Military exhibitions and personal stories: from the Western Front to Helmand Province

The importance of personal stories in exhibitions that communicate the experiences of troops and civilians during conflicts cannot be overstated. Insights into the lives of servicemen and women and their families help visitors to emotionally identify with the protagonists and give a much needed authenticity to overarching themes and messages. This post looks at the challenges and opportunities associated with integrating personal stories into two very different military exhibition displays I have worked on- Next of Kin: Scottish Families and the First World War now open at The National War Museum in Edinburgh, and Unseen Enemy recently on display at the National Army Museum.

Unseen Enemy


Specialist Search and Disposal team display in Unseen Enemy exhibition 

A principal aim of Unseen Enemy was to tell the story of the use of Improvised Explosive Devices in recent conflicts through the personal testimony of serving troops. From the start of the project, a comprehensive oral history programme was set up to collect the experiences of service personnel dealing with the impact of these deadly weapons in Helmand Province. Over 70 recorded oral history interviews covered a huge and diverse range of themes, including the teamwork of specialist IED search teams, the bravery of IED operators disarming devices, the emotional journeys of physical and mental recovery from IED blasts and the dedication of medical teams working in Bastion and the UK (Listen to these stories here).

A key advantage throughout the oral history programme was having a group of committed counter-IED and medical personnel who not only provided valuable fact-checking and relevant object loans, but also offered a point of contact for serving personnel willing to contribute their own experiences. A lack of similar experts and contacts showed when attempting to communicate the tactics and motivations of insurgents in Afghanistan and the situation for Afghan civilians. Since we weren’t able to get out to Afghanistan to speak to these people, content which covered their experiences lacked the authenticity and emotional depth of the narratives about British troops- something that Yasmin Khan recognised in her review in the Museums Journal.

When it came to preparing this content for display, time intensive editing was required to prepare extracts that both reinforced these themes and interpreted some of the personal objects on display. Multiple audio technologies were needed to provide different layers of sound, making oral history content the principal interpretation tool for object displays. Sound showers with 5-10 sec interview extracts linked to a slide show of soldier’s amateur photographs offered quick and accessible insights into the reality of IED search and disposal, while audio handsets provided longer sections with soldiers recounting key incidents on operations. In addition, striking wall quotes were used to reinforce key exhibition themes and interactive iPad kiosks offered in-depth interaction with testimony from soldiers recovering from IED blast injuries. Of these, the immersive soundscape of voices and corresponding slideshows of personal photographs appeared to have the most impact, most likely due to their accessibility and prominence in the display.

Next of Kin


Embroidered postcard on display in Next of Kin exhibition

Next of Kin is a centenary exhibition that tells the emotional and poignant stories of loss and separation experienced by Scottish families during the First World War. It connects visitors with these personal accounts through objects kept by troops and their families and passed down through generations, including an unexploded shell picked up a naval cadet as a souvenir, correspondence between a Private and his mother, and autograph books of soldiers’ drawings, poems and jokes belonging to a volunteer nurse working in Scottish hospitals. Perhaps the most facinating objects are the letters, postcards and diaries that show the real voices and thoughts of these protagonists. For some audiences however, reading the letters and postcards sent to and from the fighting fronts are often not enough in themselves to evoke the personalities behind the stories. As a result, the curatorial team decided to present the letters and diaries both as objects and soundscape recordings read out by actors. Since this is immersive audio rather than individual handsets attached to cases, the priority of this content is to help visitors identify with the families as real people rather than provide in-depth information about each story (Listen to some of these stories at the bottom of the exhibition webpage).

In March 2015, the exhibition will travel to nine museums across Scotland, with each partner museum contributing personal stories to the display cases and a digital app built into an iPad interactive. With local communities around Scotland particularly keen to donate relatives’ keepsakes and stories during the Centenary period, there may be an exciting opportunity to incorporate audience-led interpretation through co-curation activities this year. This could either involve collecting the perspectives of community groups to existing collection artefacts or actively acquiring new objects and first-hand accounts from families offering donations. When designing additional displays for these new exhibitions a key challenge may be visually incorporating the contemporary stories of local audiences as well as those of the original troops and families.


Making it Personal

In exhibitions such as A Family in Wartime at the Imperial War Museum, the personal experiences of those who lived through historical events are being incorporated in ever more inventive and significant ways. But how easy is it to stay true to the story?


Personal stories

It is well known in the museum world that audiences are attracted to personal stories. For every history exhibition I’ve researched, audiences have been most interested in what life was like for the ordinary person. For an exhibition about lighthouses it was, ‘how lonely were lighthouse keepers?’ and for a historic steam train, ‘How did people use it to get to work?’. Finding out the small details or anecdotal stories related to people’s lives is one of the only ways audiences can actually “experience” history. For me the key appeal is being able to imagine you are in someone else’s shoes and gain a deeper understanding of what it was really like. It is not surprising then that history exhibitions such as A Family in Wartime have put the lives of archetypal citizens at the heart of the display.

