Imperial War Museums’ Funding Cuts and Real Horrible Histories

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A suspected ‘Mau Mau’ fighter is taken away by a private of the 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry for interrogation. © IWM (MAU 864)


Imperial War Museums’ Funding Cuts and Real Horrible Histories:

The brainchild behind the Imperial War Museum, Sir Alfred Mond, said on its launch in June 1920: “The Museum was not conceived as a monument of military glory, but rather as a record of toil and sacrifice.” He included in this dedication, “the people of the Empire, as a record of their toil and sacrifice through these fateful years” of the First World War. And, yet, the new Museum’s Board of Trustees was filled with government appointees and a handful of representatives from colonial or dominion governments. The ‘people’, whether of the Empire or Britain, had no direct say in how their toil and sacrifice was depicted. Ninety-three years on, IWM now spans five branches and a remit of covering all conflict involving Britain and the Commonwealth since the First World War – but the challenge remains as to how the Museum accurately and openly records peoples’ experiences of conflict.

IWM’s ability to fulfil its role is coming under severe pressure from cuts to its annual public grant – its main source of income as a national museum. Whilst the government has done much to publicise its financial support for IWM London’s new First World War galleries, in preparation for next year’s WW1 national centenary events, what is barely mentioned, however, is the 21% cut to IWM’s real value total grant that is planned by 2014-15, compared to 2011-12.

Despite these cuts, David Cameron, wants IWM London to be, “a centrepiece of our commemorations for the Centenary of the First World War”, and to inspire new generations with the “incredible stories of courage, toil and sacrifice that have brought so many of us here over the past century.” Thus, IWM is clearly not only under increasing financial pressure but, also, real political pressure as to how to portray conflict.

The IWM has set its own independent agenda in its Annual Report 2011/12: “to be recognised as the world’s leading authority on conflict and its impact – focusing on Britain, its former Empire and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present… IWM should be a place where, regardless of knowledge or experience, our audiences can make sense of conflict, understand its causes, course and consequences and see how it affects human behaviour for good or for bad.”

To meet this vision IWM must have the editorial independence to examine the historical record critically. The Museum Associations’ , states that museums should “strive for editorial integrity and remain alert to the pressure that can be exerted by particular interest groups, including lenders and funders.” (Code 9.10). [Now, expressed more strongly in the updated Code of Ethics as: “Ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation. Resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders.” (Code, 1.2)]

IWM insists it has this independence – decision-makers are ‘neutral’ and funders have no influence over how they exhibit their subject matter. Yet, whether the Museum has enough of an accountable democratic senior management structure to be able to preserve editorial integrity itself is highly doubtful. The IWM Board of Trustees is highly unrepresentative of British society, appointed by Cabinet ministers with wealthy figures from the military and corporate sectors. Of the 22 trustees, only two are women – former corporate director and current journalist, Bronwen Maddox, and the lawyer and academic, Dame Judith Mayhew. In terms of political, social and professional backgrounds, the Board of Trustees has more in common with IWM’s state and corporate sponsors than the visitor to the Museums.

IWM’s choices of subject matter casts doubt upon its editorial integrity and independence. There is a distinct lack of critical analysis of British military activity, demonstrated by the lack of inclusion of the perspectives of the victims and dissidents of militarism. IWM London will re-open this year (29th July) with a new photography and art programme called ‘IWM Contemporary‘. This will be kicked off by Omer Fast’s video piece, ‘5,000 Feet is the Best,’ based around the experiences of a former US drone operator. Following this will be an exhibition of reportage and photographs taken by US and UK soldiers in Iraq 1991 – 2012 (Mike Moore and Lee Craker) and an exhibition on the “personal and environmental legacy of military structures” by the British photographer and film maker, Donovan Wylie. IWM London’s new family exhibiton will be Horrible Histories: Spies.

