Culture Under Attack: Heartbreaking Destruction Explored In Three Free Imperial War Museum Exhibitions

Culture Under Attack, IWM London ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 37 months ago

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Culture Under Attack: Heartbreaking Destruction Explored In Three Free Imperial War Museum Exhibitions Culture Under Attack, IWM London 5
This work by John Singer Sargent was removed during the war to be protected. © IWM

Is it OK to destroy culture to win a war? The answer may seem obvious when confronted with the horrific destruction of the majestic Bamyan Buddhas by the Taliban — a sight that still makes me want to cry when I watch it. But the question is more complex than that when you consider that Allied bombers reduced Dresden to rubble, and Hiroshima was a city afire after a nuclear bomb was dropped on it.

It's one of the thorny political questions we're challenged to ponder in a free exhibition at Imperial War Museum, as part of its Culture Under Attack season.

Should governments spend money on protecting artworks for future generations to enjoy? Again, another question that feels easy to answer at first, but given this would be money that could be spent on healthcare or education, it descends into another debate we could spend hours mulling over. Let's not get started on 'Is contemporary art as valuable as traditional art?' — that debate will likely take us through to next year.

The majestic Buddha, which has now been reduced to rubble. © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Is protecting a building worth dying for? The big questions keep rolling in, and I'm grateful I only have to ponder them, when others have had to live and die to answer them.

Artefacts from destroyed sites and stories of witnesses show what it was like to see your home city bullet-riddled or on fire, driving home how devastating war can be. The layout of pictures on the walls — showing a bombed out building in Homs, Syria next to the devastation around St. Paul's after a bombing raid by the Luftwaffe — is particularly effective, making visitors recognise that destruction of heritage and homes impacts everyone.

This is what I want to see from a museum — a powerful and thought-provoking exhibition that gives me plenty of information and keeps me thinking about the issues it raised days later.

A poster using destruction of culture to encourage enlistment. © IWM

That's just one of three exhibitions running simultaneously at the museum. It's heavy going, and I'm starting to feel it, but the issues covered are important and perseverance proves well worth it.

In the next gallery, the museum charts how its works were evacuated during the second world war, showcasing the classification system for deciding which works were saved, including each work's priority level. It had me wondering how CRW Nevinson's heartbreaking Paths of Glory, showing two dead soldiers, could be classed as priority two rather than one. Though even more problematic, and a sign of those times, is that of the 280 works earmarked for saving, not one was by a woman — cue eye roll.

The third exhibition feels a lot more energising, with pumping music filling the space, the bass vibrating the bench I'm sat on. Yet it's also highly politicised, as music is an integral part of culture, and it's important to preserve the funky sounds of Malian music when a hardline version of Shari'a law is trying to silence it.

The catchy and funky Songhoy Blues. © Andy Morgan

Each of the three exhibitions needs a lot of time and brainpower to fully process. Thankfully they're all free and on until next year so I'd recommend splitting it into at least two visits.

The only question that remains is should you go see these exhibition? Now that is an easy one to answer - definitely.

What Remains, Art in Exile and Rebel Sounds are all part of the Culture Under Attack season at IWM London. They're all on from 5 July 2019 to 5 January 2020 and all are free to visit.

Last Updated 02 January 2020