Friday 13 July 2007 by Mal Booth. No comments
Exhibitions, Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse, Less than six degrees of separation, Loans, Our exhibition

A while back, actually a long while back, I promised to enlighten you about a couple of inspiring things that I saw in London in 2006 during my visits to view the IWM's Lawrence of Arabia, the Life, the Legend exhibition and to negotiate our UK loans. So after a long delay and absolutely no requests to read the second part of my story, here it is. I must tell you that what I've written below were my impressions, recorded in London over Easter 2006. Since then, I've worked on the challenges presented by our exhibition and I've developed an even deeper appreciation of the work that went into these exhibitions.

Firstly, I found the IWM's relatively new Churchill Museum absolutely stunning. Located with the Cabinet War Rooms, it is visually splendid and makes full use of modern exhibition technology to educate visitors about Churchill's amazing life by very clever use of sound, documents, images, film footage, interactives and the display of selected objects. I went for a quick visit, just to breeze through and found myself there for some hours. You get a very good sense of the man and his achievements without being confused or overwhelmed by too much content or context.

I remember reading one interactive screen that displayed a selection of Churchill's wit over the years and was laughing loudly at quips such as this one on Clement Atlee, his rival Labour leader after the Second World War:

An empty taxi arrived at No. 10 Downing Street and when the door opened, Clement Atlee got out.  A modest little man with plenty to be modest about.

All of it worked. All of it looked pretty robust, but that did not take anything away from the sophistication of the display. It was intelligently designed for self-guided tours and on all interactives there were simple menus to allow you to skip forward, back out or return to the previous screen. Identifiers and catalogue numbers throughout referred to the collections of origin. In my opinion, it is a must-see venue for anyone visiting London with even a slight interest in history. I hope the IWM don't mind me using an image from their website in this post. The image is of one of their interactives, in this case the 'lifeline' that illustrates what Churchill did and when.

I should note here that there is a link between Churchill and Lawrence, particularly concerning the advice Churchill sought from Lawrence after the First World War regarding the settlement of British-controlled areas of the Middle East. Churchill was the British Colonial Secretary and had asked Lawrence to be his adviser on Arabian affairs. We will be bringing out several original documents from The National Archives of the UK that illustrate the relationship between the two men during this period.

The second inspiring thing was to visit the IWM's permanent Holocaust Exhibition. This is located at IWM London and is

also a must-see venue. This exhibition, opened in June of 2000, was developed by the IWM's Holocaust Exhibition Project and I have since been in touch with Suzanne Bardgett, the Project's Director. I was amazed by the artefacts they managed to exhibit and I had left a comment at the end of the exhibition wondering how they managed to acquire everything that is on display from a base of virtually nothing in 1996. Suzanne wrote back to me:

. . . [the artefacts] were partly given by survivors in this country and their children, partly borrowed from museums and sites of memory in Poland, Germany and other countries in Europe, and partly purchased - amazingly even bric a brac stalls yielded some useful finds. We continue to acquire material through all three avenues, though are trying to become as self-sufficient as possible, so new loans are fairly rare.

Given the fact that relatively few artefacts actually managed to survive this horrific and shameful period of history and that those that did survive would be particularly precious, it is a pretty amazing feat by Suzanne and her small team of curators on this project.

I did not have that much time in London and wanted to see exhibitions at many institutions, so again, after seeing their Lawrence exhibition, I did not I really did not intend to spend much more time at the IWM, but I ended up spending quite a lot of time in the Holocaust exhibition (over two floors) and listening to all of the oral testimonies at the end on exiting the exhibition. Survivors said many memorable things:

I still believed in God, but not in all the prayers.

People get carried away by “isms”.

Morality and ethics should be taught, but religion itself does not work.

The safest society is a tolerant one that values differences . . . I could only live in a community where I knew my neighbours.

It was designed very well (in-house I believe, by Stephen Greenberg and Bob Baxter) and it is easy to explore and follow. The objects had space to be viewed, read, and understood in context. It left me with a very deep and moving impression, even though I thought that over the years I had seen and read more than enough about the Holocaust before entering the exhibition. There are a lot of really interesting background articles on this exhibition here.

The IWM have been very helpful with advice and assistance and generous in lending us many objects for our exhibition. More on those loans in later posts.

So, those were the two exhibitions that I referred to in my earlier post as a source of some inspiration for me as I was about to embark on mine. I can't, however, finish off this post without a mention of the Tate Modern. I had never seen it before as 2006 was my first visit to London since the early 1990s. I had heard much about it and had seen plenty of images of it and had noticed it being used in movies and TV shows, but visiting it on a Saturday night over Easter in 2006 was a wonderful experience. I managed to see three brilliant art exhibitions: Martin Kippenberger; Albers & Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World; and Material Gestures.

Overall, I thought that all these exhibitions were very well designed and laid out. There seemed to be a very stark contrast with many museum displays as the Tate allowed so much space for each object. This is so often the case only at art galleries, but somewhat understandable in the context of older and much more cramped museum spaces combined the huge amount of material that could be displayed and may be expected by visitors for someone like Lawrence. The crowd of visitors at the Tate seemed very cosmopolitan. There were some families, but most visitors were mostly young urbanites in their late teens to 30s.

The Tate is a great space for modern art and it makes full use of the old power station and its own modernist design features. It has probably the best modern art bookshop I've ever seen anywhere and a very good cafe on the fourth (major exhibitions) floor that provides excellent and affordable food and takes full advantage of the stunning views over the Thames, St Paul's and the City. What can I say? I love the Tate Modern!

The Tate have been very generous in agreeing to loan us this work by Augustus John OM, for our exhibition. It is a very well known work and will be a key part of the Lawrence side of our exhibition.