Understanding Conflict Through The Objects We Value

Curator at Imperial War Museum London Carl Warner on putting together the What Remains exhibition

By Google Arts & Culture

German Panzer II tanks in Wenceslas Square in Prague, 20 April 1939. (1939)Original Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205071031

‘Culture Under Attack’ is a season of three exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum London that explore how war threatens not just people’s lives, but also things that help define us: our history, heritage, and culture. 'What Remains' is the biggest show in the season and, in collaboration with Historic England, the show explores why cultural heritage is attacked during war and the ways we try to save, protect and preserve what’s targeted.

Carl Warner, curator and historian at the IWM London, was one of the brains behind the show and here he describes the challenges of putting together an exhibition about objects that have been destroyed in warfare and why culture is so linked to our identity.

The evacuation of paintings from London during the Second World War (1939/1945) by Ministry of InformationOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022477

How did the ‘What Remains’ exhibition come about?

We'd been looking for a while at different thematic approaches to the effects and the consequences of war on people’s lives.

What kept coming up was this idea that war can sometimes deliberately attack the things that people value the most. So we started to look at tangible manifestations of culture such as buildings, artworks, sculptures and things and news reports from the last few years tended to feed into that as well. Through this process we started to unlock different stories that were really quite powerful.

Exeter in Wartime (1943) by Ministry of Information Photo Division official photographerOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196923

Why do you feel this kind of show is relevant now?

Warfare kills people, that's the brutal bottom line, but it can also take away their reason for living. Culture helps bring us a sense of identity, helps provide meaning and structure to our lives, if you are religious or spiritual it can also have that dimension. When that's taken away, dislocated, or removed from you it's incredibly powerful. The problem is, the perpetrators of this kind of thing realize that, which is why they attack it.

I think it's important when we look around our own environment and see the things that actually mean a lot to us, to look at them with a little more respect, more reverence. This concept unlocks what museums are all about, which is that objects have value and meaning, and we wouldn’t gather them together in buildings like this if they didn't.

What's the most unusual object or artifact that features in the show?

What we've tried to do is look at this from the perspective of the perpetrators, and question why they recognized the destruction of this thing would be so devastating to people. That's led us to some interesting objects.For instance, in 1914, when the German army marched into Belgium, the university town of Leuven was deliberately burned, and that included its library. This became a really powerful moment exuded by the allies to demonstrate what they perceived as German barbarism and for the town it was devastating. We formed a relationship with the University of Leuven and we've borrowed one of the burned and charred books from that time. The university wrapped up these books in glass cases with the seal of the university and treated them very reverentially. Both because they were important and because they acted as a memorial to this ultimate barbaric act.

Remains of Lamassu Sculpture in Cultural Museum of Mosul by Radio AlghadImperial War Museums

What's the best part of being a curator for a show like this?

The best part of being a curator generally is making connections between things. For What Remains, we're linking together objects in quite a tragic way as you realize over the course of 100 years people are still perpetrating the same barbaric acts against other people. But to be able to link those things together, to try and give them some explanatory power is really good.

At the end of the process it's fantastic if you can get the sense that you might have changed something. You might have made somebody question some thoughts or preconceptions they had before going in.

What have been the challenges of putting together this exhibition?

The one major challenge, and we found this right at the start, is that if you're doing an exhibition about stuff being destroyed, one of the problems you've got is that the stuff is destroyed. So in terms of locating objects, quite often a) you can't, because that's the story and b) quite tragically, if you're looking to bring these stories up to date, then you're dealing with working out how to represent stories from areas that are still war zones.

National Buildings Record Exhibition of Photographs and Drawings of English Architecture programme (1944) by National Buildings RecordHistoric England

What has it been like working with Historic England? What have they added to the experience?

It's been really fascinating because although their work is obviously focused on England, the story we’ve been able to explore with them is rooted around the National Buildings Record and this idea of preservation through record. A group of people were concerned with the importance of architecture and our built environment at the start of the Second World War. They realized that we were going to lose an enormous amount of what we consider to be extremely important cultural buildings. So they sent these amazing photographers to capture all of these buildings in cities before and after destruction, and got a hold of plans and sketches. This became the NBR and the IWM was able to have complete access to that whole archive of material.

Rekrei homepageImperial War Museums

You mentioned preservation and the ways that’s been achieved over the years, how does technology feature in the exhibition?

The question remains the same, how do you preserve? Is it possible to preserve even after something has been destroyed? That's where those photographers and the National Building Record came up with the idea of preservation through record. Now technology has moved on. For instance, we got in contact we Rekrei on the work they've been doing to crowdsource pieces of at-risk and already destroyed architecture or sculpture, and using that imagery to create effective 3D models. They've got a brilliant process which we explore in the exhibition.

The ruins of St Michael's Cathedral, Coventry (1941-10-11) by James Nelson, National Buildings RecordHistoric England

What do you hope people take away from the exhibition?

For me, one of the sad things is that people have become quite desensitized to destruction and the assumption is that, because war is very destructive and has become a lot more mechanized, people just assume that's it. Of course it's destructive, we've seen the photographs. What we want people to take away is that sometimes the story is a little bit darker than that. The perpetrators of these kinds of acts can turn your love of, and interest in, culture and hold it hostage by threatening or destroying it.

Air Raid Damage in Canterbury during the Second World War (1942) by Central PressOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/10-photos-of-life-on-the-home-front-during-the-second-world-war

If people begin to realize how devastated they would be if the things most precious to them were destroyed they might understand why these objects are important. Visitors to this exhibition will hopefully begin to understand this is about people suffering because the things they care about have been taken from them.

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