Edward Rothstein reviews the IWM’s First World War Galleries in the International New York Times
[…] these new galleries are worth paying attention to, not only for what they say about World War I, but also for what they say about contemporary approaches to history. […]
The exhibition’s designer, the firm of Casson Mann, has stated that here “visitors will see the war through the eyes of the people who experienced it” and that the galleries will “ground the visitor in the present tense.” Sound effects, video, touch screens, interactive games — the goal is really to create a Museum of Experience, like so many museums being built these days (including the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York). If history creates disagreement or conflict or controversy, then one approach is to emphasize experiences rather than interpretations; there is no argument in experience.
Here, for example, display areas are surrounded by cement-colored platforms inscribed with phrases from the diaries or letters in the museum’s collection. A game for young visitors — played by touching images on a light table — asks them to mimic the repetitive motions of factory workers turning out shoes or cutting timber for military use. The home front, as in many war exhibitions, ends up becoming as crucial as the battle front.
And, as it turns out, World War I is almost impossible to appreciate without examining experience. As a recent exhibition at the University of Texas at Austin suggested, we have come to understand this war through its portrayal in poetry, drama and the visual arts. This is one reason, too, to pay attention to an art show at the Imperial War Museum, running through March 8 — “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War” — in which painters like C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash strain to convey their experiences at the front. For World War I, experience has played a dominant role in interpretation.
Read the full review in the digital edition on nyt.com