibitions, large and small, reflecting their own particular link to the war and its commemoration. My own institution, Royal Museums Greenwich (which includes Britain’s National Maritime Museum) is mounting a five-year programme of exhibitions, programmes and online projects to shine light on the war at sea.

Britain played a central role in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, but commemoration of the battles has been muted: the last surviving Royal Navy gunboat that served off Gallipoli is being restored in dry-dock at Portsmouth and was augmented by a Gallipoli exhibition at adjacent Royal Navy Museum, the BBC commissioned a television documentary examining Australian journalist Keith Murdoch’s role in the campaign, and public commemoration focussed, as always, around the annual wreath laying event at the Cenotaph, Whitehall, followed by the magnificent annual Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey. Yet, for most Britons, Gallipoli is but one more name in a long list of British battles down the ages.

Amidst the barrage of Great War centenary programming, one project captured the public’s attention like no other – the art installation, Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red at Britain’s most famous military establishment, the Tower of London. Jointly conceived by sculptor Paul Cummins and theatre designer Tom Piper, the work filled the moat surrounding the Tower with 888,246 individually-made ceramic poppies – a poppy for every life lost by British and Dominion forces in the war. The red poppies seemed to pour, like blood, out of a window in one of the Tower’s famous turrets. It took four months for a team of volunteers to install all the poppies which, upon their removal after Remembrance Day, were individually sold off for armed services charities, raising over £10m.

Many people returned time after time to watch the ‘red sea’ spread as the weeks progressed. ‘The art work’, one newspaper reported in early November, ‘has been a London sensation… The watching crowd seemed solemn and genuinely moved, not the usual London rubber-neckers.’3 The Queen added her own floral tribute and later reflected in her annual Christmas Message: ‘The only possible reaction to walking among them was silence’.4 As Remembrance Day drew near, the numbers of people became so great that the nearby Tower Hill Underground station was regularly closed in an effort to control the throng and organisers, fearing possible crushes, asked people to stay away during the busy school holiday week. Yet still they came, with national papers carrying adverts for special two day coach trips: ‘Don’t Delay – Book Now – Ends Tuesday 11 November 2014’5 – wording akin to a West End musical! In all, it is estimated that between four and five million people saw the poppies in situ.

But amidst all this acclaim, the Guardian journalist, Jonathan Jones, spoke out against the work, condemning it as:

a deeply aestheticized, prettified and toothless war memorial. It is all dignity and grace. There is a fake nobility to it…. What a lie. The first world war was not noble. War is not noble. A meaningful mass memorial to this horror would not be dignified or pretty. It would be gory, vile and terrible to see. The moat of the Tower should be filled with barbed wire and bones.6

Other papers were quick to condemn the ‘sneering Guardian’, leading Jones to retaliate with a second article declaring:

What we owe the youth of that generation is to attend to the details of the history that caught them in its hungry jaws. We need to smell the rotting earth and gunpowder, feel the boots falling apart in muddy water, the pounding of the chest as the guns started up. The installation at the Tower is abstract, and tells us nothing about history. It is instead a representation of grief as such – a second hand evocation of feelings about the dead.

It doesn’t matter now how sad we are about those the first world war killed. Our soulfulness won’t bring back a single slaughtered soldier. What can make a difference is our historical understanding of the Great War, its causes and consequence. History is worth far more than the illusion of memory, when none of us today actually have a memory of being soldiers in 1914-18…. A true work of art about the first world war would need to be as obscene as cancer.7

His comments drew one of the installation’s creators – theatre designer Tom Piper – out on to the field of battle. Piper responded to Jones:

This is not an installation about war or an illustration of its violence and barbarity; it is about loss and commemoration that has given individuals a unique way to tap into their own family history and appreciate some of the human cost…

Just because a play is about World War 1 you don’t fill the stage with bones – that would be a crass clichéd thing to do. You find the metaphor and you allow people in.8

