IWM North: Director’s view
IWM North suffers from an identity crisis. As a museum with the words Imperial and War in the title, some people think that we must be about military campaigns, dates and victories. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes we do display tanks and guns and bombs and all the paraphernalia of warfare and conflict, but our message is far more challenging and complex.
At Imperial War Museums we believe it is important to communicate the causes, course and consequences of modern conflict in a courageous and authoritative way that is relevant to our audiences and empathetic with people’s experiences. Our reason being – whether we recognise it or not – war has shaped all our lives and continues to do so – some more personally and tragically than others.
As part of the International Day of Peace, IWM North has just held a minute’s silence, followed by the showing of one of our more recent ‘immersive’ film experiences, on Build the Truce. Using the first hand, eye-witness accounts of non-governmental organisational workers and social workers in five areas around the globe torn apart by conflict (El Salvador, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland and Kosovo), this ten minute film asks What happens when the guns stop firing? Of course, you would be forgiven for thinking – it’s peace…but unfortunately it’s not as simple as that.
Problems don’t just end when the truce begins: in Kosovo – as one of our witnesses points out – there were many ceasefires, while in Iraq even after the fighting had ended things just went from bad to worse. The issue is, how do you reintegrate warring factions into a coherent society? After conflict, people have lost everything: homes, jobs, schools…all those things that strengthen the fabric of society and which we perhaps take for granted…are gone. In Sierra Leone the Truce did not bring prosperity and didn’t solve the problem. The ongoing insecurity just led to continuing extreme violence, while in El Salvador it was noted that when the Truce was established, the violence didn’t go away, it changed into social violence.
The other issue is that such conflicts can last for years and young people especially don’t know anything else – it’s natural to them. As an Iraqi citizen, now living and working in Manchester, said, Children have grown up with war – it’s all they know. How can I tell them it’s good to have peace? They don’t know what peace looks like. This witness concluded that it needs a lot of people to make this point before any change can be made. But this isn’t easy to achieve either. For many people who have suffered at first hand the trauma, grief and inhumanity of conflict, there isn’t any peace – even if the guns have stopped firing. How do you forget, how do you reconcile the past experiences with some semblance of normality? It’s not over and it’s not the end. On the contrary, it’s just the beginning of a painful process of reconciliation, reintegration and rebuilding. As a senior doctor in Kosovo stated – and this would be confirmed by all our witnesses – some of the hardest acts of building the truce are those of forgiveness and tolerance.