Jennifer Wellington, Exhibiting War: The Great War, Museums and Memory in Britain, Canada, and Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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“Few of these artists,” wrote one critic of the British official war art on display in 1919 in London, England, “have tried to please us.” Indeed, the war art created by the British, Australian and Canadian official artists, who were commissioned during the war to paint the heroics and horror of the front, did not seek to please their political or military masters. They tried to document the many facets of the war throughout the many campaigns and to leave a legacy for future generations. These motivating factors also drove the official photographers who roamed the front and rear lines to capture the war on film, both still and moving.  These artists aimed to make visual the war for contemporaries and, later, sometime after victory, to have their works used to tell the story of the massive British empire war effort in museums and galleries.

Jennifer Wellington, a lecturer at University College Dublin in Ireland, has written an ambitious book that examines the many cultural products created by artists during the war, along with the soldiers’ desire to collect souvenirs and trophies, and then how these relics and works were used in museums to highlight key narratives or themes from the war years.  She does this by focusing on Britain, Australia, and Canada.

In a study this large, Wellington has necessarily relied on the writings of others in many places, but she has also delved into select archives in the three countries.  This is a cast of many characters, from the war artists like C.R.W. Nevinson and Will Dyson, to photographers like Ivor Castle and Frank Hurley, to key organizers like Charles Bean of Australia and Lord Beaverbrook for Canada, and finally the postwar curators and directors of museums.  Almost all were motivated to present the war for future generations.  Lord Beaverbrook, the expatriate Canadian millionaire who established Canada’s official war art, photography, and film program, believed that the artists must rescue from “oblivion” those personalities and events that would be lost without this active intervention. (p.116)

In reconstructing the motivations behind the creation and collecting of artifacts and cultural objects, Wellington argues that each of the three countries approached these acts in a similar vein but achieved a different outcome. Both Canada and Australia exhibited artifacts and visual culture pieces to confirm national narratives of uniqueness and contribution to the empire’s war effort, with the ultimate goal of tracing how the war propelled the evolution from colony to full nationhood. The Imperial War Museum (IWM), which was established in 1917 to document the empire’s war, had a broader mandate to show the impact of the war on the home front and society, as well as to present the experience of fighting forces at the front.  These differing goals also affected how the postwar museums were created and the messages they expressed through the presentation of artifacts, personal stories, art, and other objects that were to silently bear witness to the service and sacrifice of the war years.

Wellington has a very strong chapter on soldiers and their desire to collect souvenirs from the battlefield, as well as the mechanics of how the national forces gathered all manner of war material, including thousands of artillery pieces, mortars, machine guns, and tanks.  After the war, several thousand of these pieces were distributed across Canada, to be displayed in cities, towns, and villages as trophies representing victory. As one supporter noted, “These relics are attractive in no aesthetic sense but one and all possess a grim absorbing interest.” (p.184) Most of the trophies remained in pride of place for two decades before they were reduced to rusting hazards or melted down in the war against the Nazis, although some of have survived to this day.

Wellington’s analysis of the creation of war art and photography through the official programs undercovers much new information. The war artists wandered the front, sketching and painting the war, before returning to London to work up larger canvases.  Official photographers snapped their images, trying to document the face of battle but rarely succeeding because of the fragility of the cameras and the obscuring nature of modern battle with its massive shell explosions throwing up dust, debris, and mud.  Some of the photographers, like Frank Hurley or Ivor Castle, created montages of photographs by inserting the dead into training shots, or piecing a number of images together to create a composite with a greater sense of drama. These photographs were wildly popular with the viewing public, who sought to see and understand the war, and Wellington addresses the issue of truth and authenticity, although one is left wondering if these works are a manipulation in search of a better truth or a falsification that demeans the original images?  Only film gets a short shrift in the book, and surprisingly it is nearly absent from analysis, which is unfortunate since it was a medium through which civilians at home came to understand the war, and it has increasingly taken on a key role in museums in the modern period.

The wartime art, photographs, and films were frequently employed during the war to inspire and share win-the-war messages, and Wellington offers new insight into the role of temporary and travelling exhibitions in Britain, Australia, and Canada.  Key exhibitions at Toronto’s CNE in 1917 and 1919, along with a wildly successful travelling show of Canadian artifacts and images to the United States that was seen by an astonishing 25 million visitors, revealed how culture could be mobilized to aid the war effort.  After the armistice, these exhibitions took on new meaning, as Wellington notes, within the “narrative of victory.” (p.63)

As one reviewer of an exhibition in Quebec in July 1918 exclaimed, “Everything of permanent value on this exhibition will eventually find its place in the national war museum, just as every document produced by the war will eventually find its place in the national war Archives, every picture in the national war gallery, and so on.” (p.52) And yet that did not occur in Canada.  While the IWM was established in 1917, it moved from location to location until it finally found its home at Bethlem Royal Hospital in 1936, known as “Bedlam,”a former insane asylum. In Australia, influential champions like the official historian Charles Bean ensured that a museum was finally opened in 1941. In Canada, there was no champion and the expected museum was punted from government to government, with artifacts, art, and material culture fragmented between the then Public Archives, National Gallery of Canada, and other institutions.  In the end, the museum was strangled in the cradle and it was not until 1942 that a squat, ugly building, ingloriously named the Annexe, finally opened in Ottawa, and was very much a temporary structure.

Wellington explores how different national narratives emerged from the war, and how these were presented and cemented in national museums. She is convincing in her analysis of the Australians and the British, but less so with the Canadians, largely because there was no separate Canadian War Museum until the 1960s, and her study ends before that. In fact, it is a significant omission that Wellington has nothing to say about the many upgrades and additions to the museum galleries at the Australian War Memorial and IWM over the decades, with both changing exhibitions frequently, and sometimes with significant refocuses.  And she makes no mention of the Canadian War Museum that began operating in 1967 on Sussex Drive or the new museum that opened in 2005, both in Ottawa, nor of the reimagined IWM First World War gallery that was unveiled in 2014. Some exploration here would have been a more effective capstone to the overall story rather than the final chapter that attempts to locate the museums within the broader landscape of commemoration in the interwar period, and comes off as too narrowly focused and episodic.  That said, there is only so much space in a book and Exhibiting Waris a strong addition to the existing historiography, as it grapples with and reveals new layers of interpretation in Canada, Australia, and Britain with the legacy of the First World War.

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Tim Cook, Canadian War Museum.

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