Guest blogger Stephen Leach, Assistant Curator for East Riding Museums, takes us behind the scenes of their Remembering the Somme Exhibition, which opens on 25 June at the Beverley Treasure House.
Museums, Archives and other heritage and education organisations have been working on First World War remembrance projects since 2014 as part of the Centenary Partnership Program, the Imperial War Museum’s collaborative project. The World War I centenary will, by 2018, be four years of events, exhibitions and activities remembering this conflict.
East Riding Museums and Archives had already produced two World War I exhibitions in 2014 and 2015. Each exhibition looked at a particular aspect of the war, the first on the East Riding Yeomanry, the second on the First World War Nurse. For 2016, the centenary of arguably the most devastating battle of the war, the Somme, was an obvious choice for an exhibition. The brief was to create something engaging and informative, whilst being suitable for all audiences. The intention of Remembering the Somme is to explore the conflict from both the historical and personal viewpoint.
The Somme centenary is something many museums and organisations will cover, and so creating content which would have something unique to our service was important. This meant researching and finding content in the collections which related to local stories, be it diaries, personal effects or military records. Archive volunteers and a local community group were given the responsibility of collecting and presenting information on soldiers from the East Riding who fought at the Somme.
One of the difficulties of creating an exhibition covering such a broad subject is to avoid having lots of text, potentially making it tedious or too detailed for an average visitor. Despite this, it was still important to get the key facts of the Somme into the exhibition, to give a background to the objects and personal stories. We found in the past that visitors tend to engage more with exhibitions which include personal stories, as it makes the subject more relatable.
The other major difficulty when it comes to remembrance exhibitions is to not trivialise the events depicted. It is easy to list of a series of facts; how many fought, how many died, the key dates and so on. A series of numbers does little to show the human side of the conflict, so it is important to add context to the facts. One object that resonated with this idea is the ‘death penny’ which was a metal plaque given to families of those who lost their lives. There are a few of these in our collection, and they have the names of soldiers engraved on them. It was possible to trace these soldiers using online war records, showing us what regiment they were and consequently, where they were during the battle.
The downside of the wealth of information available is how would we present it without diluting it too much? The exhibition space is relatively small in comparison to the potential information we could place on display, so when it came to creating text panels and selecting objects, it became an exercise in less is more. If the exhibition can be considered successful by some sort of measurement, it would be that our visitors understood it, found it interesting and informative, and importantly, encouraged them to find out more themselves by showcasing the resources available to them.
The World War I centenary as an act of remembrance is somewhat unique at this time. There are no longer any living service members and it has all but passed out of living memory. But thanks to the efforts being put into digitisation and conservation, the availability of records, personal accounts, and media such as the Battle of the Somme film makes this period more accessible than other conflicts that came before it.
Stephen Leach is an Assistant Curator for East Riding Museums Service, working on exhibitions for the Treasure House museum.
Remembering the Somme exhibition runs from 25 June to 10 September 2016 at the Treasure House, Beverley