Simon Stephens

War stories

Simon Stephens, 13.02.2013
Museums shouldn’t shy away from the horrors of war
The National Army Museum (NAM) must be unique among the larger London museums in having not undergone major building work for more than 30 years.

But this should change next year when it hopes to get the go ahead for a £11.3m Heritage Lottery Fund grant for a redevelopment that will aim to radically transform what it offers its audiences.

The museum does feel like it needs a bit of a shot in the arm – it gets about 270,000 visitors a year, compared with the one million who pass through the doors of the Imperial War Museum.

But under director general Janice Murray, who joined in 2010 from the Royal Armouries, the NAM seems to be upping its game.

I heard more about its redevelopments plans and some of the other projects it is involved in on a recent visit.

A lot of the work it does now involves engaging with serving soldiers. This is the focus of Piece Makers, a project it has just launched with the artist Susan Stockwell, which aims to assist the physical rehabilitation of soldiers.

Piece Makers will see Stockwell work with curators and a group of soldiers to develop their sewing and storytelling skills. The project will build on the long history of sewing in the army and will also explore the role of war artists in documenting and interpreting conflict.

The National Army Museum is also working on an exhibition about improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Unseen Enemy will open in the summer and will be pretty shocking, so much that it is likely that there will be a suggested minimum age for entry.

An exhibition that reveals some of the full horror of war is an interesting development. While many military museums do fantastic work, they are often seen as family days out. While there is obviously a place for this, it does often feels rather at odds with reality of the subject matter.

With the centenary of the outbreak of world war one coming up fast, many museums are hard at work preparing their 2014 activities. There is also the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015.

We are going to be awash with war stories over the next few years, so surely there is more room for some adult-orientated exhibitions that really reveal new insights into what war actually means for those involved – soldiers and civilians.


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
27.02.2013, 17:02
Most history in Britain stems from a military background of some form being that we were at some point a dominant and industrialized nation. Whether our reasons (at the time) for fighting the French in the Peninsula, the Germans in Europe or the Zulus in Africa are constituted as 'valid' by todays standards we cannot shy away from the fact that Britain rose to be a dominant power of the 18th and 19th centuries through war and military activity. It also helps to explain how the world has been shaped today. People who speak English did not just appear in Australia or America, the British government sent troops over to surpress the natives, then we colonised it. However, there is no reason to glorify these actions though. What happened is a fact. History is a fact and we cannot escape this. What we can do however is use war to explore social aspects of the ordinary soldier who joined the ranks as a means to escape poverty and how weavers, farmers, labourers etc. came to fight in some of the most prolific battles in British miilitary history. For example, what did they eat /wear/ do? How does this compare to soldiers by todays standards? The politics and justifications for war can be judged as unfair by todays standards but at the time they were viewed as valid. A few years ago I wrote my thesis on military museums and how they educate their audiences, engage with visitors and represent a subject that is often viewed as contentious.

My basic findings were Regimental Museums always have a stronger affiliation to the British army and will not tiptoe around sensitive issues. But Natioal museums like the NAM, IWM or Royal Armouries will represent militar yheritage as an all rounder eg. focus on the social lives of soldiers rather than the actual conflicts. One commen that will always stick with me at the Royal Armouries was when I asked a member of staff why the Zulu War diorama had disappeared. I was told that they didn't want visitors of African descent to feel that the museum promoted British soldiers going to Africa and oppressing the natives.

Museums shouls not shy away from the horrors of war, whether civilian or armed forces. There is no glory in war, and museums would be on thin ice if they tried to promote any different. However, they should not insult visitors by trying to 'protect' them from facts. Let them make up their own minds about it.
Sharon Heal
MA Member
Head of Publications & Events, Museums Association
14.02.2013, 10:54
Whilst I agree there should be realistic displays that reveal the horrors of war I'm not sure that children should be shielded from this; it's the equivalent of turning off the TV or radio when something difficult or upsetting is on. War is brutal and children are often victims; compassionate and careful interpretation can have a powerful impact on children and adults. The Holocaust exhibition at the IWM has an 11+ age limit, but children develop their understanding at different rates and parents should be allowed to decide if their children are capable of absorbing and understanding the information. Museums can warn parents and adults about the nature of the content but they shouldn't shelter children from the facts.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
15.02.2013, 10:30
I agree entirely it's not for museums to police parenting and decide who sees what and an informative warning would be far better than a ban. But let's not underestimate the wonderful innocence of childhood and its benefits for later life. Of course, tragically not all children in the world have beautifully innocent childhoods, and it's a painful judgement to make about when it's best for other children to become fully aware of the horrors of that.
Hans-Christian Andersen
MA Member
Senior Lecturer in Cultural Tourism, Newcastle Business School
20.02.2013, 14:28
Of course museums should not shy away from the unpleasant sides of human existence and that must be particularly true for a museum that has war at its core. To me, the issue always is whether the museum deals with the negative sides of human experience in a way that increases understanding, in the way the museum wants history to be understood.
The American World War Two Museum seems to try sense immersion in their 4d museum (Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty in a museum setting?) and the IWM had a Blitz shelter “experience” that never quite convinced me, but I have never yet really felt that there was any way a museum could make war "feel real".
On the other hand, I have often felt that museums have (very successfully) tried to bring me closer to understanding the human experience and the social and political consequences of war. Knowledge has been the key for me, knowledge built up by museum specialists who had put a narrative together, sometimes in brief bursts of information on museums labels.
Should children be exposed to the horrors of war, as interpreted by a museum? Perhaps, but perhaps not through an attack on the senses since that is what the games industry already provides them with. Better to create spaces for thought and contemplation, always anchored in reality. A subtler attack on the senses, gradual rather than explosive. Meanwhile, I will visit the American World War Two Museum at the earliest opportunity: I do want to know what it does to its visitors and one is always aware that museums need to innovate and add to their armoury of interpretation techniques.