This war of words, and the art work itself, made me reflect on my own profession: how museums represent war, memory and commemoration. In today’s world, museums (along with the print and electronic media) are the means through which most people outside formal learning receive and engage with history, whether that be war or any other subset of history. Museums generally do this through displaying and interpreting objects they have collected or borrowed. Adam Gopnik put it succinctly in his review article, ‘Stones and Bones – visiting the 9/11 memorial and museum’ in The New Yorker magazine: ‘[Museums] display an unusual object and explain its original meaning’.9 Good museums try (as Jones would wish) to tell the stories of history, indeed some with big budgets will seek to realise Jones’ ambition ‘to smell the rotting earth and gunpowder’. But, no matter how large the budget or how convincing the special effects, how often do museums actually succeed in ‘cutting through’ and really engaging or challenging visitors as Jones’ demands? It’s one thing to present an historical story and or display objects that illustrate this; it’s quite something else to make our visitors truly stop and reflect on what they are seeing and reading.

Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) is the world’s largest and most visited maritime museum. In 2013/14 we welcomed 2.8 million visitors across our four sites, all located within the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site in suburban London. Perhaps the most iconic set of objects in the National Maritime Museum at RMG is the uniform Admiral Lord Nelson was wearing when he has mortally wounded by a French marksman at the Battle of Trafalgar. Ever since the Museum opened in 1937 generations of visitors have stood in awe in front of his coat (the musket ball entry hole clearing evident just below the left epaulette), his trousers raggedly cut open by the surgeon, and his heavily blood-stained stockings. Jonathan Jones has praised this exhibition for ‘paint[ing] a harrowing picture of what war was like at sea in the early 19th-century and retell[ing] the sorrowful story of the admiral who died at his moment of victory in a suitably touching way’.10 To many, Nelson’s uniform is something akin to the Turin shroud, a national holy relic. In truth, most visitors, I suspect, are more fascinated by the uniform’s remarkable survival and preservation than repulsed or overwhelmed by any associations with his actual death.

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Fig. 10.1. The coat Admiral Lord Nelson wore at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805. The fatal musket ball entry point is clearly visible just below the left epaulette. Photo: Royal Museums Greenwich.

Just as the Museum’s Nelsonic collections are truly remarkable, we also hold fine materials pertaining to the Great War. Drawing on these, the Museum’s World War One centenary programme is rich and diverse:

Forgotten Fighters – the war at sea, a semi-permanent exhibition built around objects from our collections that will run across the full five years of the centenary

War and Memory, a contemporary art installation by Rozanne Hawksley that showed through the second half of 2014

War Artists at Sea, drawing on the Museum’s superb holdings of paintings and sculptures by Britain’s official war artists from both WW1 and WW2, running for 16 months from March 2014

A temporary exhibition in 2016 to mark the Battle of Jutland centenary

A massive digitisation project that indexes and uploads online for the first time the crew lists of all 39,000 British mercantile voyages undertaken in 1915, including personal data for 775,000 individual crew members, plus

A stream of lectures, performances, special days and other activities.

Forgotten Fighters is an excellent exhibition, showcasing over 150 objects, including models, medals and images, drawn from the national maritime collection, supported by iPad technology which gives the visitor far greater depth of interpretation than is provided in a traditional museum exhibition. Our War Artists at Sea exhibition is equally good, displaying powerful art works of battle and everyday depictions of life at sea and on the home front in both world wars. But, as Quintin Colville, the curator of Forgotten Fighters observed in a paper given to an RMG staff seminar: ‘Objects freeze-frame the war … [The intention] is for the viewer to do the talking and imagining.’11 Much the same could be said of the art works in our War Artists exhibition. The artists have captured a moment in the war, but this is not necessarily the same as capturing the essence of the experience. Colville’s paper made a similar point about the many gallantry medals he had included in Forgotten Fighters:

Within the Museum the challenge for naval history is to expose the onion-skin meanings of these objects and perhaps to ensure that the experiences they obscure also receive our attention.12

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Fig. 10.2. Rozanne Hawksley’s 1987 work, Pale Armistice: in Death only are we United, displayed at the Queen’s House, Royal Museums Greenwich, 2014. Photo: Royal Museums Greenwich.

