Over the last few years I have curiously visited the Imperial War Museum where the place has been in dramatic transition. In 2012, objects and information jostled with history, making it hard to comprehend the full extent of conflict on display above the sound of excited voices and enthusiastic photography. A year later, the museum became an intense atmospheric labyrinth of blank corrugated steel walls, dusty concrete floors and vibration as extensive renovation rendered visitors silent in this instability and uncertainty. With queues for the WW1 exhibit prohibitively long, the past few visits to the newly re-opened museum have been a revelation. Evidence of war through media and historical document, alongside artistic response has been curated with care and clear intention as dark spaces and proximity to matter unfold to vivify the past.
Visiting the WW1 exhibition today, it is epic in its breadth of material and representation. Chronological, the before, during and after of the war has been articulated through various voices, from what feels like all sides of the battlefield, front line to the home front. Following sonic threads through the space, uniforms and ragged text offer scale to the volumes of weaponry on display. Moving from one story to another, the humane responsibility of the Home Front was revealed in a small paper found next to some frugally dimensioned patriotic crockery, titled: Our Duty in War Time, as an appeal to women and girls, “our first duty is to give”. As the story of the war escalates through the exhibition, war artists in parallel to propaganda offer poignant and overwhelming views of the Front Line. Paul Nash’s celebration of the national ideals of heroism and sacrifice in The Menin Road, William Orpen’s A grave and a mine crater at La Boisselle and Muirhead Bone’s charcoal drawings depict a world split by an horizon line. Skies and earths, each executed by projectiles of light, metal and gas.
Punctuated throughout the exhibition have been a number of sepia documentary type films. Ranging from front line record to cinematic home front instruction, single shot views frame a chemical landscape of grainy interiority. With the end of the war, came greater freedom and use of colour photography, shown in the short vignette films made by Claude Friese-Greene titled: Open Road. This, alongside seeing the remarkable painting by William Orpen titled: The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919, reminded me of a book of WW1 colour photography discovered in Foyles.
Light liberates as a vibrant architecture.