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Culture Under Attack

Ramani Chandramohan reviews the Imperial War Museum's surprisingly self-critical exhibition

The Imperial War Museum. Think cannons, guns and fighter aircraft. Think Teenage Kicks being blasted out at full volume?

The new Culture under Attack season at the Imperial War Museum brings together sometimes unlikely connections between art and conflict. The bright red posters dotted on the route from Lambeth North Tube station to the museum feature a photo of a church dome, half of which has been blown up, whilst the other half remains intact. This is an apt image for a series of exhibitions that seek to show the interactions between destruction, creation and preservation of art in times of war.   

One of the key exhibitions, ‘Art in Exile’, looks at the museum’s own attempts to preserve ‘Culture Under Attack’. During the Second World War, under attack from German bombing campaigns, many galleries and museums in London moved their collections to Wales and Wiltshire for safe storage. However, as the exhibition explains, in the face of imminent war in 1939, the IWM took a risky strategy of preserving the equivalent of just 1% of their entire collection (281 works of art and 305 photo albums).

Visitors are confronted with the concrete realities of the usually abstract idea of cultural preservation. Confidential documents on display reveal the day and night rotations undertaken by diligent staff during the war. An information panel also explains how staff divided artworks at the IWM into four classes, a bit like degree classifications, with Class I being the most highly prized exhibits that had priority for evacuation.

The exhibition further highlights the role of the public in this effort to safeguard London – and the UK’s – cultural heritage during the war. One of the photos on display shows the popular pianist Myra Hess giving a lunchtime concert to a packed audience in the National Gallery, which she did regularly from 1939 to 1946. The willingness of the people in the photo to defy the threat of air raids for the sake of a concert might seem unconceivable today but it also brings home for me humankind’s enduring need for culture, even if debates on the ‘usefulness’ of the arts might claim otherwise.

A quote from the museum’s Head of Art, Rebecca Newell, is printed starkly on one of the walls: “when deciding how to develop and maintain the collection today, we have a responsibility to include diverse, multiple and under-represented perspectives”. The IWM thus takes on a rarely seen self-critical angle, analysing the limitations of its own selections during the war. As is openly admitted in the exhibition, 70% of the artworks evacuated during the war came from two artists – John Lavery and William Orpen – whose notable reputations at the time meant that less precedence was given to others, like the young Paul Nash, who is now arguably more famous than either Lavery or Orpen.

The exhibition also engages with the timely question of diversity, as museum staff did not prioritise the works of female artists like Norah Nellson-Gray for evacuation, nor any ethnically diverse portraits of Commonwealth soldiers, despite both existing in the IWM’s collections at the time. The juxtaposition of Nellson-Gray’s painting of the pioneering female doctor Dr Elsie Inglis with a bust of Dr Inglis made by the well-known artist Ivan Mestrovic brings to life the choices museum staff had to make. Mestrovic’s work was chosen over Nellson-Gray’s for preservation, leading visitors to consider whether one piece of art has intrinsically any more value than another. The exhibition raises important questions about the extent to which museums can control the content of their collections and how these sometimes problematic selections become the basis of public understanding of artists, movements, periods and even countries.

Less traditional in content, the ‘Rebel Sounds’ exhibition focuses on how, historically, music has been used as a tool for defiance in the face of political oppression, in Nazi Germany, Northern Ireland, Serbia and Mali. The Frankfurt Hot Club refused to give up playing jazz music which was banned by the Nazis due to its African American and Jewish roots; Teri Hooley’s record label Good Vibrations supported artists during the Troubles in Northern Ireland; the Serbian radio station B92 promoted human rights and free access to the news despite state control of the media under Milošević’s in the 1990s and the band members of Songhoy Blues came together after they were exiled from their homes in northern Mali by Islamist militants.

The exhibition combines the visual and the auditory, featuring propaganda posters and physical copies of records, as well as interviews and recordings of songs related to the four groups (Sweet Song, Teenage Kicks, Fight the Power and Bamako). Sitting with a pair of headphones on as these songs, ranging in genre from punk rock to desert blues, are played confirms the veracity of a quote from Touré, emblazoned on a back-lit cube at the start of the exhibition: ‘A world without music is a body without a soul’. 

Both the ‘Rebel Sounds’ and ‘Art in Exile’ exhibitions are interactive in the sense that they seek to gain our opinions, as visitors, on the preservation of culture during times of conflict. Visitors are given the chance to agree or disagree with statements such as “contemporary art is not as valuable as traditional art” and “it is worth risking prison in order to protect the music” and each answer is then compared to the average response.

More is to come from this season at the IWM, including an exhibition entitled ‘What Remains’, ‘Rebel Sounds Live’ concerts and a discussion on the Syrian Stonemasonry Programme, in the wake of the death of Khaled al-Asaad who was killed in his attempt to Palmyra from destruction by IS. Given the precarious status of art during times of conflict, ‘Culture under Attack’ is quite clearly an exhibition for our times and one that demands more self-reflexion from visitors than most.

The Culture under Attack season at the IWM runs until January 5th 2020.

Featured Image: © IWM “Rebel Sounds forms part of IWM’s free Culture Under Attack season

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