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.
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
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.