The Absent Voices of the Imperial War Museums By Shah Jahan

13 August 2013 — New Left Project

The brainchild behind the Imperial War Museum, Sir Alfred Mond, said on its launch in June 1920: ‘The Museum was not conceived as a monument of military glory, but rather as a record of toil and sacrifice.’ Though he dedicated it to ‘the people of the Empire, as a record of their toil and sacrifice through these fateful years’, the Museum’s Board of Trustees was filled with British government appointees and a handful of representatives from colonial and dominion  governments. The ‘people’, whether of the Empire or Britain, had no say in how their toil and sacrifice was depicted. Ninety-three years on, the Imperial War Museum now spans five branches and has a remit of covering all the conflicts that have involved Britain and the Commonwealth since the First World War.  The main branch of the Imperial War Museums, IWM London, has been closed for six months in preparation for next year’s WW1 centenary events.  As it partially re-opens on 29th July, in the midst of major cuts to its public funding, it is a fitting time to ask whether the Museum has the editorial independence it needs to fulfil its public duty.

Redevelopment work at the IWM London will continue throughout the year to prepare for the full re-opening in summer 2014. £50 million has been set aside by the government for national commemorations of WW1, of which £5 million has gone towards IWM London’s new First World War galleries. The aim of the grant, according to Prime Minister David Cameron, is for IWM London to be ‘a centrepiece of our commemorations for the Centenary of the First World War’, and to inspire new generations with the ‘incredible stories of courage, toil and sacrifice that have brought so many of us here over the past century.’

The IWM has set its own agenda in its Annual Report 2011/12:

to be recognised as the world’s leading authority on conflict and its impact – focusing on Britain, its former Empire and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present… IWM should be a place where, regardless of knowledge or experience, our audiences can make sense of conflict, understand its causes, course and consequences and see how it affects human behaviour for good or for bad.

To meet this vision IWM must have the editorial independence to examine the historical record critically. The Museum Associations’ , states that museums should ‘strive for editorial integrity and remain alert to the pressure that can be exerted by particular interest groups, including lenders and funders.’ (Code 9.10).

IWM insists it has this independence – decision-makers are ‘neutral’ and funders have no influence over how they exhibit their subject matter. Yet, whether the Museum has enough of an accountable democratic senior management structure to be able to preserve editorial integrity is doubtful. The IWM is highly unrepresentative of British society, filled by the government with wealthy figures from the military and corporate sectors. Of the 22 trustees, only two are women – journalist and former corporate director , Bronwen Maddox, and the lawyer and academic, Dame Judith Mayhew. In terms of political, social and professional backgrounds, the Board of Trustees has more in common with IWM’s state and corporate sponsors than the visitor to the Museums.

IWM’s choices of subject matter certainly cast doubt upon its editorial integrity and independence. There is a distinct lack of critical analysis of British military activity, demonstrated by the lack of inclusion of the perspectives of the victims and dissidents of militarism. IWM London will soon re-open with a new photography and art programme called ‘IWM Contemporary‘. This will be kicked off by Omer Fast’s video piece, ‘5,000 Feet is the Best,’ based around the experiences of a former US drone operator. Following this will be an exhibition of reportage and photographs taken by US and UK soldiers in Iraq 1991-2012 (Mike Moore and Lee Craker) and an exhibition on the ‘personal and environmental legacy of military structures’ by the British photographer and film maker, Donovan Wylie.  There will continue to be few spaces for the voices of the victims and dissenters of British military operations in Iraq,Afghanistan and elsewhere in the new IWM London. IWM North has featured an exhibition of powerful photographs by the Guardian‘s Sean Smith that depicts some of the devastation of Iraq – but this exhibition is certainly in the minority across IWM’s five national branches.

The treatment of previous British military operations has tended to be similarly weighed in favour of pro-war perspectives. A revealing example comes from an online collection of personal stories about ‘conflict, belonging and identity’ put together a few years ago by IWM called ‘Through My Eyes.’ The collection included three stories from ‘Kenya in Conflict’ – Britain’s merciless repression of the rebelling Kikuyu tribe, known as the Mau Mau uprising. The British government only recently paid a limited amount of compensation to the surviving victims. None of the three stories told in the Kenyan part of IWM’s exhibition were from the Kikuyu. Thus, the primary Kenyan victims of incredible British imperial brutality, including tens of thousands killed and virtually the entire 1.5 million Kikuyu detained, were not given any chance to tell their story.

