Street to trench

Rebecca Atkinson, 07.04.2014
Personal stories at the IWM North’s centenary exhibition
A few weeks ago Maurice Davies wrote about first world war fatigue in his blog – the general concern is for audiences, but I suspect museum staff are equally at risk. The official start of the centenary is the end of July, but of course the sector has already been working on exhibitions and projects for some time.

With so few world war one exhibitions open yet, it’s hard to know how visitors will respond to the sheer amount of activity. I visited my first last week – From Street to Trench: a World War that Shaped a Region at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) North in Salford, which runs until May 2015.

The exhibition focuses on the contribution people and businesses in the north west made from 1914 to 1918. The museum already covers the war in its permanent galleries, so it doesn’t try to cram a lot of background information into this temporary exhibition.

Instead it uses stark objects, montages of photographs and propaganda posters to set the tone and take visitors back 100 years to the outbreak of the war. A wall made to look like a row of traditional red-brick terraces will be familiar to local visitors, and also conjures up a sense of communities on the brink of change.

With so much film footage and photographs from the era little better than propaganda, personal stories – especially letters – help bring the realities of war to life for modern-day visitors. Digital touchscreens are used to make these accessible.

For example, alongside original illustrated letters from the artist Henry Lamb to his nephew on the Western Front is a digital screen that reproduces Lamb’s drawings and beautiful handwriting in real time.

Penelope Lyttelton, chairwoman of Visit England, opened the exhibition by giving a round-up of some of the exhibitions and activities happening across the country over the next four years.

It was an exhausting, but certainly not exhaustive, list. I hope every exhibition that she mentioned, and all those she didn’t, take a similar approach to IWM North and find a focus, whether that’s geographical or not, because finding original and relevant ways to tell the story of the first world war has got to be the only way to avoid the dreaded fatigue.