My PhD research for the Cultural Intermediation project looks at the role of universities as intermediaries in the creative cultural economy. Some of my early findings on the selected topic UK festivals that have a University as a strategic partner (eg. Open City Docs) will be shared at an event in Salford in September.
Right now I’m mainly dealing with two things. One is the internal evaluation process at University of Salford, for which I have to write a report on my progress, it is a process by which all the little things I haven’t thought hard enough about already are being revealed!
The other thing is that I’ve become a bit preoccupied with lately are the discourses circulating in a cultural context that deal with the legacy of the 1st World War, which is something I want to share my thoughts on here.
Cultural programming has for some time been dominated by this subject; commemorative events, radio programmes, plays, exhibitions, horse performances and so on are encouraging us to reflect on the ‘Great War’ and the effect it had on national boundaries, individual’s lives, on modernity, on all of us as human beings, as we look back on the automated brutality, the suffering of millions of young men, of horses, of everybody, everywhere.
What is unconvincing about much of this activity is that some of the contexts of the war and its effects on society at the time are barely being represented in favour of personal stories, letters, mementos, medals and other familiar elements. At worst, I hear an echo of Guy Debord’s warning that all society can do now is consume ‘spectacles’, where the emphasis is always on novelty and consumption. These things have become part of popular war narratives and are as such irretrievable from popular myth.
These concerns were raised earlier this year amongst a group of historians, academics, members of the public and others from the fields of archives, museum and media studies at a conference at University of Salford, held over at the Media City campus, overlooking the Imperial War Museum North.
An opening remark set the tone for the day: “history is too important to leave it to the BBC and museum curators”.
The first presenter, a historian, talked about his experiences working with the BBC on newly commissioned war-related programmes. He explained that he welcomed this kind of work because it offered him the chance to have some influence on the outcomes of documentary programme making, but he also felt frustration with its processes. On a practical level, there was little advance warning of when these opportunities would present themselves, so he had problems balancing them with his own research and teaching commitments – his publishers were ‘very patient’. (I wanted to ask him if his department’s REF co-ordinator was pleased, but he pre-empted me by saying it ‘got him out of’ other REF-able activities!)
Journalists, he said, who tend to be the researchers on these programmes, didn’t head for the library or archives, instead they would talk to people, often local historians who had already spoken on these subjects. They wouldn’t have looked at any of his books before meeting him, and if they did there was a danger they would only use the bits that would justify what they wanted to say anyway.
He found that there were some concepts that these researchers were unfamiliar with or uncomfortable talking about – for example the war memorials themselves, and they frequently preferred to focus on the home front and regional connections to places in the UK instead of strategies and battles at the fighting front. Also as a result of excessive interest in the hyper-local and domestic stories, big national stories such as strikes were often missed out completely. There was also little attempt to show anybody disagreeing with each other, on the assumption that this ‘wouldn’t make good TV’. When advising on a series of programmes about Ireland’s role in the war, he had to explain to the people working on them that a ‘conscientious objectors’ angle wouldn’t work because Ireland had no enforced conscription. They also wanted to run a story on Belgian refugees but without making mention of why they were escaping the country! Then there is ‘access’ – the TV term for finding a family member, however distant, and putting them in control of the ‘personal’ narrative on the screen.
Drama, it seems, has taken over from history (as another speaker put it) and popular myths are being reinforced by this ‘psuedo-history’. This is an over-simplification of the war, but how can it be done differently? Deeper questions need to be asked.
Why there is such a ‘patriotic national myth’ when no evidence suggests that people thought the war would be over by Christmas?
What about the ideas of empire and nation, how are those values discussed? Most British subjects barely had the vote, so it can’t be accurately framed as a war for ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’.
How will the non-British volunteers be remembered?
Where is the room to speak of ongoing sacrifice?
As all those who were really there are now dead, so the shift from memory to history leads to the use of ‘objects and what they can communicate’ to aid popular interpretation. A museum director tells us that museums have the responsibility for “making material culture accessible to people” but admits that telling stories is sometimes ‘hampered by the politics’.
Context is everything.
In 1919 the city of Salford was presented with a tank, and two German guns (captured at Loos) by the National War Savings Committee, in recognition of the funds they had raised. Many UK cities received similar tributes.
Apparently the tank was exhibited as a public monument in Salford for a number of years.
