A Preview of the New IWM London (July 2014)

Stephen Moss concluded, in his July 2014 preview of IWM London, the following:

One day, some future Big Think really will have to consign the Imperial War Museum to history. There will come a point where the first world war ceases to look like the start of everything and becomes part of a continuum. How much longer can the war on terror and the struggles of the present century be treated as addenda to the great wars of the first half of the 20th century? Something will have to give. But, for the moment, we should celebrate the museum’s reopening, and the British way of embracing difference – and diffidence. We may be unduly keen on going to war, but at least we haven’t built a monument to our martial spirit. Which other country, after all, would have housed its military museum in a former asylum? War and the madness of war.

I’m not sure that I agree. Regarding the name of the Museum, that is very much secondary to the content. The Museum does not glorify all war but, particularly, in its omissions, there is often a tacit approval of the militarism of Britain and its allies. This is partly achieved through overlooking the great suffering and deaths endured by resistors of British imperialism, be it in Kenya or modern day Iraq. Notably, the Museum’s ongoing Afghanistan exhibitions, ‘War Story’, continues to overlook the voices of Afghani victims, preferring British voices.

In its credit, the Museum’s art displays, ‘Truth and Memory’ and ‘IWM Contemporary’ have opened some space for victims’ perspectives. The Museums’ large collections of paintings capture the brutality of the dead and maimed soldiers of WW1. Meanwhile, Mark Neville’s video footage, recently on display, captured ordinary Afghani people at the market in the shadow of a passing military vehicle. In the new main atrium of the Museum, lie the remains of a bombed car from Baghdad, and a Reuters press vehicle that came under attack by Israeli forces in the Occupied Territories. But, still we wait to be allowed to hear and see directly the ordinary victims.

Read Stephen Moss’ full article, published in The Guardian on 10th July 2014, here.

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IWM’s Response

After writing a few time to IWM’s Director-General, Diane Lees, she helpfully agreed to put my concerns about the the Annual Defence Dinner (the annual arms trader dinner held at IWM London) and other IWM funding from arms manufacturers, such as BAE Systems and Boeing UK, before the Board of Trustees, who are the ultimate decision-makers.

Ms Lees, reporting the Board’s decision, stated:

“The Board is confident that IWM has robust systems and policies in place to ensure that all financial contributions to IWM are appropriate and present no conflict of interest. Our financial supporters have no influence over the way we present our subject to the public, and our policy is to be unbiased, reflecting a variety of views and operating within the code of ethics for museums. Our subject is of course a very complex one and we take the ethics and sensitivities of how we present war and conflict very seriously.”

This response fails to properly discuss the ethics of funding and whether it is immoral to accept money from corporations that profit from conflict and openly arm violent, authoritarian regimes (with the approval of the government). Secondly, it asserts the editorial independence of the Museum from funders but offers no evidence for this. It is merely a claim by the Board which I am meant to accept blindly. I would, however, ask, how often IWM has examined the role of arms manufacturers in conflict in recent aldecades? How often, even, has IWM evaluated the motivations of British involvement in recent wars?

Moreover, you have to wonder where IWM would draw the line with funders. What is “inappropriate” as a funder if arms dealers who enable brutal, criminal violence by states and, in the case of BAE, are regularly exposed to be engaged in unlawful activity are considered appropriate by the Trustees?

Put simply, the letter is a, “trust us, we know best” from the Trustees.