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Mainland Europe is pockmarked with places where the machinery of 20th century war has left its signs and its dead. Britain's physical connection with the two World Wars is mostly commemorated in junk. From the moment it was clear that WW1 was going to be long and grim, celebration of enlistment turned into anxious clinging. Letters from the front and souvenirs brought back by soldiers on leave assumed a new significance - a connection with son, husband, lover who might never come back. They were also a means of coping with the stupendous scale of the conflict. Collecting the ephemera of war became a widespread activity, a patriotic act - which, mostly unintentionally, led to the creation of the Imperial War Museum.

Installed in a former London lunatic asylum, the IWM has grown and, in recent years, opened a number of outposts. In Manchester early in July (2002) it celebrated the opening of the latest addition to its empire: IWM North. According to the press release the museum wanted to 'make its collection available to the people in the North of England'. If the first day was anything to go by, Mancunians have been craving for it: the queue was long and lasted all day. It was easy to imagine anxious discussions, behind the scenes, about overcrowding.
Daniel Libeskind's stunning building has been the most talked-about feature of this new enterprise. 'Conflict', says the architect, 'has been a constant factor of the twentieth century as the world has repeatedly fragmented into warring factions. I have imagined the globe broken into fragments and taken the pieces to form the building - three shards. Together they represent conflict on land, in the air and over water.'

What else could they do with the Harrier jet except hang it from the ceiling and call it an icon of its time?
Libeskind has described his building as 'emblematic'. But symbols are slippery servants: they shift and change their meaning, and can even flip to its opposite - from good to evil. Swastikas were once symbols of good luck. The 4-metre square swastikas projected for us in the IWM's 'earth shard' are presented as icons of evil. Someone on Radio 4's religious slot somehow saw Libeskind's fragmented globe as signifying hope for a better future. People still puzzled about shards and conflict can observe, in the museum's lobby, a series of images in which a splintered globe turns into - yes, the IWM North. This takes up more space than the exhibit explaining the causes of WW1. The V&A was criticised for advertising itself as 'ace café with museum attached'; here we have an 'ace building with museum thrown in'.

This is not Libeskind's first 'emblematic' building. It was preceded by his Jewish Museum, with its haunting empty galleries. They now house exhibits, but many people still think their emptiness was more eloquent. Whatever your taste in architecture, the building is infused with significance and meaning, not only by the very reasons for its existence but also by its location in the heart of a reunified Berlin, the original powerhouse for the assault on Jewish people during WW2. The same can't be said about the IWM North, set in a redevelopment zone beside the Manchester Ship Canal.

The Jewish museum is a difficult trick to repeat. Berlin needed a stylish, powerful and well-anchored repository to form a fitting memorial of the terrible wrong sanctioned by authorities based in the city. Manchester needs regeneration; the IWM North is certainly no representative of the millions killed or harmed by war, nor, if we look closely, is it a repository of the central meaning of war. We can enjoy Libeskind's building without buying into its concept. The concept provides the museum with useful copy, which, though sounding significant, doesn't actually mean very much. The museum's own slogan that pops up everywhere, 'War shapes lives', is equally vacuous.

Emblematic architecture apart, what exactly is a war museum? The new IWM doesn't make answering this question any easier. Most of us think we know what war is. We all have images of what it looks like and how it's fought, from films and photographs that are part of the experience of most of us. We're well loaded with preconceptions about war. So what has a war museum to offer? The answer: things.
But the objects themselves are, of course, not enough. Modern museums now try to give 'added value' in the shape of interpretative material, projects, hi-tech presentation, take-away follow-up literature, and the rest. Cultural history, say, or science may well lend themselves to presentation as entertainment. But war? Entertaining is the last thing war should be; and it should be instructive and not only as a terrible warning.

It's true that the IWM is merely preserving artefacts for posterity, not laying on military shows and arms-trader style weapon displays. So what else could they do with the Harrier jet except hang it from the ceiling, make it the first thing one sees on the way in, and call it an icon of its time? But never doubt they have an agenda. In the case of the IWM North it's to 'tell the story of how war has shaped people's lives from 1900 to the present day' - a much softer, user-friendly option than the hard (and deeply political) task of explaining what 'war' means. Despite a few 'subversive' touches, it's a very 'pro-war' project. You won't learn in this £30m museum how much of your taxes are being spent on war.

IWM North is entered through a small, scruffy, uninviting concrete (emblematic?) arch, reminiscent of entrances to nuclear bunkers up and down the country. Such an entrance hinted at dark and rightly worrying things to come. But this medium turns out to have a mixed message. For ten minutes every hour the museum turns the lights off in its single exhibition space and puts on a visually stunning multi-media show. As the lights dim, the reason for the surprising height of the ceiling, the tall blank pillars becomes clear: from all angles 60 projectors fill what amount to 20 giant screens with images and action. The space becomes a stage that you can wander around in. It's bold, it's exciting, it brings the museum into the 21st century - but oh, what a disappointment! The sound-track script is impoverished, simplistic and banal, and might as well be an advertisement for war. Someone even thought the last lines of 'In Flanders Fields' would round it all off neatly, apparently unaware that they're actually an exhortation to battle.