The exhibition

The exhibition follows the story of the Allpress’s, a family with 10 children who lived in the local Lambeth area during the Second World War. Like characters in a book or film, the family members are introduced to visitors through a family tree and short snippets of biographical information. In this introduction area there is also an amazingly detailed model of their house which you were able to explore in detail through large interactive touch screens.

The main area of the exhibition is split up into themes that roughly relate to the lives of the family, such as a section on the father’s job on the railway and the daughter’s participation in the women’s voluntary service. Displays in these sections are infused with the testimony and possessions of the family, through personal objects such as the boy’s suitcase and audio points with family members telling interesting anecdotes. Touch screens encourage visitors to actually put themselves in the shoes of the family by asking rhetorical questions such as, ‘Would you send your children away?’.

Concluding the filmic narrative introduced at the start, there is even a film at the end which explains what happened to the family after the war. Overall the exhibition does a great job of explaining key events and themes and bringing them to life through the voices and memories of the Allpress family. Having just one real-life example (albeit with multiple experiences) creates a familiarity with the protagonists and contributes to a gripping narrative- you really want to find out what happens to them.

Behind the scenes

From an exhibition development perspective, there are two other things I would like to know more about. a) How did the museum originally identify the family history as a potential narrative for the exhibition? A little bit of research showed that Harry Allpress, the last living member of the family, helped the developers put the exhibition together. How did they collect the oral history of other family members and were they only able to communicate the stories of family members who documented their experiences, in diaries for example?

b) Secondly, to what extent was portraying a truthful account of the family compromised by the need to communicate a comprehensive account of the World War Two Home front to a family and school audience? The exhibition development teams undoubtedly had a set of content messages as part of their learning strategy, perhaps based on topics taught in the school curriculum or certain gaps in visitor knowledge. What was most important in directing the content of the exhibition, the experience of the family or these strategic aims? On the face of it the themes of the exhibition link well with key events in the family’s lives, but perhaps there were other memories or experiences that didn’t fit with the content hierarchy and were cut. Although this is conjecture it brings to light the ethical considerations and balance needed to provide an educational experience whilst not compromising the accuracy and emotional resonance of the protagonists’ memories and experiences.

Using one human story as the central narrative of an exhibition is clearly effective, but I can imagine it has its unique challenges.

The Case for Videogames in Museums

Jonathon Jones’s argument against exhibiting videogames at MOMA in the Guardian (read it here) this week justifiably came up against staunch criticism from readers defending games as a valid form of ‘art’. I feel both arguments miss the point.

Portal (2007)

Portal (2007)

The arguments

The basis of Jones’s criticism of MOMA’s display of games is that works of art should be “one person’s reaction to life”, and that “it has to be an act of personal imagination.” So videogames cannot be art because they are experienced through interaction between the player and programme, rather than through reception of meaning from an individual artistic vision. The comments by Guardian readers have been scornful, with most putting forward arguments that video games do in fact fit into Jones’s definition of art. A common argument was that “a game producer has a “vision” just like a film director [or artist] does.”

Like Jones’s critics, I think it is vital videogames are appropriated and interpreted by museums. However, both arguments miss the point about the purpose of museums and the nature of popular culture.

Art as high culture

Firstly, why limit what museums display and interpret by becoming fixated over what are essentially arbitrary and outmoded definitions of high art? In Victorian Britain, art galleries became a tool to ‘civilise’ the masses following a belief that traditional artworks such as portraits and landscapes contained a universal truth and aesthetic beauty. Although this philosophy of art as philanthropy has been largely rejected, the prioritisation of high art over low popular culture is still a dominant concept behind cultural policy (See Boris Johnson’s and Munira Mirza’s arguments for ‘cultural value’) and art criticism.

By trying to fit videogame culture into Jones’s definition of art, his critics also fall into the trap of prioritising these archaic interpretations of culture. Rather than preoccupy themselves with defining what art is, museums and galleries should simply focus on displaying what is most relevant and interesting for their audiences. The value of interpreting videogames for visitors lies in generating insights about a culture that is important and ubiquitous in daily life. Simply put, museums are for people rather than for upholding subjective and outdated definitions of art.

I understand art museums must have a remit in terms of what they collect and interpret, which inevitably involves definitions of what art is. But it’s time they discarded the traditional conceptions of art, and started to accept popular consumer culture which has relevance and significance in contemporary society.

