David Bownes

Making military history

David Bownes, 30.09.2013
How to depict war with more than just mud, blood, poppies and poets
Telling military history in museums has never been easy. Now, with a flood of First and Second World War anniversaries about to hit the sector, and the bicentenary of Waterloo on the horizon, the problems of depicting the “undepictability of War” seem more pressing than ever.

An attempt to tackle some of these issues, or at least get the debate started, lay at the heart of the Making Military History in Museums Conference on Friday 13 September, organised by the National Army Museum (NAM) and the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester.

Anniversaries aside, the event was particularly timely for the NAM which is in the middle of its own ambitious HLF-funded plans to redisplay its Chelsea-based collection.

The conference was an opportunity for academics and museum practitioners to share ideas on a variety of conflict-related themes, including the presentation of difficult histories, the disputed role of the museum in remembering and forgetting, and the effective use of space in museum design.

Ably orchestrated by Shelia Watson from the University of Leicester and Alastair Massie from the NAM, the conference threw up numerous examples of the dilemmas inherent in the subject matter - just how should museums interpret objects looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860, for example, or how could the reality of combat be represented in a museum’s displays?

It also pointed the way to how universities and museums might answer some of these questions together by blending object-based research with a more critical appraisal of historical evidence, and looked at the sources of funding available for such an approach.

All of this is intriguing stuff for those of us tasked with bringing new perspectives to bear on seemingly familiar war stories (blood, mud, poets and poppies anyone?), without alienating audiences – a difficult balancing act currently faced by the Imperial War Museum, amongst others.

David Bownes is the NAM's assistant director of collections.

The conference organisers are looking to publish a selection of the papers to reach a wider audience in the future. For further information, please email Alastair Massie: amassie@nam.ac.uk.