Tuesday, 11 November 2014

REMEMBRANCE IN MUSEUMS: FIGHTING IN FLANDERS

EXHIBITION REVIEW

BY: MEAGHAN DALBY

Hello Musings Followers,

As I’m sure you are aware, today is Remembrance Day, and lucky for me, things fell into place last week so I could write a blog post appropriate for this day. I was invited to an exhibition opening in Ottawa at the Canadian War Museum (CWM). This exhibition is called Fighting in Flanders: Gas. Mud. Memory., and it tells the story of Canadian soldiers fighting in Belgium during the First World War. So in the spirit of Remembrance Day, I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on how we remember these events, especially in museums.

Poster for "Fighting in Flanders"
credit: http://www.focus-wtv.be/sites/default/files/styles/article_full/public/canada_0.jpg?itok=dkCSGS5f

First thing’s first: full disclosure. I worked a little bit on this exhibit during the summer, so I MAY not be reviewing it with full impartiality. However, I thought you might forgive me since it turned out to be such a cool exhibit. And yes, if you are going on the Ottawa trip it will still be up so you can form your own opinions.

Melanie Morin-Pelletier, the main historian for the exhibit, giving a speech at the opening
credit: Meaghan Dalby
Ok, down to business. In two sentences, Fighting in Flanders looks at three battles Canadians participated in in Belgium: the Second Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Mount Sorrel, and Passchendaele. Each of these battles introduced a formidable weapon the Allied soldiers had to fight against; the exhibition explains what those were (poison gas at Ypres, firepower at Mount Sorrel, and mud at Passchendaele) and how the soldiers adapted.

There’s a lot I could say in regards to the content of this exhibition, but the best part for me was how they chose to display and disseminate said content. Here are my Top 5 Things To Take Away From Fighting in Flanders:

1. THE TIMELINE OF POPPIES: There are three areas, or zones, in the exhibit, each dedicated to a particular battle, and one zone at the end dedicated to “Memory.” In this section there is a display case that shows how the poppy pin evolved over time, and how its significance changed after the First World War. Of course, part of the reason the poppy was chosen as a symbol of remembrance was because of Canadian John McRae’s poem In Flanders Fields. Not only is it really neat to see how the poppies we wear have changed (or not changed), but I really like how they are mounted on circular pucks, to give some depth to the display. (I thought I had taken a photo, but alas, I did not. So I'm sorry you can't see what I'm talking about)

One of the first poppies worn after the First World War, from the CWM's collection
credit: http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/education/toolkit/images/thepoppy/photos/19720228-001.jpg

2. DISPLAY CASES & OBJECT MOUNTS: It is SUPER obvious I’m a nerd? But honestly, I was so impressed with the quality of the cases (repurposed for the most part from past exhibitions, so not brand new, and not spending a ton of money) and the subtlety of the mounts. 

Not the best photo, but you can kind of see how the guns are mounted simply and effectively
credit: Meaghan Dalby
Case for duckboard taken from Passchendaele
credit: Meaghan Dalby
3. THE SMELLING INTERACTIVES: Yes, you read that right: SMELLS people! SMELLS! In the Ypres section, there are canisters containing (non-toxic) aromas of chlorine, mustard, and phosgene gas. Visitors can gain a little bit better understanding of what a gas attack may have been like. I particularly like it because smell is a sense that is often underused in museums and galleries, so the experience is novel for most visitors. There are some other neat interactive features, but this one was my favourite.

Smelling stations for phosgene and mustard gasses
credit: Meaghan Dalby
4. THE LAYOUT: I can attest that this was debated at length. Every curatorial team has to decide how they want the visitor to experience an exhibit: guided or free range. Fighting in Flanders is kind of both. There is a clear chronological order provided by the battles, but the space itself allows the visitor to wander to each section how they want, as opposed to following a very strict guided path. I like that the visitor is given the information of a preferred path, but then is allowed to make their own decisions and guide their own experience.

5. THE OVERAL FEEL: There are floor to ceiling wall graphics, floor to ceiling video footage, large, crisp fonts, big, attention-grabbing artifacts, and a well thought-out story. There is enough information without it being overwhelming, and it is peppered with activities and interactive elements that make it an experience, not just a text book. 

Looking into the Ypres section (the green screen is a gas wall, meant to make the visitor feel
like they're being engulfed in a cloud of gas)
credit: Meaghan Dalby

Intro panel with impressive wall graphics
credit: Meaghan Dalby
Overall, Fighting in Flanders gives us pretty much everything you want in an exhibit. Having the chance to work on it taught me some key things, which I hope to take forward into my career.

More broadly in terms of us as emerging professionals, it is important to remember that interactives and immersive experiences are good, and can enhance learning, but not to use them for the sake of using them. Days like Remembrance Day remind us that the people we display in our exhibits were real humans, and it is an honour to tell their story 100 years later. We don’t want to get caught up in “making a game” of their experience (which, for the record, I don’t think Fighting in Flanders does). There is a delicate balance between being able to engage our visitors and being respectful of the topic, something all exhibition teams must learn to navigate. Museums can be places of memory, and this element must not be put aside for “edutainment.”

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