A clipping from a Salford newspaper in 1927 reveals that it was dismantled and removed or possibly even scrapped by the Council. “The decision in favour of cleaning away the tank…will be welcomed especially by members of the Labour Party and other suporters of the anti-militarist movement”. The article goes on to say that “the Museum and Parks Committee will lay out a shrubbery” turning what was described as an ‘eyesore’ and reminder of the horrors of war, into a ‘pleasant spot’.
( source: salfordwarmemorials.proboards.com/thread/957 )
There is official reminiscence and unofficial reminiscence, war commemoration is political and the state is an intermediary in the context of interpretation.
The Imperial War Museum is spending £4.5million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) on new First World War Galleries at IWM London, out of a total £35 million made available to the group for a major redevelopment project. The new galleries at IWM London will display “Original artefacts from soldiers’ personal items, letters and diaries through to weapons, tanks and artworks”. If a WW1 tank was displayed in Salford now, how would the contemporary political agenda deal with such ‘conflicting representations’ as those mentioned above?
A strong objection to the tone of these presentations came, during the break, from a museum representative, whose funding, she says, depends on attracting new visitors and on education. They couldn’t take these kinds of risks.
A sociologist, who carried out research in the Imperial War Museum North on ‘display and affect’ suggests that intellectual and emotional engagement are different responses to encountering artefacts. Her emphasis was on dialogue and conversation, she had used booths next to the objects to find out how museum audiences interpret them, followed up with walking interviews inside the museum and focus groups. She was very interested in how emotions and ethical dilemmas revealed a ‘reflexive self’ in the responses she collected.
The director of the museum group was more abrupt. Art has the power to hit you on the emotional level. Museums had to generate much of their own income, so engaging people was important.
For example, Russell Maliphant choreographed a special ballet that was performed at the IWM North as part of Museums at Night. Critics could still say that this is spectacle rather than engagement.
A German speaker later in the day just seemed baffled, his impression of the German population is that the majority thinks the 1st World War is just history, there is no wreath-laying or uniformed parades, this year Germany commemorates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 70th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Hitler.
The conference made my head spin, at first I felt that I learned a lot about the war just by going, but later, as I thought more deeply about those awkward questions that had still gone unanswered, I started to think more for myself. Soon afterwards, I went to a lecture in Leeds about Sir Michael Sadler, who had been the vice chancellor of University of Leeds during the 1st World War period.
In 1914 his son had translated Kandinsky’s important book on ‘The Spiritual in art’ which was a major contribution to theories about abstract art. Sadler was himself a collector of Kandinsky’s work and hung modern art in the University corridors.
Listening to the lecture, which was part of The Big Bookend festival, I realised that my dissatisfaction with the cultural programming around the 1st World War was that it was leaving out some of the other important narratives, for instance those circulating in art at the time.
I started to think about what else was happening in that period, from 1910 – 1920. For example, in the USA music was being pressed onto records and broadcast on radio stations for the first time and there were the silent cowboy films of Tom Mix in the movie theaters. In Europe, the beginnings of abstraction, Picasso collages, Kandinsky, Dada and early expressionism. Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka in Vienna, and the Cabaret Voltaire. Anthropological gazes, suffragettes, anarchist ideas and dangerous political theories – how were these things expressed in art?
Then the idea for doing a night of music, art and moving image came from reading about Hugo Ball and the Cabaret Voltaire, a kind of performance-meets-nightclub founded in Zurich in neutral Switzerland in 1916 by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. Zurich at that time attracted deserters from many parts of Europe, described as rebels with a shared hatred of the social order and a desire to challenge ‘outdated bourgeouis values’.
Hugo Ball is known as the originator of Dada. He drew on Russian anarchy theorist Mikhail Bakunin, who had also spent time in Zurich a few decades earlier in the 1870s. Dada itself was an invented aesthetic term and movement, with a manifesto (of course, they all had to have manifestos at that time) that declared it was purposely devoid of meaning. However, a basic spiritualism that writers like Herbert Read have found valuable in primitive art can be seen in many of the artforms that appeared around that time.
This combination of a rebellious rejection of reason and dominant political ideologies and a desire to bring people together to be moved by art and music has inspired me to act! Sadly I don’t have manifesto or movement, or any money from HLF, but I’ve decided that I’m going to remember Hugo Ball in a modest and hopefully enjoyable way next month.
Left Bank, established as a Parish church in 1911, plans to present an event with me on 6th September in Leeds. It will be a night of music and moving image with an atmosphere inspired by some of the art and aesthetics of 1910-1920. Details are below:
You can come along if you like, tickets are on sale and it starts at 7pm.
I hope it isn’t too much of a spectacle.