How, he asked, could any object convey the reality of, for example, the diary entry of an unnamed sailor returning from the Mediterranean in 1918:

Last week an American oil tanker caught fire here. One man tried to escape thro’ a port, and was jammed half way. A rope was put round him but all efforts to shift him proved unsuccessful. He begged them to shoot him, the fire burning his legs inside and the heat intense. A fitter from the dockyard offered to cut him out with a blow lamp, but was not allowed as an explosion was expected. A doctor then gave him…[a lethal] injection and he died.13

The most powerful, most confronting of our exhibitions, I would contend, was Rozanne Hawksley’s art installation, War + Memory. Hawksley was a World War Two child evacuee from the naval city of Portsmouth, where her grandmother was an outworker sewing sailors’ collars for the Royal Navy from the end of the First World War until she was killed during an air raid in 1944. Hawksley constructs her art works with fabrics and stitching, often recycling materials from the period. Much of her work explores the nature and meaning of the commemoration and memorialisation of war and her pieces have been collected by institutions such as the Imperial War Museum as well as conventional art galleries.

The main theme panel for the exhibition stated:

THE EMOTIONAL SCARS LEFT by the experience of war are the enduring theme in Rozanne Hawksley’s work. Some of her most disturbing images convey the impact of these experiences: they aim to look beneath the calm exterior that is maintained to the emotional damage created by war. Taking inspiration from diaries, poetry and the work of war artists and photographers, the pieces in this room illustrate the way in which sailors have been represented … Their stoicism is contrasted with the work of Rozanne Hawksley, who attempts to represent the unspeakable.

The exhibition included older works as well as a full-room installation she created especially for the RMG exhibition. Her 1987 piece, Pale Armistice: in Death only are we United, commemorates the Great War by creating a memorial wreath composed of white gloves with bones and wax lilies to add further poignancy. A more recent work, created in 2006, consists of two pieces:

He always wanted to be a soldier I

He always wanted to be a soldier II

each based on ‘sweetheart pieces’ that sailors and soldiers made for their loved ones. The object label stated: ‘The first illustrates the romanticised view of heroism and sacrifice held by the untried soldier – indicated by unspent cartridges, gold fringe and purple taffeta. The bleak reality of war is portrayed in the second piece, with its spent cartridges and burnt corps suspended from medal ribbons.’

I found her works challenging and disturbing.

War + Memory would not meet Jonathan Jones’ demand for a Great War exhibition to display only ‘barbed wire and bones’ or to be as obscene as cancer. Yet, to my mind, it was confronting and thought provoking in ways that I rarely experience with conventional museum exhibitions. The rooms felt cold and desolate, the works conveying both poignancy and power.

As with Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the War + Memory exhibition season peaked on Remembrance Day, 11 November, when students from a naval school that had been based on the Museum’s grounds until the 1930s, ceremonially carried back into the building the school’s World War One Honour Boards. A fourteen year-old bugler, the same age as one of the boys lost all those years ago, accompanied the procession as the young students walked the boards back into the hall where they had hung for many years. The panels have not been displayed for many decades; the columns of gold leaf names now so faded as to be almost illegible. It was a poignant metaphor of lives now almost totally faded from memory.

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Fig. 10.3. Rozanne Hawksley’s work, Full Fathom Five, commissioned by Royal Museums Greenwich and displayed in the Queen’s House, 2014. Photo: Royal Museums Greenwich.

In my experience, museum visitors rarely like being confronted by uncomfortable realities. Exhibitions about climate change, for example, do not attract large attendances. Museum exhibitions can explain and illustrate what happened, although the severe restrictions of exhibition text length greatly restrict the amount of detail that can be conveyed (put bluntly, today’s museum visitors don’t want to read books on walls). But museum curators and designers generally like aesthetically pleasing designs thus, in my experience, the sort of display that Jonathan Jones’ demands is rarely attempted because, in truth, people generally won’t engage with it.

