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Paul Cornish

First World War Galleries Project

Since 2010 I have been working as Senior Curator on the team creating new First World War Galleries for Imperial War Museum London. They will open to the public as part of a transformed museum in July 2014. Covering over 1000 square metres, the galleries are sufficiently large to accommodate artillery pieces and even a tank and an aircraft alongside smaller exhibits.
Members will undoubtedly be aware of the richness of IWMs’ First World War collections, but may be interested to hear about the historical, museological and practical considerations which influenced the way in which these artefacts will shortly be presented to the public.
Our team was tasked with telling the story of the First World War to a new generation, and to put it in the context of the world before and after the war. In keeping with the museum’s terms of reference, the focus was to be on the British Empire’s involvement.
We quickly arrived at some key decisions. First, given the huge advances in the field of First World War Studies since the opening of our previous gallery in 1990, we were determined that the galleries should reflect the latest historical thinking. To help us achieve this, we have drawn upon the expert advice of a distinguished Academic Advisory Board. Secondly, we decided that, if visitors were to follow such a complex series of events, the galleries would need to be based upon a largely chronological narrative.
Finally, we decided to follow a policy of ‘contemporaneity’ – that is to say we would portray the war as it was seen by people at the time, without the application of hindsight. This does not mean that there is not a ‘museum voice’ guiding the visitor around the galleries; but just that our text attempts to avoid making judgements which were not made at the time. This approach offers the benefit of freeing the galleries’ narrative from the encumbrance of post-1918 reconfigurations of the war.
The pursuit of contemporaneity means that the words of people who lived (and died) during the war will feature throughout the exhibition – not just in the text, but incorporated into the fabric of the gallery itself. These words will be those spoken, or committed to diaries or letters at the time; rather than being taken from later memoirs. We feel that they offer a fresh and often surprising perspective on the war.
Of course we are well aware that, in Britain, the First World War is generally viewed simply in terms of mud and trenches. But we hope to show that, while these were indeed features of the First World War, the struggle was not limited to the deadlock which existed on the Western Front from late 1914 until early 1918. Not only was it a war fought around the globe in diverse environments, but one which began and ended in mobile campaigns far more costly in human life than trench warfare.
It was also a war fought on the home front. Thus the exhibition will address the impact of war on civilians; the fundamental importance of their support in keeping nations fighting; their mobilisation as war-workers and the fact that they themselves became the target of air attack and naval blockades. The design of the galleries ensures that the home front will feature alongside the fighting fronts throughout; giving the visitor a visual and spatial reminder that the two arenas were inextricably linked.
In short, we hope to show that the First World War was more varied, more colourful, more strange and, arguably – given that civilians became the victims of massacres and starvation – even more terrible than is popularly perceived.