Commemorating the First World War

Here, Vivian Vassos shares, in the first part of a four-part series, how England remembers the First World War.

Part I: Imperial War Museum, London

As you enter the museum’s atrium, there’s no doubt in the subject matter: a Harrier jet hangs overhead cheek by jowl with an RAF spitfire fighter and a V2 Rocket, among half a dozen other items. It’s an imposing start to an imposing history: War. In this case, The Great War is why we’re here.

“It is more more interesting and engaging to the 21st century audience,” says curator James Taylor, “to explain to new generations what the war was, why it started, home and fighting fronts, the near destruction of the British army and how its empire worked together,” – a world war fought from England, to Europe to Africa to Gallipoli to the sea. More than 1,300 hundred historical objects, art, film and photographs from the Museum’s collection will be deployed, and along with Britain, Canada, Australia, India and United States’ efforts are recognized.

But it’s not just this month that there is a remembrance of this tragic turning point in Western Civilization and its history. For the next four years, commemorations, anniversaries and other memorials will take place. But today, we are at the grand re-opening of the London outpost of the Imperial War Museum (two other locations are in Manchester (IWM North) and Cambridgeshire (IWM Duxford). Approximately 40 million pounds have been spent to refurbish the space, starting with the Atrium designed by Foster + Partners.

In the new First World War gallery, you are immediately immersed in the sights and sounds of life on the front and in the trenches. In fact, a replica of a Western Front battlefield trench is one of the must-sees, with lighting and a soundtrack that adds to eerie realism of what it was like to be there, knee-deep in mud, missing home, and looking to live another day. A Sopwith Camel “buzzes” overhead, while a Mark V Tank rolls to the edge of the trench. The galleries, designed by Casson Mann, are free to all ages. (www.iwm.org.uk)

A dispatch from the curators at IWM London:

On July 19, 2014, IWM London’s new First World War Galleries open to the public. In the Galleries, made up of 14 areas, visitors will discover the story of the First World War, how it started, why it continued, how it was won and its global impact, through the lives of those who experienced it on the front line and the home front.

Drawing on IWM’s First World War collections – the richest and most comprehensive in the world – the Galleries will feature objects large and small, many of which have never been seen before from lucky charms made from shell fragments to iconic recruitment posters and huge ship models. Objects on show include weapons and uniforms through to diaries, letters and souvenirs, which will sit alongside photographs, art and film. Highlights include the Life at the Front area, with a Sopwith Camel plane and Mark V tank looming above, where visitors will be able to explore a recreated trench with a light and soundscape that will evoke what it was like and a sense of the conditions troops had to endure over the changing seasons. Visitors will leave the Galleries with a new perspective on this landmark conflict.

NEXT: Take a detour: The British Library

britain-postersTake a detour: The British Library

Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour (until October 12, 2014)

If you’re heading to the British Library, take a few minutes to visit this limited time exhibit. Christmas cards, letters, cartoons, posters and the manuscripts of celebrated war poets are among the collection on display for the first time, exploring the many ways those both at home and on the front line tried to cope with the enormity of the First World War. The exhibition considers themes such as humour, faith, comradeship and family, and looks at the contribution so many made to the war effort.

Dr Matthew Shaw, co-curator of Enduring War and project coordinator for Europeana 1914-1918, says: “It has been a privilege to make this selection of First World War material from the Library’s great collections, which reveals something of the personal experience of that conflict, the echoes of which are still with us today. Perhaps even better, we have been able to make many of these available online for the first time through Europeana 1914-1918, as well as create this extraordinary audio-visual interpretation of the records left by those who served.”

Just a few of the historical artifacts that you’ll see:

–       a handkerchief bearing lyrics for ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’

–       schoolboy essays reacting to airship raids over London

–       recruitment posters, humorous magazines and even a knitting pattern for balaclavas

–       a letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to his mother describing his worries about his son serving at the Front, written in the light of his belief in Spiritualism

–       a letter from Isaac Rosenberg and the manuscripts of well-known war poets, such as Rupert Brooke (“The Soldier”).

Britian-quote-libraryIn a poignant conclusion, the exhibition explores the grief expressed over the millions of lives lost during the First World War. A soldier’s last letter home as he goes into battle is on display for the first time alongside manuscripts of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Vaughan Williams’ ‘A Pastoral Symphony’ and Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen.’

An atmospheric video and soundscape called ‘Writing Home’ has been commissioned for the show, using messages from personal postcards written to and from the front contributed by the public.

Enduring War is part of the British Library’s support for the UK’s First World War Centenary programme, which includes leading the UK’s contribution to Europeana1914-1918.eu (www.europeana1914-1918.eu/en) the most important pan-European collection of first World War source material, and a brand new British Library First World War website with over 500 items from across Europe, articles by leading experts and teachers’ notes.

Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour opens 19 June and runs until 12 October 2014; www.bl.uk/world-war-one

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