Artistic intention vs. consumer consumption

Another oversight from both Jones and his critics is that they concentrate solely on the design and artistic intention of videogame culture, when the majority of popular media’s meaning and significance come from the way it is consumed and appropriated by audiences. Undeniably videogames can provoke powerful visceral and intellectual responses through careful construction of storylines, vivid characters and aesthetic experiences. But the relevance of videogames to audiences also lies in what they can tell us about the changing values and attitudes of society. For example, what does the popularity of games such as Grand Theft Auto tell us about our changing attitudes to violence and morality?

A prioritisation of creator over consumer is still upheld through exhibitions of popular culture, reflecting the continuing necessity to interpret ‘low culture’ according to the traditional definitions of high art. The V&A exhibition Streetwise: from Sidewalk to Catwalk analysed street fashion through a formalist perspective, focusing strictly on the creative aspects of the cultural production rather than the lifestyles or attitudes of subcultures that influenced it. Most disappointingly, the new National Football Museum fails to explore the ways football fans use their clubs as a means of defining their identity. As David Fleming points out in his recent review of the museum, “football as a social phenomenon has been somewhat short-changed in favour of, well, football as a sport and phenomenon.”

A look at the interpretation strategy for the videogame installation shows that MOMA’s new display is no exception. Selection of objects was based primarily on the design merits rather than their popularity or significance for game fans. According to Paola Antonelli, senior curator at MOMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, “[Videogames] are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe….Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects—from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behaviour—that pertain to interaction design.”

Artists vs Visitors

Visiting the exhibition Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist landscape in Europe 1880-1910 at the Scottish National Gallery highlighted some important considerations for art interpretation- should art exhibitions be about the motivations and techniques of artists, or our own personal encounters with the artworks?


Isle of the Dead, Arnold Bocklin

Historical context

Van Gogh to Kandinsky sets out to tell the history of symbolist landscape paintings through an exploration of the cultural contexts in which the artworks were made and the artists’ abilities to convey emotion through colour and composition. In this aim the exhibition certainly succeeds.

The six rooms are each clearly linked to a movement in symbolist painting and give an insight into the unique historical moments in which the art was made. Interpretation panels explain how scientific developments such as the discovery of evolution and dream psychology were explored by symbolist artists. The personal testimony of artists is often included through material on touch screens, such as letters between Van Gogh and his brother. These undoubtedly help visitors to enter the mind-set of the artist and their endeavour to capture a particular idea or atmosphere.

The same terminals provide an opportunity to listen to music specially made to accompany the pictures. This sensory experience certainly enhances the atmosphere of specific artworks and demonstrates the similarities between painting and music- art is a tool of emotional manipulation just as music is often created to make listeners feel a certain emotion.

The visitor’s subjectivity

So the ways that artists and history conspire to communicate a constructed reality of nature is clearly explained, but what about the subjectivity that visitors bring to the art encounter? Looking at the evocative and atmospheric painting I continually thought, why am I attracted to this particular painting or ignore that one? How do our experiences and memories, personal aesthetic tastes and personality shape what we look at and for how long?

The absence of ‘art psychology’ in exhibition interpretation in general is understandable. The primary aim of most art exhibitions is to communicate the historical context and meaning behind artworks while the psychological responses of visitors is based on the here and now.

But I feel it’s vital we consider why we engage with certain artworks and unpick our encounters with them; it’s at the heart of what we look at it in exhibitions and hang on our walls. In this exhibition for example, it would help visitors less comfortable with deciphering the symbolic messages of paintings to consider their own aesthetic responses to art as a whole.

Including visitor responses in displays

How easy is it to incorporate visitors’ personal tastes into exhibition spaces in practice? Competition based exhibitions such as the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery and Wildlife Photographer of the Year at Natural History Museum provide terminals for visitors to select their favourite works on display. More ambitiously, Brooklyn Museum got 3,500 community members to evaluate the work of artists in their online and on-site crowd curated exhibition Click.

Getting visitors to select their favourite works might help them to identify a particular aesthetic they are attracted to, but anything that helps them to understand why they chose them is even better. Perhaps a tool that links their choices to personality traits or music tastes, or explores responses to certain colours. (For the record my favourite painting on display was the dark and oppressive Isle of the Dead– not sure what that says about me!).

For most exhibitions, including visitors’ evaluations of art would be a deeper layer rather than central tenet of interpretation. Certainly for many visitors, dissecting the psychology behind their appreciation of art would negate the simple pleasure of soaking up the atmosphere. On the other hand, an exhibition such as Click dedicated to our psychological responses to art could be less intrusive than after thoughts.

I feel subtle shifts from artist centred to visitor centred interpretation can only be a good thing, but further research on the actual impacts on audience learning and experience is needed.  If anyone’s done any audience research on the subject, I’d be interested to hear the results.