“Cathedrals of the Modern World”: Introduction

Museums are the cemeteries of the arts. (Alphonse de Lamartine)

Jay Winter
Jay Winter – Yale University

Even their fans must admit that museums can feel like places where the past (or, for the poet Lamartine, art) gets embalmed and entombed. According to historian Jay Winter — already quoted multiple times in this series on exploring the history of World War I in western Europe and here speaking at the opening of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri — museums are most susceptible to the problem when they refuse to engage with the ongoing search for knowledge and understanding: “A museum without contact with scholarship turns sclerotic very fast; and there are one or two in Europe that I can think of that are in danger of doing just that” (Jay Winter, The Legacy of the Great War, p. 34).

But museums that embrace their position “as a kind of bridge between the academy and the public…” remind us ivory tower-ites that “Scholarship, particularly about war and peace, is everybody’s business,” while we “stimulate museums to change and adapt their representations of the past as historical interpretations change.”

And while the museum also serves for Winter as a “space of memory,” this is a more fluid, vibrant term than one might think. As I’ve been writing in my four recent posts on WWI commemoration (start here with part 1), “never forget” (or “lest we forget”) is a complex charge, in part because memorials interact with other spaces and structures and because audiences attach their own meanings to what they see. Winter notes one version of this inevitable complexity:

…the history of war is not something which has happened once and for all; it is happening now as we speak, and will almost certainly happen again in the next months and years somewhere in the world. Many of the people in this room saw military service; they have direct knowledge of war and immediate memories. We need to hear them , and their voices, and put them alongside other people’s voices, voices from nearly a century ago, of the young men who found out what war was. (p. 35)

Past and present, memory and experience, scholar and public — all collide in museums. And if that’s not enough, Winter argues that “Museums are, in a way, the cathedrals of the modern world, places where sacred issues are expressed and where people come to reflect on them” (p. 34).

Some of us like to think that cathedrals are still the cathedrals of the modern world, but I take the point, particularly when we insert Winter’s “particularly about war and peace.” Walking into the WWI/WWII wing of the Imperial War Museum in London, for example, one walks past a line of photos, soldiers and civilians from wars gone by, their agonized, determined, griefstricken, and stoic faces watching you approach a clock timed so that each of its rotations represents another death caused by violent conflict in the 20th century. (For more such faces, head upstairs for Shaped by War, a temporary exhibit featuring the work of war photographer Don McMullin.)

Western Front Signage
Signage from the Western Front, displayed at the Imperial War Museum

The IWM was perhaps the finest of four European museums focused on military history that my wife and I visited earlier this month. But each, in its way, was doing exemplary work bridging the scholar-public divide and/or sustaining a living memory of World War I, all the more important for that war’s study as its 100th anniversary approaches and well-received books, plays, and movies help to renew its popularity.

Thursday I’ll share some thoughts and photos from the IWM and its lesser-known counterpart in London, the National Army Museum, then Friday we’ll visit two museums on the Continent: the French military history museum in Les Invalides, Paris; and the tiny Sanctuary Wood Museum outside of Ypres, Belgium.

Read the next post in the series>>

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