Competing priorities

Rebecca Atkinson, 30.11.2013
How museums are marking events such as the Miners' Strike and Hillsborough diaster
Last week the National Portrait Gallery in London announced it will stage the first national exhibition of the first world war centenary commemorations in February 2014 with a blockbuster exhibition exploring the war in portraits.

The exhibition’s highlight is probably Jacob Epstein’s The Rock Drill, but it will also feature portraits of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Winston Churchill, and paintings by Lovis Corinth and Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Undoubtedly the exhibition will draw in the crowds and generate column inches (it’s already had a fair amount of press), kickstarting a four-year programme of activities around the first world war.

Museums across the country are involved in the commemorations, although this is easier for some than others. One curator brought up the issue at the recent Museum Camp conference, confiding that her organisation is under pressure to devise an exhibition or events programme based around just three relevant items in its collections.

Someone else I spoke to at the event was concerned that we are in danger of creating first world war fatigue – especially if museums attempt to make flimsy connections between the events of 1914-18 and their collections. If it isn’t relevant, it isn’t relevant.

We also speculated whether the large number of activities around the the first world war centenary could have an unwanted side effect of distracting from other important anniversaries.

Last Friday I went to meet representations from the Genocide Archive Rwanda and the Aegis Trust to discuss their plans to mark the 20th anniversity next April of the mass slaughter of as many as a million Tutsis by the Hutus.

I’ll be writing more about the archive in a future issue of Museums Journal, but I’m sure the ambitious and exciting developments being planned will raise awareness of the events of 1994, especially among younger generations, and share a wider message about how genocide happens and the power of reconciliation.  

April also marks the 25th anniversity of the Hillsborough Disaster. National Museums Liverpool, which observes a minutes silence at 3.06pm on the 15 April each year, is in discussion with the Hillsborough family groups concerning memorial events for the anniversary.

Sharon Granville, executive director of the Museum of Liverpool, says that the date is such an important one in Liverpool that it won't be overshadowed by anything else in the city's consciousness. It will also be carrying out first world war activities, including the redisplay of the Lusitania collection in 2015.
Elsewhere, to mark the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike, Experience Barnsley has a 12-month programme of community and education activity continuing until March 2015, including an exhibition Coal not Dole: Women Against Pit Closures (3 March – 1 June 2014).

Barnsley Civic is showing Jeremy Deller's Battle of Orgreave and the National Union of Mineworkers will host an exhibition of its strike banners.

At National Mining Museum Scotland, 2014 also marks its 30th anniversary as a charity, so it has a large programme of community and schools events planned.

Rowan Brown, director of the National Mining Museum Scotland says Margaret Thatcher’s death earlier this year generated a huge amount of exposure for the events of 1984. More so, with the fallout from the closure of the pits still felt in communities across Scotland, England and Wales, the story of the strikes is still a pertinent one.  

Like the first world war, Hillsborough, the Rwandan Genocide and the Miners’ strike remain relevant many years after they happened – there are still lessons to be learnt across the generation. It’s good to see museums and archives playing a key role in this remembrance, and making sure they don’t get forgotten as time moves on.