Interactive Exhibition comes to Australian Shores for WW1 Centenary
A new exhibition opens in Melbourne in April this year as part of the global effort to commemorate the First World War, one hundred years on. Curated by Britain’s Imperial War Museums (IWM) The WW1 Centenary Exhibition aims to bring this world changing event to new generations around the globe. It is aimed at audiences who do not necessarily have any specialist or expert interest in the war, yet are curious to understand its place in recent history, and its meaning for us today. The exhibition takes two approaches to engaging people. The first has been to make generous use of the original artifacts and voices of people from the time, to bring their experiences into the same space as visitors to the exhibition. These have been taken from the IWM’s collections, which were developed from 1917 onwards to reflect the wide range of people from across the Empire. The second has been to use digital and audiovisual technology to involve visitors in some of the critical issues and dramatic stories of the war. Both of these approaches have been developed as an integrated narrative by the curatorial and design team to offer visitors a varied and inspiring journey through the exhibition.
Research undertaken for the 9/11 museum project in New York City described sound, particularly human sounds, as the most affective of all the sensory experiences for children and adults. In making exhibitions about emotive subjects such as war and conflict it is a challenge to find the right balance between engaging audiences to achieve learning, yet not to overwhelm or alienate them. So to create an overarching sense of environment for The WW1 Centenary Exhibition a series of subtle soundscapes has been created. Muted sounds of people at work and at play accompany the first archival film footage of the exhibition, positioned at the entrance so that visitors come face to face with men, women and children of the early 1900s. Original film from Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand shows people going about their daily lives, reminding us that they were just ordinary civilians before war broke out in 1914. As visitors move into the exhibition they will discover a specially commissioned film and soundscape that aims to give an impression of the impact of artillery fire on soldiers as they run across the battlefield to attack. It is purposefully impressionistic rather than realistic, since to recreate the reality of this experience in clear, visual, detail would be both impossible and distasteful and therefore counter-productive. Instead, the soundscape reinforces the sense of tension, sheer physical effort, and fear, with perhaps the most memorable sequence being heavy, ragged, breathing as the soldiers on-screen lie motionless on the ground.
The First World War was the first war to be fought on land, in the air, and on and below the sea. To emphasise this for visitors, three of the largest chapters of the exhibition focus on these three elements, and for each of them, the exhibition team has created a new, large-scale, animated short film. Each film has been scripted and produced using the actual words of the people who took part: the men trapped in a damaged tank and stranded in the middle of the battlefield; the commander of the daring naval raid on the German submarine base at Zeebrugge; and those involved in the death of the war’s most famous airman, Baron von Richthofen. Taken from published interviews, their log books and journals, actors speak their words over carefully crafted images of what happened, relating each story in graphic form. The size and scale of each film will mean that when playing, it will dominate the space, immersing visitors in the drama and tension of the story: how will those men survive being trapped in the middle of the battlefield; will the raid succeed in blocking the submarine base; who shot down the Red Baron? Larger than life, scripted in the present tense, and in full colour, these animations bring to life three relatively insignificant events in a way that echoes the experience of war, where those directly involved were hugely impacted yet the war marched on relentlessly. As the films come to a conclusion, visitors will be able to find and explore the real artefacts and accounts that further illuminate the experience of war: the clothing soldiers wore to protect themselves from this mechanised, brutal, warfare; the original model used to plan the risky Zeebrugge raid; and the broken relics and souvenirs of the first air war. These serve to underline the reality of a war that fed on the effort and lives of millions of people.
Linking the exhibition chapters together is a central navigation space, the tall sides and deep shadows of which are intended to evoke something of the feeling of being in the trenches. Showcases contain a series of small, intimate, stories of people who endured trench warfare, while above the parapet four large screens reveal a continuous landscape of barbed wire, broken buildings and devastation. This trench environment changes in increments. Night follows day; rain turns to sun. A tanks rolls by and an aeroplane zooms in overhead. The contrast between the landscape of the western front and the man-made machines that churned it up in the pursuit of battle is deliberate, with the intention to provoke visitors to consider the physical conditions in which the war had to be fought. These animated films have been drawn using original photographs and descriptions from IWM’s collections and other published sources, in a close collaboration between London-based IWM curators and exhibition designers Casson Mann, and Australia-based Andrew Barry:Design Collective and Picture DRIFT. However perhaps their power for visitors will be as they experience for themselves the spatial relationship between the trench-like corridors and the expansive screens above their heads.
Digital interactives in the exhibition have been created to illustrate issues and concepts that are complicated to tell using just objects and text, but become more intuitive to learn about when visitors are able to experiment for themselves. For example, one of the interactives explains the need to tackle the threat posed by German submarines to merchant and military shipping, and the likely success rates of different strategies, such as sea mines, dazzle paint schemes and the use of convoys. Each new interactive was tested with a range of visitors to IWM London, using members of the Youth Panel to lead on the testing and reporting of results. Initial testing made use of simple paper and Powerpoint templates to test whether they delivered the desired learning outcomes – which in the case of this particular interactive is that the convoy system of protecting ships had the best success rate during the war. This was followed with testing of basic on-screen versions, to ensure the functionality made them easy to use. In between each stage, IWM curators and the production company ISO Design iterated the concept to optimise its useability and visitor understanding. In design terms, ISO Design used original sources such as maps, posters and photographs to give the interactive a distinctive visual style that is both modern yet in harmony with the real artefacts and materials displayed in the exhibition. This perhaps helps visitors to focus on the content itself rather than be distracted by the digital functions of the software.
An additional resource for visitors is a multi-media guide that offers a choice of four different ways to journey through the exhibition: the ‘Curator’s Cut’ in which IWM’s curators briefly introduce each chapter; ‘Get Closer’ for visitors wanting to hear and see more about some of the artefacts on display; ‘Listen to the People’ where veterans recount their personal experiences of the war in short extracts from IWM’s oral history archive; and ‘Australia at War’ for which Australian historian Dr Peter Pedersen has highlighted artefacts and events of particular interest for Australians. This last strand will change as the exhibition moves to different countries, to incorporate specific national perspectives, and some elements of the ‘Get Closer’ are also capable of being changed to tailor the content to different national audiences.
In sum, this range of digital resources should help deliver a visitor experience of varied pace, individual choice, emotional light and shade, and ultimately, an understanding of what the First World War was like for some of the people who were there. War is a difficult subject to spend time learning about, particularly since it is a situation that humanity creates for itself. In exposing something of the reality of how fighting war impacts on people it is hoped this exhibition will give visitors an intriguing experience exploring the individual events and people featured in it, and pause for thought.
The WW1 Centenary Exhibition opens on 17 April 2015 at the Melbourne Museum. Curated by Imperial War Museums, designed by CassonMann. Digital elements by ISO Design, Squint Opera, Idee und Klang, Picture DRIFT, Andrew Barry: Design Collective.