In The Missing of the Somme, his 1994 meditation on the legacy of the First World War, Geoff Dyer suggested that ‘in terms of remembrance the years 2014-2018 will represent the temporal equivalent of a total eclipse. By then no one who fought in the war will be alive to remember it.’ While the concrete prediction was unsurprisingly accurate (though Harry Patch, ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’ died only in 2009) the weight of coverage and number of memorials mean that it can hardly be considered an eclipse. Visiting the newly renovated Imperial War Museum London and its new First World War Galleries and the installation by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, I have been struck not just by the sheer numbers (the IWM galleries have timed tickets to cope with demand) but the intensity with which people have engaged. For an event which has passed out of living memory (for combatants at least) it is remarkably emotive still. Even allowing for the degree to which media attention will amplify/produce/manufacture interest the response has been impressive. According to 1418Now, three million homes turned out their lights and lit candles to mark the centenary on 4 August.
There is no shortage of pieces explaining/asking ‘What WW1 did for us’, nor is there any dearth of historical research exploring the origins and significance of the conflict. What I want to do here is look at the way this is happening in relation to the terms ‘Truth’ and ‘Memory’ – employed by the IWM as the title for an incredible exhibition of their First World War art collection.
The exhibition is in two parallel galleries separated by the chasm of the central atrium. The first contains works produced during or very shortly after the conflict while the second houses works produced after, incorporating the major works produced for the Hall of Remembrance project abandoned in 1919 by the British War Memorials Committee. The tensions in this division are acknowledged by the logo: ‘truth’ dissolving upward and ‘memory’ resolutely solid beneath. As the introductory panel notes, the ‘truth’ gallery contains works that ‘challenged established ideas of war and in turn redefined notions of the “truth”’. The gallery for ‘memory’ is intended to display evidence of ‘the central role envisioned for British art in commemorating the First World War’ – apparently underpinned by ‘the belief that art alone could convey the legitimacy of Britain’s cause and the nation’s sacrifice.’
Walking through the exhibition, my respect for the art itself was only slightly offset by disquiet at the ideas behind it. If there was a redefinition of ‘truth’ then how did that work? Did William Orpen’s use of biblical motifs redefine or reinforce them? Iconoclasm or even theodicy can be the sincerest forms of worship. Was the ‘grizzly truthfulness’ of Percy Delf Smith’s The Dance of Death a challenge to established ideas? Employing the medieval allegory of the Grim Reaper seems to emphasise continuity rather than challenge. Conversely, can anyone stand in front of John Singer Sargent’s Gassed and see ‘the legitimacy of Britain’s cause and the nation’s sacrifice’ without any hesitation or question? These questions, of course, are in the context of a breathtakingly thorough exhibition that needs to be seen and reflected upon.
The tensions between the concepts are nonetheless there, and unsurprisingly so. Truth will always require formulation and to that extent will be partial, at least in its expression. Memory presupposes that something is being remembered – which means that the scope of the imagination will come up against the facts of what happened. As Barthes put it, there is ‘stupefying evidence of this is how it was, giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered’ – the reality being the truth which can only be partially expressed.
Rather, therefore, than seeing a binary, on/off relationship between truth and memory, I see a spectrum of what I term mythology. Building on the work of Barthes, I see our engagement with the past as resulting from a tension that starts with an awareness that there is always ‘a language in which we speak of something’ which creates and defines the gap between what happened and how (or whether) we can speak of it – or if in fact we can sometimes stop speaking. This is about resonance and allusion, conscious or unconscious, of the period and/or anachronistic. Thus the title of William Roberts’s 1918 The Gas Chamber summons associations that are at once anachronistic and relevant. The chamber Roberts depicts is for training soldiers in the use of gas masks but at the same time the experience of gas attacks as both perpetrator and victim had a legacy in the death camps of the Third Reich, though it would be a mistake to join the concepts as though with a ruler. We need to remember Johan Huizinga’s injunction (quoted by Dyer) to ‘put ourselves at a point in the past at which the known factors seem to permit different outcomes’ and simultaneously know that it did happen a certain way and not another. In short, an awareness that we are not dealing with the object ‘memory’ but the act of remembering. Not mythology but mythologisation.
To achieve this, a museum needs to tread a path between explanation and play-acting that explains and illustrates the experience without confusing it with the reality that is being described. Not “I have been in a trench from the First World War” (which is patently false) but “I have enough insight to know what I can never experience”. The Blitz Experience and Trench Experience that used to occupy the parts of the building that are now the First World War Galleries used to fall into the trap of trying to recreate a reality which could not be recreated. The Dutch journalist Geert Mak wrote of sitting in a ‘fairy-tale air-raid shelter listening to the howl of the sirens and the thudding of the Heinkel bombers’.
