Creature discomforts: The Animals’ War, Imperial War Museum, London - Museums Association

Creature discomforts: The Animals’ War, Imperial War Museum, London

Animals and war should be a winning combination. But RachelSouhami is unimpressed by an exhibition that fails to be informative or exciting
Rachel Souhami
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Dogs are supposed to be our best friends, but perhaps we should also add pigeons, rats and polar bears to the list. According to The Animals' War at London's Imperial War Museum, these animals and many others play a vital role supporting the armed forces and clearing up the destruction left behind. There are undoubtedly many stories of incredible feats, all carried out on a non-voluntary basis (after all, animals don't enlist).

Unfortunately, the rather dull and often frustrating displays in this exhibition don't tell us what they are. The exhibition is organised into a series of rooms, each of which covers a different capacity in which animals are used in war. These include cavalry, transport, communication and life-saving.

In fact, each room is really about one or two types of animal. Cavalry can only be about horses; communication has a small feature on dogs but focuses on pigeons; dogs really shine in life-saving in the guise of sniffer-dogs and mine-detecting dogs; and creature comforts shows an enormous number of photos of unbearably cute kittens.

Herein lies the problem: what exactly is the theme? Is it the animal, or is it the act? It seems that the animals have taken precedence. But giving the floor to the animals presents another dilemma. Animals can't talk, so the exhibition has to tell their stories for them, and this it singularly fails to do.

The exhibition starts promisingly enough. The opening room is about the cavalry and the first thing you see is a replica of a magnificent suit of armour worn by the Polish cavalry in the 16th and 17th centuries. On its back are two S-shaped 'wings' fringed with feathers along their spines; when the wearer was riding, the air would cause the feathers to vibrate and make a noise that scared the opposition's horses. It is a stunning entrance piece.

The next case contains uniforms of cavalry officers and a 19th-century pole-axe used for killing horses too injured to be saved. It is here that the storyteller's dilemma begins to emerge: the majority of the artefacts belong to humans. They are humans' uniforms and humans' notebooks and, ultimately, stories told by humans. But the exhibition seems to have become self-conscious of this and tied itself in knots. It feels as though, in an effort to keep humans' voices to a minimum and to avoid anthropomorphism, all storytelling has been hushed.

The result is that information about the animals - how they are selected, trained, sent on missions - is scant and so the exhibition has become a rather celebratory list of 'animal achievements', which somehow manages to be unenthralling. This isn't helped by the two measures that have been taken to increase the presence of animals over humans.

The first is that the exhibition is filled with models of animals in action. In the cavalry section, there is a collection of models of soldiers on horseback through the ages. The transport section contains another small-scale model of Pakistani pack-mules
carrying parts of a gun in the 1950s.

There is a model of the anti-mine rat in the life-saving section, and a whole case full of models of messenger pigeons. The problem is that there are just the models and very little information about them. Why were these six cavalry models selected? Is there something special about 1950s pack-mules in Pakistan? And why is there a model of a pigeon in a parachute - surely it can fly? This lack of information makes the exhibits incredibly static. They do not have aesthetic quality and there is simply no way to engage with them without understanding what they represent.

Poor labelling exacerbates what must be the most frustrating part of the exhibition: the medals. The exhibition is co-organised by the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, which awards the Dickin medal, also known as the 'animal Victoria Cross'.

There have obviously been a lot of very brave animals because you can't move for Dickin medals in this exhibition, which kind of devalues the award. The medals form the second method for bringing animals to the fore throughout the exhibition. Or at least they would if we were told more about how or why the medals were won. This was a missed opportunity to explain how and why animals are used in war.

Take the pigeons, for example. Two pigeons were awarded Dickin medals for helping to save the crew of downed RAF planes in the second world war. But that's all we are told. How did they save the crews? Did planes routinely take pigeons with them? If so how many pigeons were trained? What makes a good messenger pigeon? At least tell us what happened!

In its rush to celebrate the medal-winning achievements of animals in war, the exhibition misses one important question, though ironically a quotation from Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, points to it. She comments that for animals there is 'no Geneva Convention and no peace treaty - just our mercy'. This highlights the lack of discussion about the ethics of using animals for military purposes. The use of animals in military experiments is mentioned, and one would have thought this would be the perfect place to investigate such an issue. But again, the opportunity slips by.

It is a cliche that the British are sentimental about animals, but animals themselves are not enough for an exhibition; there has to be something to spark and then continue an interest. By avoiding in-depth stories and concentrating on static, uninformative displays, this exhibition seems to pander to the sentimental at the expense of the interesting.

Rachel Souhami is a freelance curator and a lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London

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