The conversation

Laura Clouting, Patrick Watt, Issue 118/07, p17, 01.07.2018
Have the first world war commemorations successfully challenged the public perception of the conflict?
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Dear Patrick: The widespread impression that the “Great War” was a tragic waste of life endures. The causes and consequences remain subject to hot debate, but the magnitude of the death toll is unassailable – no other war has claimed so many lives from Britain’s forces. The conflict and the lives lost were remembered in multiple orbits: at home, within communities and by the state. Behind the British memorials, rituals, symbols and ceremonies with which we are so familiar today lays a harsh fact: creative commemorative efforts were spurred on because the remains of loved ones were not brought home. Best wishes, Laura

Dear Laura: Public perceptions of the war have changed little since the 1930s and it still looms large in the national consciousness as a by-word for the horrors of war. The commemorations have spurred public interest but this has often been confined to research projects aiming to “uncover” the history behind local districts or war memorials. This approach is in sharp contrast to an academic reappraisal of British involvement in the war that has seen advances in understanding motivations for recruitment, the experience of war and the nature of life in postwar Britain. Museums play an incredibly important role in bridging the gap between the academic and public perceptions. Best wishes, Patrick

Dear Patrick: The idea of a national war museum was ratified while the war still raged. But it had no objects to display, nor any home to display them in until 1920 when the Imperial War Museum (IWM) opened at the Crystal Palace. Pioneering efforts saw curators collect kit, equipment and weapons direct from the frontline – when victory was far from assured. While its collection has grown considerably, the IWM’s mission is much the same: to share military and civilian experiences of the complex and tumultuous conflict with visitors. With no living memory of the Great War left, this is more important than ever. Best wishes, Laura

Dear Laura: The war also spurred the creation of a military museum in Scotland. Based in Edinburgh Castle since 1930, the National War Museum of Scotland has played a leading role in commemorating the centenary of the conflict. Our exhibition, Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War, sought to highlight the experiences of the diaspora in the conflict, and Next of Kin: Scottish Families and the Great War examined the impact of the war on those at home. Our current exhibition, The Poppy: A Symbol of Remembrance, studies how the poppy has been used to remember loved ones and to raise money for veterans of the armed forces. Best wishes, Patrick

Dear Patrick: Commemoration of the war has waxed and waned over the years. Renewed interest was sparked during the cold war years, and again in the 1990s following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the region where the first world war began. A century on from the 1918 armistice, the war has once again come into focus – at a time of turbulence and change. Traditional rituals of remembrance appear sacrosanct. But will we always want – or feel it relevant – to remember the first world war dead? Best wishes, Laura

Dear Laura: As the commemorations wind down, there is a possibility that interest in the conflict may wane. However, our methods of commemoration of war dead – many of which originated as a response to the Great War – are likely to remain. We will still pass war memorials, stand in respectful silence and wear a poppy each November. But it is also the responsibility of local and national museums to maintain our displays and collections, and to find new ways of interpreting the horrors of the war, so future generations can understand this national sacrifice. Best wishes, Patrick

Laura Clouting is the senior curator, first world war and early-20th century, Imperial War Museums

Patrick Watt is the curator of modern history and military collections at National Museums Scotland

Lest We Forget? is at IWM North in Manchester from 27 July 2018-24 February 2019. The exhibition is part of Making a New World, a season of exhibitions, installations and immersive experiences being held at IWM London and IWM North that will explore how the first world war has shaped today’s society.