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World War I museums illustrate the convergence of history and memory
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On Remembrance Day, time is set aside to stop and commemorate members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty. Nov. 11 commemorates the formal end to World War I at “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month,” according to the Armistice.
As we approach the centenary of that war, Peter Farrugia, associate professor of History and Contemporary Studies at Laurier’s Brantford campus, is looking at how World War I, the “Great War,” is depicted in two of the world’s important museums, the Imperial War Museum in London, England, and the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne, France. Through innovative exhibits of artifacts, carefully preserved archives and educational programs, both have helped the public to “remember” World War I.
Here the common task begins to diverge.
The histories of the museums are quite different. The Imperial War Museum (IWM) was created during the war in 1917 as both museum and memorial. Subsequently, the mandate of the museum expanded to include other wars in which Britain fought, telling the stories from a national perspective.
The Historial de la Grande Guerre was founded in 1992 to commemorate France’s Great Patriotic War. Its mandate was to reach beyond the French experience to also include the perspectives of both Britain and Germany, the two other main countries involved in World War I.
To date, Farrugia has focused his research on archival investigations in both museums. Looking at their creation, their evolving collections policies and the themes they’ve chosen to concentrate on, he has discovered some basic differences in how World War I is not only remembered but also represented by the two institutions.
For example, in the early 1990s, the IWM created a famous exhibit that mimicked a WWI trench. In an attempt to recreate the experience of the trenches, visitors walked through the exhibit that replicated not only the cramped space and sounds of the trenches but also – to the dismay of many – the smell.
In counterpoint to this experiential approach, the Historial adopted a museographical focus that sought to allow the objects to speak for themselves. The Historial also emphasized the commonality of suffering among the three main combatant states – France, Britain, and Germany – by presenting objects with trilingual explanations and analyses.
Farrugia’s research demonstrates concretely that what we remember and what our public institutions help us commemorate can be widely divergent as people seek to grasp the full import of the Great War.