The First World War had an immeasurable impact on those that lived through it, but how has it shaped the generations that came after? Though as important as ever, as we grow more distant in time from the original event (now a century ago) what significance does the act of ‘remembrance’ hold both for the individual and society? These questions lie at the heart of Lest We Forget?; the first instalment of a major new jointly-led programme of exhibitions, installations, live music, dance, conversations and immersive experiences at IWM London and Imperial War Museum North to mark the 100-year anniversary of World War One, entitled Making a New World (27 Jul-31 Mar). The exhibition also coincides with the arrival of Paul Cummins’ iconic Poppies: Wave installation at the museum (8 Sept-25 Nov) – the final stop of its national tour as part of Britain’s First World War centenary arts programme.
Bringing together a diverse collection of over 180 photographs, film clips, sound recordings, documents and objects (including the famous image of the Unknown Warrior and the original Joey puppet from the National Theatre production of War Horse), the expansive exhibition will explore how efforts to preserve the collective memory of the unimaginable human sacrifice and countless lives that were lost in the struggle for peace have changed, evolved and – at times – sparked controversy over the years. From intensely personal mantelpiece memorials, grassroots community tributes, state rituals and official observances to the cultural reverberances that span throughout art, literature, poetry and theatre; the ‘Great War’ lives on in numerous ways.
Accompanying this extensive anthropological study, Lest We Forget? will also include a display of 10 renowned paintings commissioned by the British government in 1918 from some of the nation’s most prominent war artists. Among the selection, works by Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Wyndham Lewis will hang alongside John Singer Sargent’s giant masterpiece Gassed (1919) – measuring nine feet tall by 21 feet long – which is due to return home for the first time after its two-year international tour. To coincide, a new poem titled ‘Mightier Than War’, written and recorded by Manchester’s very own Tony Walsh attesting to the triumph of the human spirit amidst times of conflict, will premiere as part of the museum’s award-winning Big Picture Show; an immersive surround sound and 360-degree projection featuring historic film footage and photographs from IWM’s vast collection.
While the last living veteran (Florence Green, a British citizen who served in the Allied armed forces) passed away in 2012 aged 110, the memory of the First World War remains firmly embedded in our national collective unconscious, and indeed must continue to do so. As the familiar phrase taken from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 Christian poem ‘Recessional’ and adopted into common usage councils; we must never forget the immense sacrifice made by those of the past in the name of freedom. Indeed, we do so at our own and future generations’ peril.