Making a new world
a new exhibition at London’s imperial War museum examines the period after the First World War. Amy Davies speaks to curator alan Wakefield to find out more
A new IWM photographic exhibition looks at the period immediately after the First World War
In the years following the First World War, countries, cities, towns, societies and individuals were tasked with rebuilding themselves on an unprecedented scale. From the devastation and loss of the preceding four years, a new world was beginning to emerge.
Traditionally, the years that immediately followed the end of the Great War have been a little overlooked by historians – and the general public. The exhibition ‘Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs’ at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in Lambeth, London, seeks to redress the balance, with more than 130 black & white photographs, documents and objects from the museum’s extensive collection.
A mix of amateur and professional photography, many images in the exhibition are previously unseen. British official photographers were still working shortly after the war for the Ministry of Information, the work from which built the foundation for the Imperial War Museum’s collection when it was founded in 1917.
One of the benefits of putting together a show about the post-war period is that censorship was more relaxed compared to official wartime control, so it became easier for private photographers.
Professionals at this time were likely to have been using handheld press cameras, which took 5x4-inch glass-plate negatives, while the Vest Pocket Kodak was still very prolific for amateur photographers.
On the eve of the exhibition opening, AP sat down with Alan Wakefield, Head of First World War and Early 20th Century Conflict at the IWM to discuss the display.
Curating an exhibition which includes ‘fresh’ imagery from almost 100 years ago naturally means uncovering previously hidden work – a task which is far from straightforward. Wakefield says, ‘Even some of the official press photographs we haven’t seen because the photographer would have taken 10-20 photographs in one job. Perhaps two or three of those would have gone into a
newspaper, but the Ministry of Information and the Imperial War Museum photo archive would have kept some of them. So really, they have been in the archive since 1919 – with the official photographers we’ve even got the original glassplate negative and prints.
‘ The private material has been donated to the museum since 1919 or 1920, and we’re still collecting it now. That’s always been available but obviously before computer databases, how you could actually find what was in the archive was more difficult. Now, there’s a record for everything online. Not all of the images are digitised, but there should be a record for the collection, which is quite descriptive.
‘ The trouble is, because we’re dealing with a lot of legacy records, there’s a long period in the museum’s history where the cataloguing wasn’t very good. So a lot of the images are unseen because all the record said was “British Army First World War”, which isn’t much use if you’re looking for specifics. We’ve got a rolling programme of updating the catalogue, and while we’re doing that, we turn up the material [for exhibitions like this].’
While, technically, photography may not have moved on much from the 1914-1918 period, the photographs in this exhibition are a little different stylistically. ‘Obviously the photographers had a lot more time to actually capture the images. With official photographers, they’re relatively similar to what they were trying to do in wartime – they’ve got the same brief – but they’ve got a bit more leeway now that the war is over, perhaps to do a bit more record photography, or to capture a sequence,’ Wakefield explains.
With the centenary of the armistice this year, it comes as no surprise that the IWM would want to commemorate the event in some way. Naturally, many people might have expected the museum to focus on the kind of typical war-andconflict photography we are used to seeing. Wakefield says however that the museum was keen to do something a little bit different.
‘ The idea was to look at the hopes and aspirations that people had after four years of global war. To look at what those were beyond the armistice and how far they were actually achieved.’
Narrowing down the selection from the archive’s enormous repository is another challenge for the museum team. ‘ The first thing we do is get a lead curator. I was Head of Photographs before I was Head of First World War, so from a photographic point of view I had a good idea of what we already had. But we would then have to go and ask other specialists and find out what they’ve got.
‘ The next big period is what we call the long list – which is literally finding anything that might potentially go in [the exhibition]. Then the exhibition group sits down and comes up with a shortlist – looking at the themes. You’re always going to have more material than you can physically fit in. Then you sit down and you do some horse trading – because different people have different favourite items.’
It’s easy to see why this period in history has been underappreciated. Wakefield says, ‘People discuss the peace treaty, and then they say that didn’t work, and go “There were Nazis and the Second World War”. I think people – and we’ve done it in the past here too – concentrate on the conflict because it’s “the big story”. Even at the time, people just wanted to get back to civilian lives. Once that happens it’s less of a national story and it becomes a lot more disparate, more personal.’
These days, it seems historians are more interested in the human aspect of historic events. ‘It’s easier to appeal to a wide audience if you can drill quite complex subjects down to an individual’s involvement, because you can relate to it. Maybe it’s somebody from your town, or somebody in a similar circumstance, and you go “Hey, that could have been me 90 years ago”.’
Drawing on those themes, Wakefield says some of the most meaningful photography in this exhibition is reminiscent of issues in recent conflicts. A good example is a sequence of images in the display depicting a soldier having a prosthetic limb fitted, something we might associate today with soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.
There are also images from post-war conflicts. ‘I think people have this idea that after November 1918, the war is over and that’s it. But many countries had lots of smaller wars, civil wars and wars of independence, plus the Russian Revolution was still going on,’ Wakefield explains.
‘Even closer to home in Ireland – everybody knows about the Troubles in Ireland from 1969 onwards, but if you think about immediately after the First World War, there’s a photograph of a British tank knocking down a building in Cork. It’s amazing because you think “Oh, that must be France or Belgium,” so there are things like that which will surprise people... I think it’s quite impactful that it’s actually a tank that we all associate with use on the Western Front, being used in what was then Britain, or the UK, against local insurgents.’
Just as it was almost 100 years ago, the Imperial War Museum continues to be a repository for conflict and related imagery from the Ministry of Defence, which it safeguards on behalf of the British nation. It has also recently commissioned serving soldiers to take photographs and keep diaries, so that in another 100 years’ time, there may well be exhibitions for future generations which – sadly for the human condition – show very similar themes.
Above: Armistice celebrations in Birmingham, 1918
Left: Photographs such as this, which shows patients at Roehampton being taught how to use their artificial limbs, draws comparisons to recent conflicts where similar imagery often exists
Above: A refugee family returning to Amiens in northern France, looking at the ruins of a house
‘Renewal: Life After the First World War in Photographs’ is free to enter and runs at the Imperial War Museum in London until 31 March 2019 as part of its Making a New World season. For more details, visit iwm.org.uk. The first-released British prisoners to reach Tournai, 14 November 1918
The liberation of Munich, 1 May 1919. Armed civilians lead the Red Guard away