IWM Historian Matt Brosnan gives an overview of the new exhibition
Throughout its history, IWM has explored war and conflict since 1914 from all angles. So it seems appropriate that in 2017, the centenary of IWM’s foundation, the Museum is staging an exhibition examining how people have opposed and protested against war over the last hundred years.
From the very beginning of thinking about the exhibition, we wanted to convey a sense of the experience of anti-war protest. Partly we have done this through the many placards, banners, posters, letters, flyers, badges and various other objects associated with these events. But we have also incorporated a range of digital content, in the form of photographs, film and audio.
It is with the use of all the audio elements where we have benefitted with our ongoing partnership with Bowers & Wilkins. The most noticeable aspect of this is a soundscape played through the speakers positioned throughout the gallery. We produced this in collaboration with sound designers Coda to Coda, who sourced and edited contemporary sound recordings from the time periods relevant to the exhibition to form looped audio pieces for the different segments of the exhibition. In one part of the gallery visitors will hear the words of a speech of anti-war campaigner Bertrand Russell from the First World War, while in another will be heard a song sung by protesters on the 1958 anti-nuclear Aldermaston march.
This examination of the experience of anti-war protest is also conveyed through the voices of people who were there. Using the riches of the IWM’s Sound Archive, we have an audio kiosk in each of the exhibition’s main sections. Each kiosk contains ten clips from interviews, which visitors listen to via Bowers & Wilkins headphones. Film screens are also dotted throughout the gallery, showing archival film relevant to the protests addressed. Some of these also include sound conveyed openly into the gallery to mould and contrast with the overall soundscape.
The exhibition is structured chronologically, so begins with the First World War. While the outbreak of war was largely met in Britain with an outpouring of patriotic fervour, there was always a determined and vocal minority that opposed it. In 1916, the British government introduced conscription for the first time, meaning all men aged between 18 and 41 were liable for military service. Those men who refused to serve for reasons of conscience could register as conscientious objectors (COs). Ultimately around 16,000 men took this path, with their cases assessed by tribunals. Most ended up serving prison sentences or performing some kind of menial work.
This part of the exhibition also references the output of writers and artists, including poet Siegfried Sassoon, who launched a single-handed protest against the conduct of the war in 1917. Writing and art had a significant impact on how the First World War came to be perceived, with a general sentiment of ‘never again’ predominant in the 1920s.
Visitors then pass into a section that looks at the 1930s and the Second World War. The 1930s saw a rise in popularity in peace campaigning. This was typified by the creation of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), which quickly established a large membership and well-known supporters such as Vera Brittain and Aldous Huxley. But with the rise of Nazi Germany, many pacifists softened their views as they realised Nazi aggression could only be dealt with by force. When the Second World War began, the British government immediately introduced conscription. Conscientious objectors were dealt with more impartially than in 1916, with most of the 60,000 to claim CO status in the Second World War being given some kind of alternative work that they were prepared to do.
The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 brought the Second World War to an end, but demonstrated the devastating new weapon that sparked a half century of Cold War. Nuclear weapons became the main focus of renewed protests. Visitors encounter the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was created and a number of high profile marches and demonstrations were organised. The soundscape here includes audio recorded from the first Aldermaston march in 1958. We are fortunate to be able to display two of the rarely seen drawings of the nuclear disarmament symbol – now often known as the peace symbol – by artist Gerald Holtom.
A striking series of posters and associated material also explores how the Vietnam War was the subject of protest in the later 1960s. This area also has a specific soundscape, incorporating audio from a demonstration in 1968. The exhibition then moves into the 1980s, which saw another upsurge in anti-nuclear campaigning. This includes a feature on Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, first established at an RAF air base in 1981 and perhaps the most famous and longest-running anti-nuclear demonstration in Britain. Visitors will encounter a range of objects, as well as an interactive Greenham fence, with protest banners hung from the gallery ceiling. The soundscape here includes audio recorded at Greenham.
The final section takes the story from the 1990s to the present day, from protests against the Gulf War in 1991 to anti-nuclear demonstrations in 2016. The largest focus in this room is the series of protests against the 2003 Iraq War and other conflicts in the Middle East, many of them organised by the Stop the War Coalition. This includes banners and posters from the huge London demonstration on 15 February 2003, when up to 2 million people took part. Again, the dedicated soundscape in this part of the gallery conveys a sense of the atmosphere of these protests.
Throughout, the exhibition explores these topics and themes through the people that experienced them at first hand. Rather than display their objects in silence, the exhibition uses the audio soundscape, as well as photographs and film footage, to bring these objects to life. All of the banners, placards, posters and flyers on display were used in demonstrations, so they were made not for the gallery but for the street. It is by using the fullest range of material possible, and by working with partners like Bowers & Wilkins, that we are able to engage our audiences more directly.
People Power: Fighting for Peace is on at IWM London from 23 March to 28 August 2017