With the plethora of World War One commemorations this year – and for the next three years – it can become all too easy to become inured to the emotional and individual experiences of this period. While the official events linked to the War have been imposing, they have sometimes lacked a sense of the way history can represent interconnected life stories. Brighton Museum and Art Gallery’s current exhibition War Stories: Voices from the First World War (12 July 2014-1 March 2015) reconnects us to this more personal idea of the past, which reflects Raphael Samuel’s important focus on ‘history from below.’ It tells the histories of thirteen people – all connected to the local area in some way – who lived through the war, and whose experiences are recreated through, for example, personal photographs, letters, and, significantly, the material culture of their world.
Dress and textiles play an important role throughout the exhibition – presenting a tangible, sensorial link between the people discussed, and their lived experience. The collection of people is diverse and includes Belgian refugees, an Indian soldier, a nurse, and a conscientious objector. But, through the coincidence of their dates of birth, each lived through the chaos of World War One. And each left behind images and objects that speak of this period, and its impact on their actions, relationships, jobs and emotions. In this sense, they curated their own life story, as we all do, through our choices of what and how we collect and keep our memories. This auto-ethnography has then been edited and re-presented within the current exhibition – connecting narratives of the time with our contemporary approach to looking at and thinking about the past.
The walls of the gallery are painted deepest red, and each section explores one person’s story. From the start, the role of dress and textiles within people’s lives is clear. It is shown as a part of ritual and life stage – a christening robe, and a wedding dress are poignant mementoes. The dress was worn by Marjorie Brinkhurst in 1919, it is accompanied by silk shoes and a veil, a tiny, folded wedding invitation and the stiffly formal photography of bride and groom, best man and bridesmaid. These are tokens of happiness and relief, as her solider husband made it back from the war, and hers is a story of patience and commitment – a caption quotes her daughter, who remembers ‘She met him when she was 16. And they corresponded and became engaged through letters and so she went out and bought herself a ring.’ This shows how conventions were both broken and reinforced by the war – with its prolonged separations and continual uncertainty.
Another display on Vernon Evershed and his younger brother, Doug conveys the way that dress – with its closeness and intimacy to its wearer – can form a precious memento, a treasured connection to someone lost to the war. The glass cabinet devoted to these soldiers contains a soft brown army undercoat, below it, photographs of them as children, and one of Doug in army uniform. Both died in battle – a telegram from Buckingham Palace and a letter from the commanding officer telling the all too familiar tale of sons lost on the Front. Again, the curators use a quote from a relative to show the war’s legacy – ‘For years and years the undercoat was on my grandmother’s sideboard and we had no idea it had any connection with my father’s uncle.’
The exhibition is rich with such detail, weaving together memories and histories – tying together those who fought, with those who stayed at home, through letters, photographs, scrapbooks and oral histories. A nurse’s uniform and images of a local military hospital remind us of women’s involvement in the war, medals and badges recall battles and regiments, and inventories of uniform items supplied remind us of the huge administration that underpinned the military.
The final display describes – visually and in text – the Unknown Warrior – whose body was buried at Westminster Abbey to represent the enormity of loss. Here, textiles played a key role in conveying the ceremony’s solemnity, and its official, state purpose. The coffin is shown draped in the Union Jack, its graphic form a reminder of nationhood that was reflected in the two huge, flowing flags hung from the cenotaph in Whitehall.
Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, vol. I (London: Verso, 1996)