So, I ask, are conventional object-based museum exhibitions the best way of conveying the awful reality of war? Similarly, are thematic, narrative museum exhibitions best able to reflect the loss and memories that flow from war? Indeed, is it ever appropriate for museums to seek to convey emotions as well as so-called ‘facts’, or is art a better medium for expressing these emotions and responses? It seems to me that the art installations, Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red and War + Memory engaged audiences viscerally in ways that rarely happen with more conventional museum exhibition techniques. Right or wrong, museums generally shy away from displaying emotion.

A notable exception to this is the subtheme ‘Honouring the Dead – The Wall’ in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History’s permanent exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War which displays objects and messages left at Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial over the years since it opened in 1982. I have chosen just three of over 90,000 pieces left before 2006. A note, left with a ring attached, simply asks:

Uncle Sherman

Please take care of Grandpa up there.
I’m sorry I never knew you.
Please keep an eye out for me.

Love,

Candy

A handwritten card left at the Wall in 1995 proudly declares:

Manzelle A. (‘’Howdy’’) Ford 3/25/95

Dear Howdy – YOU’RE A GRANDPA!

IT’S A BOY!

Your son, Eddie has a beautiful son of his own. Justin is his name. You would be proud of the fine father your son has become. You are missed.

Love, John & Shari

One vet. left a six-pack of empty beer cans with the note:

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Fig. 10.4. Rozanne Hawksley’s 1987 work, Sir Galahad, displayed at the Queen’s House, Royal Museums Greenwich, 2014. Created in response to the sinking of HMS Galahad in the Falklands War, 1982. Photo: Royal Museums Greenwich.

Dear Michael

Here’s some beer to go with the food and smokes (sorry, no Ba Muoi Ba is available in Raleigh).

Bernie Birenbaum’s (3E52) got the smokes and Eddie Blumer’s (29E38) got real food.

Love Jeff 8/5/9414

The objects and messages are intensely personal, the very antithesis of the ceramic poppies at The Tower, yet both manage to convey with equal power an overwhelming sense of loss and lives cut short. The Tower’s ceramic poppies, totally different to the Washington polished granite in so many ways, were nevertheless similar in that they managed to personalise the scale of loss, even though individuals were not identified. In his New Yorker article about the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, Adam Gopnik reflected on the success of Maya Lin’s design for the Washington memorial:

Understatement permitted individual statement; the roadside memorial met the war grave. An arena that sad gave permission to a thousand small cries. It was as if the pockets of the boys at Gettysburg had been turned inside out and their contents shown to the world.15

Aside from War + Memory the nearest that an exhibition has come to capturing this emotional power in any of the four museums I have had the privilege to lead was the touring exhibition, Anne Frank: a history for today staged in 2001 by the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, in collaboration with Anne Frank House, Amsterdam. This photo-based exhibition had toured widely around the world, but we enlarged and augmented it by adding stories and objects drawn from Sydney’s sizeable Holocaust survivor community (after World War Two Australia became home to the largest number of Holocaust survivors outside Israel). But what gave the Sydney show a unique immediacy was our decision to mark what would have been Anne’s 72nd birthday by staging an uninterrupted, continuous public reading of the entire diary. We invited children, clergy, Holocaust survivors, diplomats, politicians and others to each read two pages from this remarkable testament. Much to our surprise, the Director of Anne Frank House told us that this was, to his knowledge, the first ever public reading of the complete diary. The 14-hour event was, I sensed, deeply moving for all 120 readers and the many others who sat through any part of the proceedings. The reading touched people personally, regardless of any Jewish links they may or may not have. Regretfully, the Australian War Memorial declined to be part of the exhibition’s Australian tour as, their Director told me, it did not relate to Australia.

