In this guest blog post, Claudia Sternberg reveals why ‘In Their Footsteps’ is such a significant exhibition
First World War events are often attended by people who are middle-aged or older. However, In Their Footsteps, the historical exhibition about Leeds and the First World War at Leeds City Museum has been curated by young people, aged 14-24. They are the Preservative Party, a group of museum volunteers who work with the city’s collections.
This intelligently planned, aesthetically appealing and professionally executed exhibition covers many aspects of the city’s wartime social, military and industrial history.
In Their Footsteps tells the stories of the Leeds battalions, the Barnbow shell filling factory and the 2nd Northern General Hospital, but the integration of a wider set of objects and themes shows that the members of the Preservative Party embarked on a journey of discovery rather than settled for a quick dip into the archive.
The exhibition is particularly illuminating when it comes to the effects the war had on industry and labour in the city. And while wartime changes remain the focus, we also learn that there was ‘business as usual’ because people still needed to secure an income, provide for their families and educate their children.
The personal story of Jogendra Nath Sen, a Leeds University student from India draws attention to the war in France, so sparsely remembered in Britain today. A French-American story and that of a German soldier extend these connections, with the case studies of Louis Bureau and Wilhelm Klein coming from the archives of Leeds’ twin cities Lille and Siegen.
Not everyone embraced military service when it became compulsory; tribunals show the many moral, medical, family and economic reasons people gave to be exempted. While the death toll of Leeds citizens is presented and civic pride is taken in local industries, statistics for the killing and maiming power of the shells filled at Barnbow would complete the picture. Reference is made to the arrest of 50 local Germans at the Town Hall in 1914, but it is also worth exploring the 1,500 German, Austrian and Turkish civilians who were held at Lofthouse Park Camp for four years.
But the exhibition is not only about people and their stories. The bead work made by Turkish soldiers is just one of many artefacts that are eye-catching in their own right. In addition to paintings and trench art, porcelain nursing equipment as well as toys and tools evoke a materiality of things significantly different from that of today’s plastic objects and disposables.
In conversation, the young curators stressed they had been struck by the ‘same age’ effect when looking at the story of individuals. In turn, they ask visitors to feel ‘as a soldier on the frontline’ or ‘write to their loved one’. Many comments left by visitors indicate a similar position towards the war and its legacies.
In Their Footsteps is an open text that invites debate and interpretation. Diverse visitors have different associations; their responses reveal contemporary sensibilities in Leeds, especially among young people:
WWI is much more different to WWII than I expected.
I learned that we have it easier than people back then, I will try to be more humble.
I am proud to learn that Leeds housed 1600 Belgian refugees during World War I.
I have always been very passionate about WW1 & WW2. Seeing this exhibition and finding out things I didn’t know that happened shook me. …. Greetings from Slovenia
One visitor has left a drawing of a gas-masked face without further comment.
In the reflective space provided in the exhibition, portrait photographs are placed beside mirrors in which visitors can see themselves. The question of ‘who’, and whose experiences are reflected, impacts on the reading of In Their Footsteps and shapes the answer to the question why we remember war.
Visit the In Their Footsteps exhibition at Leeds City Museum before 8 Jan 2017.
Find out more about the Preservative Party.