There will continue to be few spaces for the voices of the victims and dissenters of British military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the new IWM London. IWM North has featured an exhibition of powerful photographs by the Guardian’s Sean Smith that does depict some of the devastation of Iraq – but this exhibition is certainly in the minority across IWM’s five national branches.

Coverage of past British military activity tends to be similarly edited. A revealing example comes from an online collection of personal stories about “conflict, belonging and identity” put together a few years ago by IWM called “Through My Eyes.” The collection included three stories from ‘Kenya in Conflict’ – Britain’s merciless repression of the rebelling Kikuyu tribe, known as the Mau Mau uprising. The British government only recently paid a limited amount of compensation to the surviving victims. None of the three stories told in the Kenyan part of IWM’s exhibition were from the Kikuyu. Thus, the primary Kenyan victims of incredible British imperial brutality, including tens of thousands killed and virtually the entire 1.5 million Kikuyu detained, were not given the chance to tell their story.

Corporate Vested Interests

The British government is IWM’s most powerful interest group as provider of public funds and selector of most of the positions on the Board of Trustees. This dual influence by one interest group hampers the possibility editorial integrity, making reform of the Board essential. However, the government is at least elected by voters and its decisions are open to influence by the general public. The same cannot be said for private corporations who are filling the void left by growing cuts to IWM’s public funding.

The Museums major source of income has been the annual ‘grant in aid’ from the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Last financial year, IWM received £21.96 million, down from £23.91 million in 2011. The cuts will continue; by 2014-15, the Museum expects its total grant to suffer a real reduction of 21.4%. The Museum will become predominantly privately funded, with 53% of its income planned to come from self-generated commercial activities.

These quiet cuts, behind the fanfare of the First World War Centenary, will ensure that IWM becomes ever more dependent on corporate sponsors, partners and donors, such as those from the arms trade, including BAE Systems and Boeing UK, who both feature in IWM’s 2011/12 Annual Report as donors of at least £10,000.

The arms industry, or ‘defence industry’, are, along with the Ministry of Defence (MOD), already deeply entwined with the Museum. The “Annual Defence Dinner”, a major networking event for arms manufacturers, MOD officials and foreign defence attachés has been held annually at IWM London for several years now. The most recent sponsor of the event, Chemring Group, is a supplier of explosive ingredients for US Hellfire drone rockets. And, the key speaker of their event is the government’s defence secretary – it was Philip Hammond MP in 2012 – demonstrating the interchangeable nature of the corporate defence industry and the Ministry of Defence. Recently, the MOD secured for IWM a Honda motorbike allegedly used by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The motorbike will go on show in the Museum’s ‘War Story’ exhibition, which tells the modern service stories of British forces.

Editorial Integrity

If IWM had editorial independence and a critical scholarly approach it would use the WW1 centenary to examine the warring nations’ motives. It would also look at the evidence and arguments produced by those who say that it was a bloodbath occasioned by government and business leaders’ competing for wealth and power – a claim supported by the sharing of the colonial ‘spoils’ by the victors afterwards. It would certainly not engage in any ‘celebration’ of Britain’s role in what Harry Patch, the British WW1 veteran who outlived his peers, described as “legalised mass murder”, and instead would critically reflect on the war and its consequences.

A critical record of the ‘war to end war’ that cost millions of lives would recognise in it the germs of bloodshed to come – the real ‘horrible histories’ from Britain’s recent past. Not just WW2 but the more immediate repression against reviving independence movements that followed in Ireland, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, giving rise to horrors such as the ‘Amritsar massacre’ of hundreds of defenceless Indian protestors in 1919; or the 1920 ‘Bloody Sunday’ random shooting into the crowd at a Croke Park football game in Ireland; or the ‘Egyptian Revolt’ of 1919 in which 1,000 Egyptians were killed, more than 1,500 imprisoned and 50 Britons killed as Britain fought fiercely to maintain ownership of Egyptian resources and prevent independence.