Jonathan Jones and his detractors agreed on one point: Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red was a work of artistic abstraction, not a literal history lesson. But I, like many others, would disagree with Jones’ contention that this weakens the work’s relevance or value. When all is said and done, what is the point of marking the centenary of the Great War? Undoubtedly, as Jones would contend, it is to improve people’s understanding and awareness of a war that now – a hundred years later – directly means little if anything to the overwhelming majority of people or their immediate loved ones. Through exhibitions and public programmes, museums can play a leading role in educating people about such things.

I am less sure that conventional museum exhibitions can fulfil the other, equally important aspect of the Great War centenary; namely, honouring the past and the sacrifices of those who died. Museums are good at telling stories, but generally struggle to convey deeper emotions that lie beneath. Contemporary artists seem better able to connect with audiences at an emotional level, perhaps because they are more sensitive to the rhythms of their generation and their society. Through art installations such as Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red and War + Memory, audiences have been able to find points of personal connection and public reflection which, combined with more literal retellings (at least in Britain) are making the centenary of the Great War a powerful and uplifting community experience.

As human beings we rely in equal measure on both the head and the heart to gain a rounded understanding of things. As such, the museum exhibition and the artist’s interpretation both have a place to play in giving people a rich understanding of complex stories and the emotions that go with them. Lest we forget.

Postscript

The above text created lively discussion when presented to a conference initiated by Monash University in collaboration with Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart (March 18) University in Turkey in May 2015. Dr Michael McKernan, an historian of the Great War and former Deputy Director of the Australian War Memorial, while agreeing with my central premise that museums are generally reluctant or unable to present stories in ways that elicit strong emotion, pointed me towards the exhibition WW1: Love & sorrow, currently showing at the Melbourne Museum in Australia. Part of the museum’s Anzac Centenary 2014–2018 programme, this temporary exhibition has been extended through until 2018, so strong has been the public response. In reviewing the exhibition for the National Museum of Australia’s magazine, reCollections, McKernan wrote:

Love & Sorrow is in a class of its own. Working at the Australian War Memorial many years ago I became aware that the Memorial, from its inception, had deliberately, and perhaps properly, avoided much engagement with the emotions of the museum visitor. Many war museums and interpretation centres, even in recent times, have gone down exactly the same path. Love & Sorrow entirely rejects this approach. This is an exhibition that openly and deliberately works on the emotions of its visitors to proclaim its strong and powerful message: war is an unmitigated and abhorrent disaster and we need always to be conscious of its enduring impacts across subsequent generations…

Put simply, [Love & Sorrow] is the most exquisite, moving, and intense exhibition on aspects of the First World War that I have seen anywhere in the world.16

Since returning from Çanakkale I have been in email communication with the exhibition’s curator, Deborah Tout-Smith, who informs me that

In developing the exhibition we started with the view that after 100 years a more honest and complete story about the impacts of World War 1 could be told. That meant that we wanted to embrace some of the most difficult (and largely hidden) impacts of the war: facial wounds, psychiatric impacts, suicide, sexually-transmitted disease and the ‘white plague’ (TB). We also wanted to create a deeply personal, emotional story of the war, connecting more intimately with feelings and expressions of personal impact.

…the exhibition explores the real cost of World War 1 through eight real-life stories, illustrated with powerful, poignant objects, images and audio-visuals: a nurse, butcher, a coach-builder, an orchardist, a teenage telegraph messenger, Aboriginal brothers and German Jewish brothers. It includes graphic, confronting content about what the violence of war does to bodies and minds, and the long term effects that have stretched across 100 years. The exhibition ends with moving testimonies of descendants.17

The response to the exhibition, both from the public and in the media, has, in Tout-Smith’s words been ‘absolutely extraordinary… Our visitor comments section (hand-written cards in an area adjacent to the exhibition’s exit) is overwhelmingly positive and sometimes breathtakingly personal and moving’.

