Monday, 6 October 2014

Preserving for what?

Imperial War Museum

On my second year in London, back in 1994, I could see the cupola of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) from my kitchen window. It was a beautiful view of a beautiful museum. To the surprise of many people, this is my favourite museum in London.

On my way to the first Congress of Military Museology, I was thinking that I never considered the IWM, which was going to make a presentation on that day, a military museum. To me, the IWM is a people´s museum (shouldn´t they all be?). A museum of the military and the civilians, of men and women, of grown ups and children, of human beings and animals (I am thinking of some of the exhibitions I saw there). It´s much more than dates, battles, tactics, types of weapons, treaties. It´s a museum that tells the stories of people whose lives were affected by war.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

The IWM presentation was included in a panel that would discuss the Military Museums and the the Great War Centenary. The first speaker was Maria Fernanda Rollo, a university professor and coordinator of the project Portugal 1914. This is a web portal, with very rich contents gathered with the collaboration of various institutions and professionals with different backgrounds, as well as the general public. The aim is to promote active citizenship, committed to the protection, preservation and safeguarding of a collective heritage, as well as to raise awareness of the importance of remembrance and the preservation of historical knowledge. “This is a virtual museum, that tells stories, where one learns with affection. It´s a museum that is alive”, said Maria Fernanda Rollo.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum
I smiled when I heard this statement. Because, implicitely, Maria Fernanda Rollo was revealing to us her perception of museums: a dead space, a space where stories are not told, a space where affection doesn´t have a place. A perception which is widely shared by many people in our society at various levels (do you remember why painter Paula Rego wished for the museum of her paintings in Cascais to be called “House of Stories” and not “museum”?).  But I also smiled while listening to my good friend Gina Koutsika making her lively and stimulating presentation on the initiatives of the IWM for the commemoration of the centenary. Gina showed us how alive a museum can (and should) be, how full of stories and feelings, how close to the communities it serves. This is not a museum in the virtual world, it´s a real one, it exists.

Promotional postcard of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

Once the debate started, my mind travelled to another museum visit, some ten years ago, at the In Flanders Fields Museum (Ypres, Belgium). Another remarkable museum in the town that stood in the way of the German army and was totally destroyed during the war. A museum full of human stories, where the visitor may take up the identity of one of the town’s inhabitants and follow his/her story during the war. The one thing that marked me the most, and that I never encountered in another museum since, was the most simple way of showing that one object could be many stories. By exhibiting a pile of white handkerchiefs, the museum told the story of the multiple uses of that one object: it could be a sign of surrender; or a way to protect oneself from lethal gases covering one´s nose; or something to cover one´s eyes when facing the death squad.

In Flanders Fields Museum

From Ypres, my mind crossed the boarder and went to France, to the Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux and its amazing project “Léon Vivien”. Good museums can find imaginative ways of putting their collections in good use, bringing them to life and connecting them with people. Léon Vivien is a fictitious character, a soldier, whose story is told on a special Facebook page through a number of objects, followed and commented by thousands of people. Good museums can do well both in the real and virtual word.

Eventually, the issue of remembrance came up in the debate. Lieutenant-General Mário de Oliveira Cardoso was another speaker on that panel and he quoted philosopher, essayist and writer George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Remember the past, preserve historical knowledge. Yes, that´s the aim of a number of insitutions, including museums. But why? What’s the purpose? Is it being achieved? Are the stories preserved and remembered just for their own sake or rather because they can be a link to the present, to current human stories, not only our own but those of others too? Can the stories preserved and remembered help me connect to the Other, make his/her story my own?

Europe is full of military, history, first and second world war, holocaust museums. They all aim to preserve the historical past and show the importance of rememberance. “Never again” is the motto we encounter in many of them. Are these museums aware that recently, following the atrocities that took place in Gaza, the cry “Death to Jews” was heard once again in some European cities? Have they reacted? Have they taken the opportunity to put their collections in good use and to show what is the purpose of preserving the historical past and remembering? Isn´t it precisely in a moment like this that museums should intervene publicly and contribute towards clarifying and shaping public opinion? Otherwise, preserving for what?

Other texts

Los jóvenes tienen que conocer esto para saber en que país están viviendo
Interview with Ricardo Brodsky, director of Museo de la Memoria (Santiago de Chile)

Le MuCEM ne doit pas devenir un musée pour touristes
Interview with Jean-François Chougnet, director of Musée des Civilisations de l´Europe et de la Méditerranée (Marseille)

Who funds the arts and why we should care
Interview with Charles Esche, curator of São Paulo Biennial


Margaret said...

An excellent post and the video was very emotional. But we never seem to learn from our mistakes. Never again. Lest we forget. All cries in the dark, as conflict follows conflict. The Paris Peace Conference was barely over when the Manchurian and Abyssinian invasions happened and WWI was still a living memory when WWII broke out.
Maybe education is the answer and museums can play a vital role in stimulating thought and discussion, but only for those whose minds are open.

Maria Vlachou said...

You are very right, Margaret. History is being repeated and education is fundamental to keep people aware, informed, critical and active. Nevertheless, we´re fighting against the all too powerful "human nature". As Thucydides wrote in the 5th century BC, his writings will remain relevant as long as human beings are as they are...