Exhibiting the First World War

Angela Clare, Calderdale Museums Service

  • Angela.Clare@calderdale.gov.uk

 

The Heritage Lottery-funded exhibition ‘For King and Country: Calderdale’s First World War Centenary 2014 – 2018’ has been proudly displayed at Bankfield Museum in Halifax since 2 August 2014. With the display due to close on 22 December this year, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the reasons for its success.

We are especially proud that the exhibition was awarded both the Royal Historical Society’s prize for Public History in Museums and Galleries and its overall prize for Public History in 2015.

The judges were full of praise. They said:

This beautiful and moving exhibition draws on community participation, encourages independent research, and gives a helpful account of the processes by which it was produced. The clear and evocative ways in which it uses local stories and artefacts is impressive, while it also provides a balanced account of many aspects of the First World War. The exhibition is informative, engaging, well-organised and elegantly designed.”

As the project manager, I researched and wrote the exhibition’s content, supervised the refurbishment of the gallery, oversaw the design and installation, and coordinated the exhibition’s events programme. This blog will explain what these often hidden tasks meant in practice.

The exhibition includes a range of objects, images and documents that explore what life was like in the Calderdale region one hundred years ago. With a large, but finite gallery space, we did not have the space to explore every aspect of the war. Knowing that larger institutions, such as the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum, were best placed to explore the national story, we focused on local experiences. Over sixty local families responded to a call-out for stories and we also worked with a number of community groups. Their stories of how the people of Calderdale contributed to the war effort  were woven into the exhibition, enabling us to relate a wide range of topics to the lives of ordinary people.

The diversity of the stories we gathered demonstrated the social, cultural, economic and political impact of war on the people of Calderdale. Rather than just retelling official reports of the conflict, these stories made the exhibition human, poignant and touching. The families and groups who contributed also felt real ownership of the exhibition, bringing grandchildren, family and friends to see their stories on display.

To set these stories within their context, we divided the main gallery space into two. One side deals with the conflict overseas and the other with events in the region. As a museum known for its textiles collections, part of the display explores costumes before, during and after the war. Another part centres on communication, looking at propaganda, local newspapers and the importance of letters for keeping in touch. The display also features a large projection of a film we commissioned from a local company. This details our research into the war in the region, describes our responsibility to give a balanced account of the war’s events, and includes interviews with some of the families who contributed stories to the exhibition.

Two smaller annexes have been used as a children’s area. These include dressing up, some custom made dolls and bears with various outfits for younger children, comfy seating and books for children of all ages, along with information about what life was like for children one hundred years ago and the role of the guides and scouts in the war.

Another annexe has allowed us to include temporary displays. These topics have changed each year and chart the war’s progression. Once replaced, the panels are sent on a tour of libraries in the region to promote the main exhibition and share information with new audiences. We included a large Research Room with more information, books, computer access and information sheets on how to research your own family history and where to see other First World War exhibitions and find out more online. The Research Room also contained a large wall space for visitors to leave comments on printed poppies. This was quickly filled with touching tributes to individuals and collective remembrance for all those who served.

In addition to the exhibition itself, we have hosted a range of First World War-themed learning opportunities including educational workshops, live interpretation, re-enactment, centenary talks, family events and hands-on activities, which have been well attended and continued throughout the years of the centenary. Our final open day is on the 24 November, with a gathering to thank all those involved in the project over the centenary years in the afternoon.

The emphasis we have placed on community underpinned our success in the Royal Historical Public History Prize. As the award nomination said:

It is rare that you enter an exhibition and immediately just know that it is something very special … It is a presentation on one of the most difficult periods of our history, one we should be totally ashamed of, and yet, for the first time in my life (and I am sixty-five years old), I felt at ease.”

About the Author: Angela Clare is Collections Manager at Calderdale Museums Service and previously worked at the Royal Armouries Museum. You can find out more about Bankfield Museum at www.calderdale.gov.uk/museums or by following @BankfieldMuseum on Twitter. A souvenir guide for the exhibition, including a selection of family stories, is available via Amazon.

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