I doubt I am alone in the feeling of unease I get when it comes to exhibitions about war. By nature, wars are problematic and so it comes as no surprise that exhibitions about them will be too. Wars are messy, traumatic, have multiple viewpoints, and deep personal connections for so many people. Given the current state of the world, with terror attacks, mass shootings, acts of police brutality, rioting, and all the rest, being reported on an almost daily basis, I wonder if this is changing how we reflect on wars that happened long ago. We are almost at the halfway point of the WW100 commemorations. Are we making connections between what happened one hundred years ago with what we are witnessing right now?
When Peter Jackson said of his Great War Exhibition, "It's not an anti-war museum, it's certainly not a glorifying war museum. It is just showing the reality," a massive wave of scepticism washed over me and swept me out to sea. No exhibition that has ever been curated is capable of this. Everything that goes into an exhibition has been selected by someone, in order to tell the story they want. What's displayed, how it's laid out, the lighting, the sound, the writing – everything - has been decided on by someone. Exhibitions do not just happen, they don't materialise out of thin air, and it is naive to think that they do.
The notion that Jackson's exhibition just "shows the reality" is incorrect and misleading. In 2011, when I did a paper at university about displaced people after World War Two, the lecturer finished the class with a warning. Soon she said, you're going to notice interest in World War One increasing as we move toward the 100 year anniversary. There's going to be a lot written about it and a lot of people talking about it. Don't get caught up in it all, she suggested. Watch out for heroising. Remember there are many sides to every story and you are never being presented with the absolute truth. Why is it that Jackson felt it necessary to claim that his exhibition didn't have an opinion? Why could he not have done what this lecturer did, and invite visitors into a space that challenges them to think critically about why countries choose to engage in war?
Reflecting on his work for a September 11 exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, James B. Gardner wrote that museums have been reluctant to engage in really difficult history. There are political tensions, especially the worry over the potential of having funding pulled, and there is tension between what the public know and have experienced versus the history that the museum is presenting to them. Museums are obligated, he believes, to challenge visitors to engage in the past in all its messiness. But it's still a developing process and museums are still figuring out how to better present "complicated forces that have shaped, and continue to shape, us as a people." The WW100 exhibitions and events were (and still are, since it's happening until 2019) a fantastic opportunity for museums in New Zealand to figure this out. Still messy, still containing plenty of personal connections, and still having an effect on the world today, but further into the past than an event like September 11, Jackson's Great War could have been the perfect opportunity to experiment with how museums present, or even create, public memory. Perhaps this is too big of an ask though, and maybe a huge government funded project is not realistically a great time for experimentation. Still, I can't help but feel this has been a bit of a missed opportunity in the commemorations so far.
One person's reality of WWI could differ dramatically from another's. So whose reality is the Great War Exhibition showing us? A typical Kiwi soldier? What even is a typical Kiwi soldier? The population of New Zealand has changed dramatically in the last 100 years, and so it wouldn't be a stretch to say the meaning of war will have changed for us too. New Zealand's population today is filled with people who have experienced war, and for them it is not something that is distant and existed long ago, but as something which is close, and contemporary. The high school I attended sits above Government House in Wellington, which regularly has ceremonial gun salutes and canon fire. Each day that this happened, a warning would be read out in our morning notices so that those students who had experienced real life gunfire would not panic. I wonder what these girls would think of the Great War exhibition. Would it show their reality?
I know that the purpose of the Great War Exhibition is to show WWI, and not war as we know it today. But people will view this exhibition through their own eyes, and apply their own experiences to what they are seeing regardless of this. An exhibition about the First World War will always be viewed with the knowledge of what has happened over the last hundred or so years after the Armistice. We are human, we can't remove ourselves from our own personal thoughts and feelings and we can't all be shown one neutral reality, because everyone's reality is different. As the commemorations continue, and you keep visiting exhibitions and attending events, I encourage you to step back and think critically about what is being presented to you. Don't listen to Peter Jackson, you're not being shown reality. Nothing is neutral, and this is never truer with acts of war – whether it happened yesterday or one hundred years ago.