Powerfully but gracefully standing by the south bank of Salford Quays, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) North illustrates something only grander than its architectural monumentality – War, i.e. the devastation of humanity and human endeavor to achieve harmonious collaboration across polities, races, religions and beliefs. Its museum curation, which features British warfare since 1914, no doubt matches the greatness of such topic. In my opinion, IWM North is the single, most exciting museum to visit in Manchester.
Markedly, IWM takes much care in relating wars with people. It might sound very intuitive that people fight wars, but more often than not we mistakenly envision that wars are either caused by or fought for the sake of some magnates of international politics who were always pulling the strings. The argument that the IWM wants to get across is straight forward: visitors are to “explore and discover how war shapes and changes people’s lives”. Wars throughout history are examples of conflict (and compromise), mobilization (of human and material resources), and social changes (culture and sub-culture, ideology, mentalité, and social dynamics). The protagonist, of course, is the people as a collective and inclusive identity group. As IWM beautifully phrases, they are “ordinary people in extraordinary times.”
This is not to say, however, that IWM denounces the influence of politics on wars. The exhibition regards international diplomacy as a framework under which wars were fought. Although politicians and tacticians are not in the limelight, IWM makes relevant and necessary references to them to give visitors a well-rounded explanation of what happened during war time. Appropriate juxtapositions of “big guys” and “ordinary people” are among the highlights of this exhibition.
IWM also succeeds in expanding our understanding of the scale of influence of historical warfare. The fascinating display of WWII home-front wartime culture supports a framing statement of IWM that “war literally affects everyone’s life.” In one of the side exhibition rooms, visitors can hear from people who, in their lives, have to deal with either the direct or indirect impact of war. This key component of oral history is exhibited in a space that quite resembles a storage room for urns with each of those stories contained in little drawers. Such curation and individual stories both deliver the same message: war brings much more harm to people than good.
Overall, the pacifist idea of IWM is very apparent, but by no means a naïve one. The museum makes no attempt to avoid any of those past cruelties committed by arguably sinful people. Memoriae damnatio is not how IWM proposes to reflect on our history. Instead, it stands up embracing the past, acknowledging and allowing different perspectives on what has really happened. Peace, ultimately, is something that the common humanity desires, for, if we only learn one thing from the past, we know that war brings destructive and revolutionary changes to all combatants and parties. In all, reconstructing much-damaged societies, reintegrating war parties into a peaceful environment, and building a world where mutual communication and interaction prioritize promoting peace and avoiding war, such are the ways in which IWM advocates for peace through its fascinating exhibition of British warfare since 1914.
11-6-18 drafted in Nottingham, UK
18-6-18 revised and published in Cambridge, UK
Cover image: Imperial War Museum North, seen from the north bank of Salford Quays in a typical English weather.