How Should We Memorialize War?

by Roger Alford

If you were commissioned to design a museum to memorialize war, how would you design it? You can easily imagine how a Museum of Tolerance, or a Holocaust Memorial Museum, or an Air and Space Museum should be designed. But what emphasis would you give to a museum about war? Would it be pro-war or anti-war? Would it lament the futility of war, or wrestle with the cost of war, or accept the necessity of war? Would it simply be a historical catalogue of famous wars? Of course, the average international lawyer thinks of war in the negative: what are you prohibited from doing under the laws of war. But is that how a curator should think of it?

Although I have passed in and out of London innumerable times, until this week I have never visited the Imperial War Museum. But this week I had the opportunity to visit this remarkable museum. It is well worth the visit. It most certainly should not take over a dozen trips to London to justify a stroll through this museum.

The museum genuinely wrestles with the ambiguity of war. On the one hand, it has the occasional nod to the costs of war (100 million deaths in the 20th century alone), it includes eloquent quotes lamenting war, and incorporates various exhibits on controversial wars. But by and large the museum portrays war as a necessary struggle against evil. In this sense the museum is one of the most ideologically conservative museums I have ever visited. Of course, there is plenty of tangible stuff like tanks, airplanes, bombs, swords, firearms, and artillery. The kind of stuff that kids would love. There is a moving Holocaust exhibit, and an interesting exhibit on the Normandy landings. There even is a scheduled special exhibit on the use of animals in war. My favorite part of the museum was this eclectic combination.

And if you were to design a war museum, would it include art? This one does. In addition to the permanent war art collection, there currently is a special exhibit on “Shared Experience: Australia, Britain, and Canada in the Second World War.” The special exhibit is divided thematically by subjects: Battle, Work, Leisure, Service, Casualties, Captivity, and Home. The painting above is representative of the exhibit. It is by Frederick B. Taylor and is entitled Hull Riveting. According to the description, Taylor was motivated to do the painting in order to express “pictorially his admiration and respect for Canadian industry and industrial workers, to accomplish two things: first, to heighten the public’s appreciation and respect for the contribution industry has made; and secondly, to strengthen the workers’ self respect and pride by seeing their work as others see it.” That description gives you a flavor of the entire museum. Appreciate and respect those who struggle against evil through armed conflict, but don’t glorify or sentimentalize the act of waging war.

Perhaps the Imperial War Museum is not on your short list of museums to visit in London. But if you are tired of yet another trip to the National Portrait Gallery, or want to avoid the maddening crowds at the British Museum, then venture to Waterloo station and take in this museum. If you are like me, you will leave the museum grateful that those who designed it appeared torn about how to memorialize a subject like war.

2 Responses

  1. Roger,

    Thanks for the picture of ‘Hull Riveting’—it appears exquisite. Indeed, I think this made my day. One can only imagine what it looks like in person (as I’ve never been abroad, or even east of the Mississippi River–never flown in a plane for that matter–I will probably need to rest content with admiring it from afar!). It seems there’s some connection here between proper motivation and ‘fine’ art in the best sense.

  2. Roger

    You’ve just found my favorite museum of all time. In the past, they have had amazing retrospectives on D-Day (this was the year before last) and women’s historical role in war. As the Imperial War Museum is a story not just of war but of human transformation and experience, it is well worth anyone’s time.

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