Sunday 8 October 2006 by Mal Booth. No comments
Exhibitions, Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse, Our exhibition

In 2005 we knew the Imperial War Museum was putting together a large exhibition on the whole life of T.E. Lawrence and at one stage we thought it may have been possible to ask for the exhibition to come to Australia after it had finished at the IWM. This of course proved to be impossible due to the large number of loans negotiated especially for the exhibition by the IWM. We decided to run our own exhibition, focussed more tightly on Lawrence's wartime service and linking this to the operations of Australian forces in Egypt, Palestine and Syria at the same time. Our initial audience evaluation told us that Lawrence did not have much recognition with Australians, particularly those under 35, so from the outset we were aware of the need to raise Lawrence's profile and strongly market this as our major exhibition for summer 2007-08.

By early 2006, a number of senior staff from the Memorial had seen the IWM exhibition whilst in London or passing through for various reasons. All were impressed with the exhibition's scale and content, and it was decided that I should see it, as the curator of our own exhibition, and decide what items we'd like to try to borrow from various institutions and private owners in the UK.

In April 2006 I visited IWM London in Lambeth to see Lawrence of Arabia: the life, the legend. It took about three hours to get through the exhibition. It was due to close after Easter, only a couple of weeks later, and was pretty crowded. I took extensive notes about certain objects in the display that related to the focus of our own exhibition (the years 1914-18 and specifically the war in the desert). After this I spent quite a lot of time with Becky Wakeford, from the IWM's exhibition design team, and then with Mark Whitmore (the IWM's Director of Collections and my former boss in Australia). Having the IWM keen to assist our exhibition from the start was a big advantage.

Advice received and my observations on the exhibition:

  • Many of the institutions that owned objects used in the IWM exhibition would need as much advanced notice as possible of our interest in borrowing items. Most loans take a lot of time to arrange and there may be a waiting list.
  • The catalogue of the 1988-1989 National Portrait Gallery exhibition, T.E. Lawrence: Lawrence of Arabia (by Jeremy Wilson, T.E. Lawrence's authorised biographer) was very useful for text, and he and Malcolm Brown were extensively consulted by the IWM and acted as advisers to the exhibition. After learning this, I spoke by phone to Jeremy while in England and I've stayed in touch with him. Nigel Steel knows Malcolm very well. So hopefully they will be able to help us make sure all the complex and contentious issues surrounding Lawrence's wartime experiences are correct and up to date.
  • Most of the IWM's own Lawrence items would go back on permanent display quickly after the end of the temporary exhibition, following some conservation work. So they asked for our earliest advice on what items from their collection we wanted to use.
  • Some books and other reading material were placed on a long table outside the exhibition (for further study/browsing) and these seemed well used. We may be able to do something similar in our Research Centre, on the same floor as our Special Exhibition Gallery.
  • There was a lot to see in this exhibition. The IWM exhibition was a massive survey of almost anything of significance that could illustrate an aspect of Lawrence's life. Seats were needed in the gallery to rest on and to listen to the extended pieces on the audio guides. The IWM had about 22 audio stations. Perhaps we could do this for our exhibition via a set of downloadable files and a podcast for personal MP3 players? As long as it is well publicised beforehand in our blog, it should work.
  • We would need to acquire copies of Jeremy Wilson's biography of Lawrence, Malcolm Brown's recent Lawrence of Arabia: the life, the legend (written for the exhibition) and Lawrence of Arabia: the selected letters (as Ed.) and some copies of the Penguin edition of Seven pillars of wisdom – as exhibition copies, reference works for visitors and for sale in our Shop.
  • I could not help but notice throughout the exhibition the power of the written word (mostly handwritten) – it attracted a lot of visitor interest, something I also saw in other exhibitions around London.
  • There was good, helpful and clear external signage to the Lawrence exhibition and this started on the way to the IWM.
  • Before entering the exhibition John Simpson from the BBC gave an audio-visual introduction, but this was immediately before the glass doors and risked having people pile up at the entry. He talked of T.E.L.'s "deflationary notion of self", but I'm not sure that is all that accurate! Perhaps this was well balanced by another feature early in the exhibition where quotations were used as a graphic on the wall, including one from Sir Robert Vansittart (from Mist Procession): "Everyone was indeed potty about this flood-lit man, who deserved both his Bath and DSO but nothing like apotheosis. What a gifted pair of poseurs Monty and TE would have made."

Sorry for the long post. I'll follow this up with a few observations from other things I saw in London that gave me inspiration for our exhibition in Part Two.

Mal Booth