Cosy relationship with an atomic bomb.
So, what really is a war museum? After WW1 Ernst Friedrich set up an Anti-War Museum in Berlin. The collection contained many grim and disturbing photographs, and showed everything that the more 'patriotic' collection omitted. More importantly perhaps, Friedrich graphically demonstrated the dangerous selectivity employed in conventional collections; and he contrasted official statements with actual events. War (and the way it 'shapes our lives') is a deeply political issue. It was clear what Friedrich's position on it was - 'anti-war' wasn't even needed in the name.
IWM North's position is clear too: it's deeply committed to war - not war as an exciting and glorious activity, certainly, but war as an inevitable event that may even have beneficial spin-offs.

Standing in front of that open oven in France one can't help but think about what went on there, about the pain and misery of those who passed through its doors, and about the system that made such horror possible. Standing in front of 'WE 177' (a 400-kiloton atomic bomb 20 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) in Manchester, one only thinks how small it is. What are war museums for? Corporate growth, and perpetuating the myth that war is inevitable. Sad, isn't it.ween us and a fate worse than...what? Does it matter? After all, it was so long ago, a new millennium beckons, and shouldn’t we be thinking about the future?... So indeed we should. But the future is the outcome of past and present: there are still a few ‘lessons’ to be learned, before a critical mass is reached and the dominant belief in the efficacy of military solutions is overturned.

‘Battle’ and all those other violent, confrontational words are so overused that they have lost almost all significant meaning. Even ‘genocide’, which one might hope would be reserved for a very specific (and very rare) human crime, is a term now to be found in any sub-editor’s all-purpose stock-in-trade. (‘Ruddy ducks threatened with genocide’ headline in The Guardian)

‘Britain’, however, remains a highly charged word, though its meaning has changed dramatically over the last hundred years. Proud, confident ‘Britain’ stood for naval power and a vast empire at the beginning of the century when its troops crossed the channel to confront the Hun. By the war’s end, two extra-European powers, the USA and Russia, neither of which participated at its start, were pulling strings in Britain and the rest of Europe; and have continued to shape our lives ever since. Similarly, the character of the rest of the century has been shaped and defined by wars – including true genocides (yes, there have been quite a few) – which each November we are encouraged to ‘remember’. Or, rather, ‘those who gave their lives’ in them.

‘Popular interest’ in the First World War has increased in recent years. More time is allocated to it in the curriculum, the number of school trips to the war cemeteries in Belgium and France has grown, and a huge war museum, funded by Britain, has opened recently in Ypres/Ieper. Quite why this is happening is not clear. The ‘heritage’ movement no doubt contributes to it; and perhaps studying and thinking about even this grim past is easier and more comfortable than thinking about – and planning for – the future.

Working on the PPU’s interactive CD on war and peace, one finds questions and issues like these cropping up all the time. The utter awfulness of what people have done to each other can probably only be apprehended imaginatively, with the dry statistics of body counts only hinting at the vast scale on which death has been dealt. It is hard to grasp, let alone convey. But because of the many graphic illustrations of violence to which we’re now exposed by way of films, television and computer games, conveying real horror has become difficult too. Even young children, before going contentedly off to bed, can see enactments of atrocities (albeit in representational form) – atrocities which recur lifelong as terrifying nightmares to those who have seen them in the flesh.

One begins to wonder if knowing the depravity to which we can sink is all that important. Might it even be counter-productive? How much carnage can one bear before losing all hope for humanity? Without a hopeful vision of the future, life can become meaningless. So: a comforting fudge of the facts can be an appealing option.

While the heritage industry and the British Legion differ slightly in their views of war, both essentially see and portray it (even if indirectly) as grim and regrettable yet sometimes necessary and sound in purpose. The pacifist view is a different and subversive one, and all the more difficult for that. Our conviction that war is neither necessary nor purposive challenges those comfortable and convenient formulations of the kind perpetuated every year on Remembrance Day. They were originally devised to give comfort to those bereaved by war, and give justification to the state that embarked on it. ‘They did not die in vain’ implies ‘the war had a valuable purpose’. This is the lie that has been repeated sanctimoniously every day of remembrance since 1918.

Just up the road from Verdun, where military incompetence and slaughter almost literally bled the French army dry, is the Douamont Ossuary. Here the bones of 130,000 unknown young men gather dust and an occasional glance from a passing tourist. Above them the marbled hall, which echoes even to the footfall of trainers, is bathed with blood-red light from the stained glass window. Here, in a dark alcove ignored by most, is the statue of Silence which in 1919 stood plainly outside the front door of the provisional ossuary. Slightly bigger than life-size, the figure of a woman with a shawl over her head holds a silencing finger to her lips. The message – that the truth about the futility of the war is best not uttered – is hard to miss. Now, lost in its alcove’s shadows, even this 82-year-old injunction is fading from sight. The awfulness that should not be spoken of has become as irrelevant as the words carved on the skirt of Silence: AUX HEROS INCONNUS. Such words are inscribed in one language or another on war memorials and in war cemeteries round the world. They have proffered heroism as the prevailing, false, and irrelevant explanation of the war – a war in which these dead soldiers have been stripped even of their names.

Don’t wait until after eleven o’clock on November the eleventh to break the silence.

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