Representing World War One: heroes and villains
When we consider how World War One is represented we conjure up images of those who fought on the battlefields who either died or survived while fighting for their country. However, we also picture those who remained at home and this is emphasised by The Galleries of Justice recent exhibition that ‘explores the impact that the Great War had on crime, policing, and imprisonment’.
This exhibition focuses on the home front bringing the war much closer to home and in doing so it localises Nottingham’s wartime involvement by identifying what crimes were committed from ‘1914-1916’. Some of these crimes include ‘escapee prisoners of war, Anti-German riots and absentees’. The presence of the war at home is explored through ‘the changing role of the police’ as they had to deal with growing public anxieties towards ‘enemy aliens and prisoners of war’. Britain, during the First World War, was suspicious of those who posed a threat to society but how were these people classified as either Heroes or Villains? Enemy aliens were pictured as fulfilling the character of the Villain but how true is this portrayal? The museum reflects upon these issues through its exhibition design because parts of the exhibition are targeted towards the audience’s senses. In some rooms the visitor is made to feel imprisoned but they are left to question whether this is because they are following the path of a Hero or a Villain. Therefore, it is intended here to argue that the Galleries of Justice exhibition is challenging the British narrative of the First World War by focusing on the negative affects of the conflict at home. Although the British narrative remembers the horrors of the trenches the negative coverage of crime is not as widely reflected upon, as the home front is typically characterised by communities coming together to support the war effort.
As the visitor first steps into the exhibition they are presented with a conventional narrative of WWI because the characteristics of the war are all there such as the sand bags, the barbed wire, the medals, the Flanders Fields poem, and the image of the poppy. There are also lists of names of those who perished from the local area. But when one moves closer to the individual sections within the first gallery another narrative comes into the frame that of crime. The background of the exhibition that the individual panels are placed onto reveal a conventional rather national narrative but the panels then describe the lives and deaths of those who were connected to Nottingham’s law society and county police force. We are told that a Lieutenant Williams ‘was killed by a bursting shell’ south of Ypres detailing the horrors of war and how they affected the local community. But this story also offers an indication of where the narration will lead us next as it presents the German as the ‘Other’.
The second gallery portrays the outbreak of the war at home and again the typical scenes are illustrated through the conscription posters. However, the narrative is soon made complex as the visitor is shown how the affects of war impact upon those who stayed behind. This is first depicted through the panel that shows ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania – The Rise of Anti-German Riots’. Here British identities are contrasted to German identities, which are recurrent tropes within the historiography but this story is then linked to the feelings of hostility at home and those who posed a threat to society. This is emphasised through ‘The Wagner Family’ board, which details the attack on their butcher’s shop ‘due to the anti German feelings of the time’. Although the family had lived in Nottingham since ‘1873’ their German heritage had consequently now classified them as ‘Enemy Aliens’ who were not to be trusted.
Evidently the impact of war had many consequences at home. This complex narrative invites the visitor to question the British narrative of WWI and in doing so reflect upon how British people reacted to those who prior to the war had just been a fellow neighbour within society but now they were regarded as the enemy.
The police force prior to the war were used to dealing with theft, missing people, and lost property but as the war progressed their jobs too adapted. They now had to deal with a different kind of ‘villain’ within society – the foreigner – the enemy – the escapee prisoner. This is the most stimulating part of the exhibition because it calls into question who is a villain and who is a hero? However, it also evokes the audience to question whether they would have reacted in the same way and whether they agree with these verdicts. The ‘Friend or Foe?’ section is split into three passages and all of them are sealed at one end so that the visitor enters with one idea and could potentially leave with a different idea about the narration. This is exactly what happened when we visited the exhibition because the first passage about ‘Prisoners of War’ opens with a poster that announces that some inmates had escaped from an internment camp called Sutton Bonnington. We are told that these men are ‘German’ and that should they be found they will be ‘arrested’. Evidently, a picture was created in your minds that these characters were suspicious and suspect. Then we ventured into another passage, which described the accommodation and living conditions that the prisoners experienced such as overcrowding. Here however we started to feel empathy towards those who were imprisoned but soon this is challenged again as we discovered the individual stories of the escapees. The visitor’s view on who is a villain is already clearly mixed but as you double back and enter section two this is made even more complex. Passage two tells you about the story of ‘Conscientious Objectors’ and their names cover the walls as you enter the space. The names in passage one are Muller, Stoffa and Pluschaw but the names in section two are Williams, Smith, Taylor, Goldenberg, Cullen, Watson, Peel and Cook to name but a few. The identities of these individuals are that of local people whereas the identities of the previous group were German. However, both could be classified as ‘Villains’ although typically the German is depicted as the ‘Villain’, the British subject is now also classified as the ‘Villain’ too because some refused to go to war. This is reiterated through the scene of the wooden bed and jail cell bars as you are first led to believe that these people were in fact criminals. Only when you read the individual stories do you question whether they are in fact a ‘friend’ of the nation. For example, Stephen Henry Hobhouse was a Quaker who refused to be sent to war and was therefore imprisoned for objecting to serve his country. During his lifetime he was unmistakably seen as a ‘foe’ but this story questions the British collective memory of the WWI because he can also be seen as a ‘friend’ or rather a ‘hero’ because he fought for what he believed in, he refused to use violence, and he refused to be silent while in prison. This is taken further in the final section as the question ‘Did enemy aliens deserve to be interned during the war?’ is posed. One individual’s story is especially poignant because she blurs the lines between enemy alien and British national. Mrs Schonewald was a widower who was arrested for not registering as an enemy alien but she was born in Britain to a British family. But she had married a German man and had had three children with him and all three of her sons were enlisted and serving in the British army. She was made to register otherwise charges would have been brought against her. Today we picture Mrs. Schonewald as a ‘Friend’, which suggests that this exhibition is challenging our assumptions of wartime roles and whether today we would still classify people into these pigeonholes.
With the recent centenary of WWI many narratives have been called into question, revitalized, and remembered in a variety of ways. This exhibition is a part of this research and remembrance and has shown how today there are still many questions still to ask about this war. One final concluding remark to make is that the exhibition recently won the Wendy Golland Award for Quality of Research at the East Midlands Heritage Conference and Awards 2015, which highlights that these questions that the exhibition asks are still relevant today and are keeping these memories alive for future generations. Moreover, the fact that The Galleries of Justice have presented an unconventional narrative of WWI also suggests that they are leading the field with regards to museums taking research further than straightforward narrations of history.
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