Vested Interests

The British government is the most powerful interest group behind the IWM, acting as both a provider of public funds and the selector of most of the positions on the Board of Trustees. This dual influence hampers the possibility of editorial integrity, making reform of the Board essential. The government though is at least elected, and thus its decisions are in theory open to influence by the general public. The same cannot be said for the private corporations who are filling the void left by growing cuts to IWM’s public funding. 

The Museums major source of income has been the annual ‘grant in aid’ from the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. This grant however is decreasing.  Last financial year, IWM received £21.96 million, down from £23.91 million in 2011. The cuts will continue; by 2014/15, the Museum expects its total grant to suffer a real reduction of 21.4%. The Museum will become predominantly privately funded, with 53% of its income planned to come from self-generated commercial activities.

These quiet cuts, behind the fanfare of the First World War Centenary, will ensure that IWM becomes ever more dependent on corporate sponsors, partners and donors, such as those from the arms trade, including BAE Systems and Boeing UK, who both feature in IWM’s 2011/12 Annual Report as donors of at least £10,000.

The arms industry, or ‘defence industry’, are, along with the Ministry of Defence (MOD), already deeply invovled with the Museum. The Annual Defence Dinner, a major networking event for arms manufacturers, MOD officials and foreign defence attachés has been held annually at IWM London for several years now. The most recent sponsor of the event, Chemring Group, is a supplier of explosive ingredients for US Hellfire drone rockets. And the key speaker of their event is the government’s defence secretary – it was Philip Hammond MP in 2012 – demonstrating the interchangeable nature of the corporate defence industry and the Ministry of Defence. Recently, the MOD secured for IWM a Honda motorbike allegedly used by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The motorbike will go on show in the Museum’s ‘War Story’ exhibition, which tells the modern service stories of British forces.

Editorial Integrity

If IWM had editorial independence and a critical scholarly approach it would use the WW1 centenary to examine the warring nations’ motives. It would also look at the evidence and arguments produced by those who say that it was a bloodbath occasioned by government and business leaders’ competing for wealth and power – a claim supported by the sharing of the colonial ‘spoils’ by the victors afterwards. It would certainly not engage in any ‘celebration’ of Britain’s role in what Harry Patch, the British WW1 veteran who outlived his peers, described as ‘legalised mass murder’, and instead would critically reflect on the war and its consequences.

A critical record of the ‘war to end war’ that cost millions of lives would recognise in it the germs of bloodshed to come. Not just WW2, but the more immediate repression of independence movements that followed in Ireland, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, giving rise to horrors such as the ‘Amritsar massacre’ of hundreds of defenceless Indian protestors in 1919; or the 1920 ‘Bloody Sunday’ random shooting into the crowd at a Croke Park football game in Ireland; or the ‘Egyptian Revolt’ of 1919 in which 1,000 Egyptians were killed, more than 1,500 imprisoned and 50 Britons killed as Britain fought fiercely to maintain ownership of Egyptian resources and prevent independence. 

We should know of the atrocities suffered by the British and their commonwealth mercenaries, as much as the atrocities committed and authorised by Britain. Knowledge of the dynamics of imperialism will enable us to understand more clearly the arguments that are made today about British support for the US in the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere.

The absent voices

The most important voices for our understanding of British imperial history are those that are kept quietest – the voices and stories of the victims and the dissidents. IWM London is set to re-open  with exhibitions that largely exclude these voices. This suggests  that the Museum is not, as it claims, editorially independent from its funders and trustees, nor a true authority on the course and effects of conflict. If cuts to its public funding are permitted to be enforced, this situation will only get worse. The onus is on us, the public, to support the Museum’s  independence. We can do this by challenging the government’s damaging cuts to its public funding, upon which any hope of editorial integrity rests. At the same time, we must demand that the Museum justify its public funding by opening up to the voices of victims and dissidents.

Shah Jahan is a blogger who writes about the independence and authority of the Imperial War Museums at

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