The WW1 Centenary Exhibition is an outstanding touring exhibition developed by the Imperial War Museum in London to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The world premiere of the exhibition opens Saturday 18 April at Melbourne Museum and I was invited to a media preview.
World War I is a vast and complex topic to cover and The WW1 Centenary Exhibition does a great job in focusing on certain elements of the history. It’s an exhibition not just for military history buffs (though there’s plenty to interest them), as it also explores the political backdrop of the era, social issues particularly those relating to women, as well as revealing many personal stories of those who died and survived the war.
In fact, the Imperial War Museum does not consider itself to be a military museum – their mission is to tell the personal stories of war. The museum was born of World War I (it began in 1917) and many of the artefacts and memorabilia have been donated by members of the public. Over 300 objects from the Imperial War Museum‘s collection are featured and some of the displays in The WW1 Centenary Exhibition have never left Britain and are considered some of the museum’s most treasured items.
For instance, the entrance of the exhibition holds a British-made artillery gun. It was the gun that fired the first shot by the British on the Western Front and thus has immense historical and emotional significance for the museum, the British people and their allies. In the museum people often lay wreaths and precious personal items at its base.
There are other pieces of impressive industrial machinery in the exhibition, such as a 7 metre long artillery gun (that took 12 hours to fit into place in the exhibition) and the engine from the plane that the Red Baron was piloting when he was shot down.
However, it was the more humble human objects that touched me. The German nightdress made of paper because blockades meant raw materials were no longer available.
The knives and clubs, sometimes homemade, used in primitive hand-to-hand combat when soldiers entered enemy trenches.
The beaten old shoes given to a POW by a farmer after the soldier’s release at Armistice.
The WW1 Centenary Exhibition is split into ten chapters which explore different facets of the war, roughly chronologically. The overall themes relate to the scale of this global conflict, the immense devastation of new industrial warfare, how the war impacted and threatened people’s previous way of life and how people came to terms with the legacy.
The visitor is guided through each section through a series of high walls which are meant to represent the trenches in a battlefield landscape. To further evoke to chilling effect of trench warfare overhead some specially developed graphics are projected onto large screens and the scenery changes from daytime to night time as a soldier in the trenches might see, looking above at the sky. The effect is quite chilling and it’s worth watching the whole loop for 18 minutes.
In the media preview we got a sneak peek at some of the content in the audio guide and I highly encourage you to rent one for your visit. It adds a particularly Australian narrative to The WW1 Centenary Exhibition, which means for many visitors the displays will create a connection with their own family history.
I think The WW1 Centenary Exhibition will strike a chord with every visitor. It effectively uses multimedia, artefacts, oral histories, projections and artworks to tell an emotive story of humanity, devastation and life going on. You will be informed, and moved.
The WW1 Centenary Exhibition – The War That Changed the World, Melbourne Museum, 11 Nicholson St, Carlton
Saturday 18 April – Sunday 4 October 2015 10am-5pm daily