We should know of the atrocities suffered by the British and their commonwealth mercenaries, as much as the atrocities committed and authorised by Britain. In this knowledge, we should see how imperial exploitation is a repression that is unsustainable and makes inevitable bouts of bloodshed and inhumanity – with the subjugated people enduring the bulk. Knowledge of the dynamics of imperialism will enable us to understand more clearly the arguments made today that British support for the US in the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and drone attacks follow the pattern.

The absent voices

The most important voices for our understanding of British imperial history are those that are kept quietest – the voices and stories of the victims and the dissidents. IWM London will re-open this year with exhibitions that largely exclude these voices. Highly suggestive from this is that the Museum is not, as it claims, editorially independent from its funders and trustees, nor a true authority on the course and effects of conflict. If cuts to its public funding are permitted to be enforced, this situation will only get worse.The onus is on us, the public, to support the Museum to assert its independence. We can do this by challenging the government’s damaging cuts to its public funding, upon which any hope of editorial integrity rests. At the same time, we must demand that the Museum justify its public funding by opening up to the voices of victims and dissidents of British military action.

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Voices of Victims and Dissidents

General Reginald Dyer ordered the Amritsar massacre on 13 April 1919.

Some defenders of British imperial crimes argue that empires have always existed and, if the British hadn’t been dominant, someone else, perhaps, even more brutal, would have. Empire and its engine of aggression and exploitation, is, they imply, a fact of life. Be grateful it was the British rather than the Soviets or the Germans. Just as now, be grateful it is the Americans, rather than, for example, Putin’s Russia.

But, who said that exploitation by the strong amongst nations is inevitable? The nature of imperial exploitation has changed dramatically, even in recent times. Whereas, for example, the US could once brutally attack Vietnam without so much as a peep from the US population, the proposal to invade Iraq drew unprecedented crowds opposing the aggression. As a result, US actions in Iraq, vicious as they have been, have been restrained compared to the wild assault on Indochina.

The terrible crimes of the empires are fact which only silence can make inevitable to be repeated. As with most empires, British aggression was driven by dominance and desire for economic exploitation and expansion. That some sections of subjugated populations derived some benefits from this domination cannot feasibly justify the repression. If the primary intent is to dominate and extort, incidental benefits, whatever their size, cannot change the moral character of the crime.

The subjugation of people for self-gain in the systematic way it occurs with empire can only be disguised as benevolent by keeping quiet the victims and dissidents. This sadly goes on, today.

Many people have heard of the Amritsar massacre of 13th April 1919, in which a crowd of Indian protesters were fired upon on the orders of Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer, killing hundreds of defenceless individual – in ten minutes of shooting.

But how many of us know the context of the Amritsar massacre? World War 1 had a great toll on India. Some 43,000 Indians died fighting for the British and trade in the region was disrupted. The resulting fall in living standards and renewed drive for independence gave rise to a surge in social unrest and trade union militancy.

The British sought to placate to dominate in 1918 with limited provincial self-government reforms and the Rowlatt proposals of greater police repressive powers, including two years imprisonment without trial.

Indians, lead by Gandhi, revolted against the Rowlatt proposals in a series of strikes which lead to clashes and deaths. John Newsinger describes the lead up to the Amritsar massacre in his excellent book, “The Blood Never Dried:

“When Gandhi was arrested (he was soon released) to stop him travelling to Punjab, however, serious rioting broke out. In Ahmedabad the textile workers took to the streets, fighting with the police and burning down government buildings, offices and police stations (51 buildings were destroyed). By the time the police had regained control of the city, 28 people had been killed including a British police sergeant. There was a two-day general strike in Bombay on 10 and 11 April (1918) that went off without violence, but in Calcutta on the 12th troops machine gunned a crowd, killing nine people.”

