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Museums during war and peace; places of protection and destruction

Museums during war and peace; places of protection and destruction

Amy Williams discusses heritage sites as war commemorations

There are many museum exhibitions now that focus on war – depicting how nations, groups and individuals are affected by conflict, how they have remembered the devastation and how they have commemorated these events. However, over the past few weeks while one heritage site has been attacked another has reopened after 12 years – both during the current conflict in Iraq.

It is intended here to examine how museums have been affected and how they have reacted to wartime circumstances by concentrating on WWI, WWII and current struggles. It can be argued that museums have played four roles during wartime conditions; they have been subjected to lootings and damage, they have been forced to close to safeguard their collections, but museums have also produced ‘patriotic exhibitions’ to inspire the nation and consequently exhibited works that have alienated other people.

With the outbreak of WWI ‘the very purpose and worth of museums in society [was] tested and met a response as diverse as the institutions themselves’. Gaynor Kavanagh has suggested that ‘some museums [in Britain] were able to adapt and support the war effort through ‘‘patriotic exhibitions’ and educational work’. These exhibitions were created to inspire men to enlist while encouraging those left at home to work towards victory. However, national museums closed during this period, which is highlighted by Kavanagh who expresses that ‘this was not done through concern for the safety of collections, but as a political gesture, a public example of economy during wartime’. Therefore, museums during WWI were to some extent connected to the war effort because their exhibitions encouraged the nation to believe in itself and closures symbolised how museums helped support the troubled economy at the time.

If we consider WWII with particular focus on museums in Nazi Germany the story of how museums are affected and react during war takes a different route. The Nazis created exhibitions that were only open to visits by ‘high-ranking SS officials’, which displayed the ideology that the Aryan race was superior to the Jewish race. These exhibitions were ‘arranged by the staff and presenting a selection of exquisite material objects owned by those murdered in the camps at that very time’. Sabine Offe, continues to state that ‘the staff – the Jewish archivists, librarians, architects, and art-historians were themselves deported one by one’. Similar to the examples of the WWI exhibitions they were designed to evoke nationalism however they did this by force by expelling or deporting Jewish people, who had up until the rise of the Nazis, considered themselves and were considered by others to be German nationals. Also as well as creating exhibitions that were influenced by the party’s beliefs the Nazis were ‘systematic campaign[s] to loot and plunder art from Jews and others in the occupied countries’. As previously stated museums are places of ‘salvage’ but during conflicts they also become places of conflict where the protection of their collections are threatened.

Debates were raised a few weeks ago at the British Museum which was ‘turned into a temporary court’ that discussed ‘the alleged illegal trading of an ancient Libyan statue valued at £1.5m’. As current conflicts in Iraq and Syria continue there is a growing necessity to protect museum’s collections. This has been emphasised by the need for an international conference at the V&A on the 14th April entitled ‘Culture in Conflict’. The main questions that have been asked are ‘what is the role of museums? Can we support people from these countries, whilst ensuring our own protection?’ Peter Stone, the chairman of the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield, has also raised the issue that advocates for the protection of cultural heritage in conflict zones. Evidently museums that are currently facing conflict are struggling to protect their cultural heritage. However, the museums as well as an international audience have concluded that they have a responsibility to act – lessons have been learnt after WWI and WWII but it has proved difficult to create a complete plan to protect museum objects during conflicts. On the other hand, there has been greater attention given to the looting of museums through heightened media coverage.

This post was written by Amy Williams. Amy is currently undertaking an internship at Culture Syndicates and studying for her MA in Holocaust and Related Studies at Nottingham Trent University. She is blogging about her experiences with Culture Syndicates on their Linked In page:http://linkd.in/1Mqo46v

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