Thursday, August 21, 2014

World War One Museum Commemorations

Simon Jenkins made his name as a journalist, most recently with the Guardian, but in heritage circles we know him as a highly successful chairman of the English National Trust from 2008 until earlier this year, and also as a 21st century Pevsner with his great books on English architecture, most notably England's Thousand Best Churches.

So when Jenkins writes in the Guardian saying 1914: the Great War has become a nightly pornography of violence, it is worth reading. He goes onto say 'Britain's commemoration of the Great War has lost all sense of proportion. It has become a media theme park, an indigestible cross between Downton Abbey and a horror movie'.

Great stuff, and blogging this from the UK , there is certainly no escaping the commemorations (not to mention the 'stay calm and carry on' World War Two slogan which is in serious danger of being completely overused). So I was keen to see the highly acclaimed new World War One gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Firstly, whatever Jenkins may think, there is no escaping the public interest. I had a four hour wait for timed entry into the exhibition, and the Museum was heaving with people. 

Secondly, it is a great exhibition on a subject I thought I knew a lot about, but came away knowing a great deal more. For instance, I didn't know that prior to the War the UK was producing nearly 80% of the world 's battleships, or that when Kitchener called for volunteers in 1915, he hoped for 100,000 and got 750,000, or that the Germans very nearly won the war in early 1918.

Thirdly, it is well designed with clear graphics and text, with content often repeated on other panels in slightly different ways, so one does not feel one has to read everything (impossible anyway given the crowds).

And finally, it has some really great objects. As often happens the mundane ones are the most powerful, a particularly striking one being an infantry officer's jacket with the left arm blown off. Explore the rest of that great museum if you make it there, the jacket having a parallel with a backpack that a soldier placed over a home made bomb in Afghanistan three years ago, when he hurled himself and said backpack on the bomb to save his comrades. Amazingly he escaped with bruising as his flack jacket was inside. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, but his back pack did not fare so well.

November 2014 sees the opening of the World War One galleries at the Australian War Memorial. From what I hear, they will rival those in London.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Context and Cragside

A constant challenge for house museum interpretation is contextualising the building and its contents. We all know how stories bring places alive, and the reality is that some house museums have more going for them in this space than others.

Cragside near Morpeth in Northumberland is one such house, and a recent visit confirmed what a sterling job the National Trust are doing with it. And what a story it has to tell. The owner, Sir William, later 1st Lord, Armstrong (1810 - 1900) was one of those great Victorian industrialists and engineers who brought Britain to world pre-eminence by the end of the 19th century. Famous for an ability to so immerse himself in solving a problem that his colleagues would wonder if he was still alive (note to self: must remember to try this in boring meetings), he would emerge from his trance with another mechanical solution.

Generally this was applied, as far as I could see, to building battleships for the Japanese at his shipyard in Newcastle. But with the fortune this provided him with, he set to in a remote part of Northumberland to build Cragside with the architect Richard Norman Shaw.

There he included every gadget he could think of to invent, from running hot and cold water (unheard of at the time!), to an hydraulic lift, an automatic spit for meat in front of the fire (every home should have one) to electric light powered by a hydro-electric power plant, the first in the world.

He even convinced the Prince and Princess of Wales to come and stay to savour these delights, building onto the house to accommodate their visit including the most humongous fireplace known to man.