Melbourne Museum has generously allowed me to see the exhibition’s Summative Evaluation Report. Two thirds of visitors interviewed after going through Love & Sorrow had been unaware of the exhibition before they arrived at the museum, yet few seem to have been put off by its graphic content. When asked about what part they found most memorable, 21% thought it the objects on display, 21% the life stories told, 16% the facial reconstructions section and 13% the effects of war content. Thus, nearly 30% of interviewees were most struck by the graphic imagery and disturbing stories that museums have traditionally shied away from. One visitor responded to this question: ‘Facial reconstruction exhibit and following the life of one of those soldiers. These were real people, not just photographs on a wall.’18 McKernan’s reaction to the exhibition experience had been not dissimilar:

One of the intriguing things about Love & Sorrow is that the emotion arises, largely, from the interactives and video presentations, more than from the traditional museum objects and original letters.19

When shown a list of words to describe the exhibition experience, 75% of visitors highlighted ‘moving’, 75% ‘thought provoking’, and 56% ‘distressing (but we need to hear these stories)’. Only 1% agreed with the statement ‘distressing (because these stories should not be told)’.20

I will certainly try to see WW1: Love & Sorrow when next I return to Australia. Melbourne Museum is a large, multi-themed general museum attracting broad audiences, especially school groups and families. Given its audience profile, one admires all the more the museum’s courage in developing this moving, confronting exhibition. It seems their courage has been richly rewarded. The strong attendances and reaffirming visitor responses the exhibition has received suggest enough time has passed that people are now interested and able enough to confront the realities and terrible legacies of this catastrophic event through imaginative museum exhibition approaches.

In the concluding paragraphs of my paper in Çanakkale I questioned if conventional museum exhibitions can truly engage visitors emotionally with subjects like war. It seems that Love & Sorrow, like Honouring the Dead – The Wall at the Smithsonian Institution, demonstrates that this challenge can be met in ways that engage both the head and the heart. I look forward to others having the imagination, courage and confidence to follow their example.

_____________

1 I wish to thank Henrietta Probert for alerting me to Adam Gopnik’s review article about the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. I am also especially grateful to Dr Michael McKernan for his comments at the Çanakkale conference regarding the WW1: Love & Sorrow exhibition at Museum of Melbourne and to Dr Richard Gillespie and Deborah Tout-Smith from Melbourne Museum for subsequently sharing materials with me regarding this exhibition.

2 S. Jenkins, ‘The poppies are glorious but let’s learn their lesson’, London Evening Standard, 4 November 2014.

3 Jenkins.

4 http://www.royal.gov.uk/imagesandbroadcasts/thequeenschristmasbroadcasts/christmasbroadcasts/christmasbroadcast2014.aspx, accessed 15 April 2015.

5 Omega Holidays, Daily Mail, http://hulldailymail.reader.travel/tour.php?c=65&s=473&t=2780, accessed 15 April 2015.

6 J. Jones, ‘The Tower of London poppies are fake, trite and inward-looking – a Ukipstyle memorial’,Guardian, 28 October 2014.

7 J. Jones, ‘Mail and PM are wrong. The poppies muffle truth’, Guardian, 1 November 2014

8 Daily Mail, 7 January 2015

9 A. Gopnik, ‘Stones and Bones’, The New Yorker, 7 July 2014. www.newyorker.com

10 J. Jones, ‘Has sentimental remembrance met its Waterloo?’, Guardian, 4 March 2015

11 Q. Colville, ‘Panning for gold: representing the First World War at sea through word and object’, unpublished paper, 9.

12 Colville, 16.

13 Colville, 8.

14 M. Sofarelli, Letters on the Wall. Offerings and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (New York: Collins 2006), 8,66,111.

15 Gopnik.

16 Michael McKernan, ‘WWI: Love & Sorrow’, reCollections 10, no. 1 (April 2015).

17 Personal email, D Tout-Smith to author, 3 June 2015.

18 WW1: Love & Sorrow Summative Evaluation Report, Museum of Victoria, February 2015

19 McKernan.

20 WWI: Love & Sorrow Report.

Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

   by Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates