My MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies lead me to an interest in curating, therefore being able to work on the Land Fit For Heroes exhibition was an opportunity for me to learn and develop my knowledge and skills in this field of study. Working alongside the curator, you realise how much work goes into the job; researching and working with the objects is just one small part of it. Even in the last stages of the exhibition, the curatorial staff were the most hands on in installing the exhibition, and throughout the whole process they were not only focussed and organised with the wide variety of tasks that needed doing, but were extremely supportive of the placement students (myself and one other) in what we were being asked to do.
Working with the documentation from the War Emergency Worker’s National Committee was fascinating and sometimes frustrating, but reflecting on my experiences at the People’s History Museum, I feel it was an invaluable experience. What I found the most interesting was my own responses to the letters that I was reading through and researching- I found that my own personal engagement with them heavily influenced which ones should be included in the exhibition space. When curating objects and pieces of art, the emotional response of the audience is no less significant, but is very different from a response to social history. In the People’s History Museum, it is not reserved for Land Fit For Heroes; in the permanent galleries, the history of the Peterloo massacre has a similar effect of reminding people that the objects and stories in the galleries are those of real people, and the fact that they are not anonymous- we know their names and we know their backgrounds- means that rather than just drawing a response from the objects, the visitor can connect with the person behind the objects, and empathise with them.
The best example of these sorts of personal stories was one letter that, despite having little information attached to it, has been featured prominently in the Life at Home section of the exhibition, as an illustration of how conscription affected the young men of Britain. The letter is a copy, typed up rather than being in the actual handwriting. There is no address; there is no surname. But the content of the letter is perhaps one of the most emotional that is featured in the exhibition. It is written by a young man called Max, to his father, from a jail cell in Stratford where he has been imprisoned for resisting the call up. He graphically describes how he was beaten, attacked, and thrown into a jail cell until forced into a regiment; he describes it as ‘the worst day of my life…another one like this and I’ll be gone.’ He goes on to beg his father to get in touch with ‘the club, so that they may be able to do something’ before he is sentenced and imprisoned. Max’s lack of punctuation and hasty style of writing illustrates his panic, his fear, and even his exhaustion.
Whilst transcribing the letter for the exhibition, it became evident that this story is so significant to the exhibition, and why transcribing such documents so that any visitor can access them. These stories being out emotion and empathy, heightening the experience of the exhibition. For me, it also illustrates how difficult it is for the curator of an exhibition to separate themselves, and their own experiences with the artefacts from their display- when writing the text panel for the letter, I struggled to keep my opinions on Max’s plight out of it, and to allow the visitor to understand and experience it in their own way.