The History Makers project promised it would deliver two main things: a website for the digital archive and an exhibition. I had been involved with researching local contributors earlier in the year so when I was invited by Yvonne Davies, the project manager, to curate the latter I was already very familiar with the project.
Yvonne felt that the launch of the website should best be accompanied by an event which would bring together project participants, family stories, and the artefacts – medals, letters, trench art, etc – which now feature in the ‘Galleries’ on the website. So it was decided to hold the exhibition alongside the website launch on Friday 23rd October at the Mary Webb School, the last school day before half term. The exhibition would then continue on the Saturday and Sunday.
Sourcing all the artefacts and memorabilia was both a delight and a challenge. Would people wish to lend their precious artefacts? Most of them had enormous personal meaning and were uniquely linked to particular individuals who had served in the Great War. I soon found out the answer to this question – yes, they would make the loans. I believe that the momentum of the previous months tied local people in to the project and gave them the confidence to be generous in response to our appeal.
We had three main sources for acquiring the things we wished to display: the original interviews on video, the stories and photos that emerged from the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ style event held in July, and miscellaneous people who had got in touch with the project in the meantime. In all it amounted to nearly seventy people, all with a story to share and with family items that had often been brought out of hidden places, dusted down, and were ready to be exhibited.
My first job was to confirm with the contributors what exactly they had and start to categorise these elements. As you can imagine this involved a great deal of careful record-keeping. They were then invited to write a short descriptive piece to give a context to the objects; this would also be helpful for the website. As the catalogue expanded it was time to negotiate with Mary Webb School about the practicalities of putting on an exhibition on their premises. One of the drama studios was identified as the most appropriate space because of easy public access, size and flexibility of the space i.e. not too many desks to shift.
Every exhibition needs its creative input, so at an early stage we enlisted the help of two local people: Helen Sample who is an artist and picture-framer with a background in publishing and Bill Sample whose particular talent is sculpture. They had the practical skills, artistic vision and the motivation to work the long hours we needed to pull the exhibition together. Working with the Project Manager we started to think about the look and feel of the exhibition:
- A commemoration not a celebration
- Featuring the community contributors alongside young people
- Displaying original material from the war years through 21st century digital technology
- Generating an interactive audience rather than passive recipients
We did not want to write factual text for every item as we were not trying to create a First World War museum, but the show did need signposting. so we decided to present the material in themes. These slowly began to emerge as we collected the various exhibits: ‘Air and Sea’, ‘Family Stories’, ‘Honouring’, ‘Home Front’, ‘Rest in Peace’, ‘Communication’ , ‘Trenches’, ‘Women’ (of course many exhibits could span 2 or more of these categories).
How to display? We wanted the displays to be intriguing and visually interesting and not overburdened with text. Many exhibits lent themselves to presentation as a collage, for example those that retold a family story. Some loans were a collection of objects relating to one person – a discharge document, badges, service book, for example – so we arranged these in a drawer, or in a suitcase, just as they may have been found. There were many medals of course. Some were already framed but some were loose, in twos and threes. So Bill created a ‘medal tree’ from which to hang these.
As the weeks progressed so the intensity of activity increased. Loaned items started to come in (I had to clear a large space in our house to accommodate them.) On some occasions a contributor would turn up with an unexpected item, much to our delight e.g. the German gas bell. And on others I found myself driving into the remoter areas of the county to collect a box of treasured family artefacts. Most of the exhibits had to be mounted, framed, laminated or somehow displayed well in advance to free up time on the exhibition set-up days. I evolved a system whereby each item was identified by a number (stuck on discreetly I hoped!) to link it to its owner.
We felt that the overall look and feel of the exhibition needed to reflect the period of the First World War. We were fortunate to find people who love collecting anything and everything from past times AND were generous enough to loan them – period pieces such as furniture, lamps, suitcases even a sewing machine.
What I was learning at this stage was that you always need more time than you realise: to get volunteers on board, to source your materials, to talk to and reassure contributors, to negotiate with school partners, and simply have time to reflect on progress and think it all through.
But we got there. On Thursday 22nd October we began work in the Mary Webb School drama studio. We couldn’t take down the existing displays as they had been painstakingly stapled up as part of the students’ curriculum. So we had to cover over them. We did this using rolls of white card, black plastic and lengths of hessian. Then we began to create the History Makers displays. Over the 2 days the exhibition emerged. Not everything could be decided in advance so we proceeded organically, seeing which items worked next to each other, adding lighting and extra text as appropriate. In a central position was a screen showing the website. Students took responsibility to play the video interviews continuously. They also demonstrated the breadth of material on the website using the project’s iPads and could guide visitors to website pages appropriate to the displays they were looking at. We even recreated a trench in one corner of the room; it took quite a few hours to fill sandbags with newspaper! Around the walls were all the displays, with room for people to sit and read and think. Perhaps the overall theme turned out to be communication. We looked at how we transmit facts, thoughts and feelings about the impact of war e.g. using newspapers from 1918, letters home from the Front, recollections of family members stored on iPads.
The website launch and exhibition was opened at 6 pm on the Friday evening and it began with an intergenerational choir: students from Mary Webb and members of the Mere Singers a cappella group. A speech or two were made, the ribbon was cut, the website went live – and worked! There was an air of excited anticipation as over two hundred people explored the exhibits that evening. It genuinely exceeded people’s expectations. And there was a steady stream of visitors on the Saturday and Sunday. Visitors were given bookmarks with the website address – a reminder for themselves and to pass on to friends and neighbours. There was also a collection for the British Legion and a visitors’ book. Here are some comments that people made:
“Fascinating finds have made a fantastic exhibition for the next generation not to forget”
“Most interesting and thought provoking”
“Very moving and beautifully presented”
“How good of the school pupils to be so helpful”
“All the objects and stories have brought WWI alive for us…will
certainly look at the website”
“. . the website will ensure that the project continues into the next generation too. Well done to all involved.”
Afterwards of course the exhibition had to be taken down, the drama room delivered back to its rightful owners, and the many artefacts returned to lenders. But I hope that anyone using this website can get an idea of the special atmosphere that was created for that weekend and what a memorable occasion it was for everyone.
To try to thank people by name would run the risk of missing some vital person. All the people who appear on this website gave their time and loaned their family possessions. School students and members of staff (teaching and administrative) had a major input, as they have had into the main project. Local volunteers gave to the max. I thank all of these people for their creativity, patience and hard work.