More recent exhibitions such as the permanent Holocaust Exhibition and In Memoriam (commemorating the ninetieth anniversary of the end of the First World War) have succeeded, however, in precisely the terms I am talking about, using installation and artful display spaces to suggest the experience of what is being described rather than indulging in theatrics that leave the visitor aware that it was just a fairground ride. In clearing out the ramshackle dioramas and glass cases of the First and Second World War exhibitions the challenge was to produce a space that provided information and experience in ways that are accessible and thought-provoking. The new galleries succeed in this with remarkable sophistication.
A phenomenal array of exhibits and artefacts fill an exhibition space which crawls with explanations and questions, not asking you to imagine you are there but challenging you with the question; can you imagine this? Making your jagged way through the exhibition, the structure allegorises ‘The Trench’ while the lapidary scansion of the information panels constantly draws attention to the language in which they speak. One of the final panels reminds us that ‘Different generations/ have taken different standpoints/ as to what the war meant/ and we still grapple with its meaning today’. It is a brave choice to end a historical exhibition in such a significant location with questions about what is contained therein but this is what the IWM has done. In keeping with the awareness in its Corporate Plan that there is no end in sight to its role as ‘a global authority on conflict and its impact, from the First World War to the present day’ it offers questions. The present day is a moving target and answers are therefore provisional.
And this is not isolated but clearly a strategy that the future will maintain. In the post-1945 galleries, bringing Queen and Country by Steve McQueen into the body of the museum does this: on the day I visited, two staff members were watching visitors explore the work and murmuring approvingly at the interaction – in contrast to its previous splendid isolation next to Sargent’s Gassed. On the same floor, Mark Neville’s Bolan Market – footage taken from inside an armoured vehicle on patrol in Afghanistan – puts the visitor uncomfortably into the shoes of an occupier, the scowls and fear-struck faces leaving you in no doubt of the relationship between watcher and watched. And all through the ‘temporary’ Galleries, the thoughts of curators, designers and historians emphasise the constructed nature of the museum, forcing a confrontation with the means by which the story has been spoken. There is always emphasis on the work of memory, returning the responsibility to find answers to the visitor.
It is this kind of work that I missed when visiting Tower Hill to see the installation by Paul Cummins, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which is slowly filling the moat of the Tower of London with 888, 246 ceramic poppies to remember ‘every death among the British and Commonwealth forces between 1914 and 1921’. No crowd of the size that was there will ever be silent – life, after all, goes on – but many individuals were. Many wiped away tears.
But the novelty will fade. The weather will be less conducive to standing and watching this creeping static tide. And at that point the questions come. For a start, British and Commonwealth? Surely you mean Empire? David Olusoga’s passionate and critical The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire has told the stories of some of those whose tomorrows were not ‘given for our freedom’ but rather mortgaged by their Imperial landlords. Talking of the Boys’ Own retelling of Paul Lettow-Vorbeck’s brutal campaign in Africa (entitled Heia-Safari!), Olusoga fixes the camera in the eye and says very clearly: “But I can’t see it like that. Because I was born here.” In the previous episode he was seen to physically recoil from some of the aggressive racism in propaganda about the colonial troops. It’s this kind of aggressive and visceral counter-narrative that installations like Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red negate in their scale and pure emotional appeal, smoothing away problems with a form that renders all casualties in one colour, blending all, servant and master, officer and soldier, ruler and ruled, into one egalitarian mass.
And over the road from the Tower, a memorial to the Merchant Navy of 1914-18 stands all but ignored by the crowds. Have you forgotten yet? This question begins Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Aftermath’, which goes directly on to describe how ‘the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,/ like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways’.
Solid and reassuring answers are in many ways the best indicator of a problem. Like the mannequin in Colin Self’s 1966 The Nuclear Victim (Beach Girl), answers and questions should be textured and challenging rather than smooth and accommodating. The IWM renovation works because it demands engagement from the visitor: as I looked at the work by Self, I heard a boy (maybe twelve) ask ‘Dad, what’s happened to her? What’s happened?’ his alarm increasing with repetition. The other reason the IWM works (and why museums in general can work) is because finding out demands from the boy and his father (and others just like them) an active enquiry.
The confrontation between those who favour ‘smooth’ interpretation and representation and those who reject such in favour of more ‘worked’ or ‘textured’ answers has been in the offing all year. Michael Gove’s sniping contempt for ‘left-wing historians’ indulging in ‘misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country’ can (for me) be detected in passive-aggressive form in many of the injunctions to ‘remember’ “all those who gave their lives for us to live free” which fill Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and newspapers and all the other ways that ‘public opinion’ asserts itself. I remember them. As brave men who were scared. As good men who did terrible things. For a good cause, for a bad cause, for no cause at all. Because they wanted to and because they were compelled or even forced to. But I try to do so in as many of these ways as possible, knowing that all (and none) are true. But in the trying, I remember.