Towards the end of May, I happened to find myself with my partner, Jeremy in London for the day. Both of us are museum professionals and so what else would we do on our day off but go to a museum? Jeremy has an interest in military history and he managed to entice me to visit the Imperial War Museum (IWM) with the promise of an exhibition on peace movements. I must admit, I had my doubts about this, but my curiosity was piqued and so we made our way to Lambeth.
People Power: Fighting for Peace traces the story of British peace protests from World War I to the present day using more than 300 objects, including letters, artwork, posters, films, and music.
The exhibition explores four specific periods of protest beginning with conscious objectors (COs) of the First and Second World War, the anti-nuclear bomb protests of the 1960s, and finishing with modern peace protests against the conflicts in the Middle East.
I must admit that I went into the exhibition with a certain amount of skepticism. On the face of it, wouldn’t asking a war museum to tackle peace protests be tantamount to asking a fox to put together an exhibition on chicken rights? Those who might be of this mind can be reassured that People Power is a nuanced, measured, and powerful portrayal of the human story of the struggle for peace.
People Power explores important stories in the peace movement — the difficult decisions made by COs in the face of rising fascism in the 1930s, the origins of the peace symbol from Gerald Holtom’s designs for a nuclear disarmament symbol, the massive 2003 protest in London against the Iraq War which drew between 1 and 2 million people. Woven through these larger points are the very personal, compelling stories of the people who lived these experiences.
I found myself emotionally and intellectually engaged throughout the experience. I chuckled when I read CO, Edward Robson’s words, “I am not fit to go to the front, as I have this very awkward impediment, called a ‘Conscience'”. I shook my head in disbelief when reading the “Protect and Survive” pamphlets distributed to the British public during the height of the cold war. I was moved to tears when watching a group of former British servicemen throw their medals on the ground outside Downing Street to protest continuing aggression in the Middle East. The exhibition is well-balanced, allowing time to process strong emotions and providing factual information to underpin the highly charged material and themes.
People Power raised some difficult questions in my mind. Does protest work? Can peace only be discussed and framed by its counterpart, conflict? Where does the peace movement go from here?
While most of the museum and exhibitions are free to view, People Power: Fighting for Peace does cost to view. This is probably my main criticism of the it. The exhibition takes on a special meaning when viewed alongside the museum’s other offerings. It is an important counterpoint to the weapons of war which loom large over the main lobby. It is necessary viewing for all visitors, but potentially more so for that specific type of visitor to military museums who focus on the mechanics of war and forget the cost, who glorify the fighters but forget the fighters for peace. While they might not necessarily attend the exhibition even if it were free, removing the barrier of cost would send the message that this exhibition is important for all to see not just those willing to pay for it.
People Power is on view until 28 August. If you have the chance, I highly recommend attending. Though my visit was over a month ago, I have been thinking about it since.
For more information, please visit IWM website for this exhibition.