The First World War is a conflict which has remained rooted in our collective consciousness.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War and with it comes a fresh flurry of interest and commemoration activity, at the centre of which sits the Imperial War Museum (IWM). This is apt as it was there, in 1917, that the documentation of ‘the war to end all wars’ began, as Graham Boxer, director of the Imperial War Museum North (IWMN), at Salford Quays tells Northern Soul.
“The IWM was set up even before the war had finished. So traumatic or momentous were the number of casualties in 1916, post the Somme, that even the national Government [recognised that what] they were living through couldn’t go unacknowledged.”
So the Government created an institution to commemorate and record those who had lost their lives.
“It was called the British War Museum and it was only later when it was felt that they had to acknowledge the huge contribution of the ’empire’ that it became known as the ‘Imperial War Museum’ and that’s the name that has stuck ever since,” says Boxer. “So the whole reason for this museum being founded is the First World War.”
It must be an incredible time to be in at the helm of the IWMN?
“We’re leading on the partnership activity to mark the First World War centenary in the North West, we have our own programme and we’re doing things with our partners in the area. So to be here now, it’s a fantastic privilege and something which…can I say I enjoy it? Yeah I do, because we have some important messages and we have important stories to tell so that people do remember what happened 100 years ago.”
Nearly a century after opening in London, in 2002 IWM North joined the IWM group housed in the incredible Daniel Libeskind-designed building, which was inspired by a vision of a world broken by war and split into earth, water and air shards. The earth section “to proportion, is shaped to the curvature of the earth, and so the floor in the main exhibition space slopes,” explains Boxer. “As you go through the door there’s a brass cross in the floor, that marks the north pole so the further you go away the steeper the floor slopes. And interestingly enough, whether by chance or by design, at its furthest point from the north pole, where the gradient’s really noticeable, is where we look at the holocaust, the lowest point, if you like, in the history of the 20th century.”
Boxer has been director of IWMN since 2012, having returned to museum work after a stint over in Liverpool on the Capital of Culture management team in 2008 and time working on the restoration of St George’s Hall. He credits his enthusiasm for museums to being taken to them as a child living in the London suburbs.
“The Sunday afternoon trip was to the museums in South Kensington. Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Geology Museum – to turn the dials and pull the levers and whatever. That must have left something in me, embedded something. I never did particularly well at school. I got a couple of A-levels and some O-levels. I was working in a record shop, 1976 I think it was by then, and this horrified my father who was a very upstanding civil servant working in the Department of Environment as a technical draughtsman. He said, ‘you’re going to get a proper job!’ So he did all the legwork. He wrote round to various government departments asking what vacancies there were and it came down to being offered a job in either the department of Health and Social Security or The British Museum, which one would you go for? It was a no-brainer.”
Soon realising this was where he wanted to spend his working life, Boxer decided to study a degree in Ancient History, then a Museum Studies post-graduate certificate, and went on to hold a series of curatorial roles.
However, at IWMN he does struggle with some people’s perception of a museum dedicated to war. “We have the worst possible start with our name IWM,” he laughs. “We’ve got ‘imperial’, ‘war’ and museum’. Now how many people would that turn on? It’s not many.”
In fact, the focus is on the personal side of military history.
“We’re a museum about the impact of war and conflict on people’s lives, how it shapes their lives. I know this sounds strange but I say museums aren’t about objects. I think they are about the stories of the people behind those objects. It’s the Coronation Street factor, people like to know about other people’s lives. What’s more important is to know the story behind that object and that the story involves people, and if you can tell the story about people’s lives and then you have the real object [involved], it has that immediacy, it takes you right back to the past because that object was there when that event happened to that person.”
It’s the fascination with other people’s lives that Boxer believes makes the First World War so intriguing for people. Although the last of the veterans died a few years ago, many of us were lucky enough to have known at least one veteran in our own family. Both myself and Boxer knew a grandfather who fought in the war.
“It is now outside living memory, but we all know someone who has spoken to someone who was in it. That’s the important thing, it’s not like the Napoleonic wars which has completely gone, two or three generations gone. We have memories of someone who was involved in the First World War and that’s quite powerful because they have gone now and we’re trying to recapture and crystallise what we know of them and their lives and their lifestyles and compare it to ourselves.”
The current First World War exhibition, From Street To Trench: A World War That Shaped A Region, is full of such loaded items, imbued with back stories. It pulls together existing IWMN exhibits as well as many that haven’t been on display before. There are copies of the original handwritten drafts of war poet Wilfred Owen‘s poems, as well as letters sent back and forth between two sisters that provide a running commentary on the war from home. Meanwhile, in the main exhibition space which charts warfare from the First World War to 9/11, there is an uneaten army biscuit, and Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien‘s revolver from his own stint as a soldier in the war.
As well as the From Street To Trench exhibition, which continues until May 31, 2015, there are many other commemoration events as part of the Reactions14 series of artistic responses to the anniversary. A Closer Look Tour: Remembrance is on every day in the week run up to Armistice Day and, on December 13, 2014, there is a poetry workshop with poet Zaffar Kunial who will use From Street to Trench to search for stories and objects to inspire writing. In addition, the Lives of the First World War service on the IWM website allows people to add their own relatives’ experiences during the war.
Check http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-north for further details