“In Amritsar, in Punjab, the general strike on 6 April had been peaceful. When news arrived of Gandhi’s arrest on the 10th, however, large crowds took to the streets and clashed with troops, who opened fire. After between 20 and 30 people had been killed, an outraged crowd set about destroying British property, killing five Britons (three bank managers, a railwayman and an army sergeant) in the process. A British schoolteacher, Marcella Sherwood, was badly beaten and only rescued by the parents of some of her schoolchildren. An uneasy calm returned to the city and the protesters decided to proceed with an anti-Rowlatt rally on the afternoon of 13 April at the Jallianwalla Bagh, an enclosed space. The meeting was banned but they decided to defy it. General Reginald Dyer decided to make an example of them. He marched a detachment of Gurkhas to the rally and without any warning opened fire on the 20 to 25 thousand people peacefully listening to speeches. The troops continued firing for over ten minutes with Dyer only ordering a ceasefire when they were nearly out of ammunition. By the time they had finished the bodies were piled ten to twelve deep around the exits. Dyer made no attempt to help the wounded and dying. Indeed, the curfew came into effect soon after he ceased shooting so the wounded and injured were left screaming, moaning and dying all through the night.”

The official estimate of 329 dead, including 42 children, is likely to be too low. Nonetheless, Dyer was unrepentent, stating that it was not simply a case of dispersing the crowd but inflicting “sufficient moral effect” to terrify the Punjab into obedience.

Dyer went on to order that any Indian seek to pass through the street in which Marcella Sherwood had been attacked must do so crawling on their bellies, on pain of death. A regime of public floggings, reprisals and bombings were also instigated in Punjab.

The context of the Amritsar massacre is not simply 13th April 1919 or even the events of the years, 1918-19. The fuller context of all imperial crimes spans the entire history of the particular empire. It would be inaccurate to view General Reginald Dyer as a mere ‘bad apple’ – even if the Amritsar massacre did cause something of an outcry in Britain. What the perpetrators and defenders of police brutality in the British Raj in the 20th century kept repeating fearfully was the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, in which a violent uprising in India was put down with great brutality by the British. The 1857-58 rebellion had its own General Dyers, or worse – such as Colonal James Neill who conducted a mass pillage and hanging campaign of hundreds, including children. The death count of his troops finally stood at 6,000 – far outweighing the violence committed by the rebels, including the Kanpur (Cawnpore) massacre in which a small British force was massacred after a negotiated settlement for them to evacuate had been agreed, after which the rebels killed the 180 survivors, mainly women and children.

Imperial history should acknowledge the crimes of all concerned but, in doing so, a truthful account cannot but find the crimes of the subjugated population to pale in comparison to that of the aggressor. The aggressor doesn’t just aggress but creates an environment from which anger and violence is bound to unleash, engulfing innocent civilians. As British commander and chief, Henry Rawlinson, put it in 1920: “You may say what you like about not holding India by the sword, but you have held it by the sword for 100 years and when you give up the sword you will be turned out. You must keep the sword ready to hand and in case of trouble or rebellion use it relentlessly. Montagu (secretary of state for India) calls it terrorism, so it is and in dealing with natives of all classes you have to use terrorism whether you like it or not.”

The Amritsar massacre would be followed by a further 28 years of British rule before India won independence on 15th August 1947. This would be another 28 years of strikes, riots, imprisonments and police brutality which successive British governments had direct responsibility for.

The 20th century atrocities of the British Empire occurred in India, Ireland, Kenya, Malaya, Palestine, Vietnam, Indonesia and so on. The repressed people of the empire were not prepared to accept continued direct domination and exploitation by a foreign government. Imperial exploitation continues with the US relegating Britain to a junior role but peoples’ resistance has made it more awkward for acts of open brutality and criminality to occur.

That the British empire is still held up by some as benign or, even, admirable, reveals our ignorance of the history of the victims and dissidents. Likewise, the acts of imperial aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. The victims and dissidents continue to be kept largely silent. The Imperial War Museums must do more to tell the truth about the victims of the massacres, revolts and resistance created by the repression of the British empire.