What can you learn from history?

As WW1 commemorates its 100 year anniversary we often reflect on the past and how we remember.

We know and recall the momentous act, whereby a gun from E Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, fired the British Army’s first shell on August 22, 1914, because it was diligently recorded.

The story of that gun mirrored the story of the men who fired it, and both needed to be preserved, side by side. This collection of history and stories which is what Britain’s Imperial War Museums has done for almost 100 years now, is invaluable in providing future generations with an insight and understanding into many of the key pieces that remain, including those that fill The WW1 Centenary Exhibition currently on show at Melbourne Museum.

Why is WWI 'the war that changed the world'?

The scale and intensity of World War One was different from anything the world had ever seen before. The industrialisation of battle, with quick firing weapons consuming vast quantities of munitions, was shocking. It resulted in widespread stalemate and the trench warfare that has come to characterize and define World War One. Over 9 million soldiers were killed in battle or died of wounds. Millions more were wounded, many carrying the consequences for the rest of their lives. This changed the way almost everyone thought not only about war, but also life itself. Social relationships between nations, social classes and the sexes were all re-examined. As a result of the fighting, kings and emperors were forced off their throne, empires were broken up and new countries emerged onto the international scene. The combined effect of these changes can still be felt in society today, through different attitudes and the new politics that they precipitated.

Why is it so important to keep the memory of this conflict alive in young minds?

World War One effectively marked the beginning of the modern world. Life and attitudes afterwards were very different from what had been before. Every nation involved paid a high price in terms of dead and wounded. For many this was disproportionately severe in relation to the size of their population. At the Versailles Peace Conference, US President Woodrow Wilson turned on the Australian Prime Minister, ‘Billy’ Hughes, and reminded him that he spoke for only a few million people. Hughes replied, ‘I speak for 60,000 dead. For how many do you speak?’

Australia’s dead numbered over half of America’s but Australia’s population was less than 5%. The loss to Australia, as it was across the whole of the British Empire, was very keenly felt. It is vital that young people understand what happened during World War One and the level of sacrifice this represented for such a new nation. The roots of much of Australia’s national pride and identity can be traced back to 1914–18 and people need to know why this is. 

How is this conveyed in The WW1 Centenary Exhibition?

In the exhibition we have used the full range of Twenty First Century display techniques employed in the new First World War galleries at IWM London, which opened last July. Working in conjunction with the London-based exhibition designers, CassonMann, the heart of the show lies in a series of free-standing large objects, including a 60-pounder heavy gun that took part in the capture of Baghdad in March 1917 and a range of art works including paintings by Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson and William Orpen, surrounded by themed showcases. In these the objects range from guns and uniforms to small, personal souvenirs.

There are also a number of specially created audio-visual features. Some, like the evoked spectacle of French soldiers being cut down by concentrated German artillery fire in August 1914, are fixed. Others fill a series of giant screens lifted high above head height. In the areas dealing with the war on land, sea and in the air, the screens periodically show animated films, specially written and developed by design companies in Australia.

Between the showing of these films, and in the area intended to give the impression of being in a trench, other films project wider scenes of the war. Contemporary photographs and original archive film complete the picture. Overall the exhibition aims to engage and stimulate consideration not only of what happened, but also its impact. We believe that this carefully controlled combination of traditional object based displays and cutting edge digital presentations is the best way to achieve this.

How does this enhance understanding?

Evaluation of visitor needs undertaken before IWM recently regenerated its galleries suggested that many visitors needed to be gently led into World War One. They were uncertain of where this episode of history sat within the range of cultural reference points linked to it. Audio-visual presentations, based on sound scholarly understanding, help to make contextual sense of the real historic objects and provide a safety net which allows visitors to approach the exhibition as a whole with more confidence. The WW1 Centenary Exhibition is neither just a traditional museum display nor an immersive experience. But it uses elements of both to build up a strong storyline and encourage the widest possible engagement and learning.

How does the exhibition bring events that are 100 years old to life in 2015?

We believe the combination of old and new is the best way to engage and inspire visitors to understand and appreciate the events of 1914–18. Right at the start of the exhibition, we wanted to carry them back to what life was like and who people were in the decade leading up to the outbreak of war.

We sourced a number of early films from Australia and New Zealand as well as Britain, to show the faces and personalities of those who made up this distant world. Our hope was that visitors would watch what initially appeared to be something alien and disconnected. But after seeing these people from so long ago behave in such a familiar way in front of the camera they would realize that despite the passage of time the world of 1900 was not really so different ours 100 years on. Personal stories also work in the same way.

Unique circumstances can become universal through the recognition of common traits and the emergence of a sense of affinity with the past.

How do you make the link to WWI's obvious relevance for today?

The final section of exhibition speaks very clearly about the ongoing legacy of World War One. It considers both the direct political consequences, manifest in the new countries recognised by the League of Nations and the new international dynamics resulting from the cost of the war, and the personal.

The war reached out to individuals and small communities spread right across the British Empire. War memorials in outback towns today speak not only of those who died, but also those who served. This was an immense Imperial effort on behalf of common goals many of which, when the survivors returned, they began to question. This experience, beginning at Gallipoli, now forms part of a clear sense of what it is to be an Australian and the reasons why this is so can be drawn out of the exhibition’s story for all visitors to consider. 

How do you make such a terrible event accessible and still acknowledge the horror of it?

Presented as a purely historical event the past can seem distant and irrelevant. The blend of real objects and specially devised audio-visual elements in the WW1 Centenary Exhibition is intended to be engaging and provocative. We hope that visitors, including all students, will be presented with aspects of the war that they have not considered before and find a way into this vast subject through the individual stories and the provenance of the artefacts. Yet, none of this is intended to cover up the deep and immense impact the war had on tens of thousands of people in Australia and across the whole of British Empire during World War One. 

Words by Nigel Steel, Principal Historian for IWM’s First World War Centenary Programme and lead historian on the WW1 Centenary Exhibition - Published June 2015
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