So, this was me today, sitting at my local Starbucks frantically flipping through my severely abused copy of Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker's "14-18: Retrouver la Guerre" looking like an over-caffeinated-mildly-psychotic-grad-student attempting to find a particular idea (which likened small village commemoration sculptures [see above image: Kathe Kollowitz's "The Mourning Parents"] to a 'middle ground' area where the individual and national coexisted). An idea that I SWORE I remember reading last year in 14-18. Of course, because well: I'm Anna, it turned out that this idea was actually in Stéphane Tison's book "Comment Sortir de la Guerre *insert gif of woman smacking head repeatedly on desk here*. In my defense though, THEY have the very same first name and THEIR ideas parallel each other, so like, ugh, who is really to blame here?! ... Probably my less than spectacular text organization skills *stares at mounds of paper and books derisively*. But, alas, I digress.
Out of this terrible hour long frenzy came an idea for pop-up exhibit commemorating the Great War. As we slowly approach the centenary of the Great War's close, contemporary commemoration practices move towards looking at the War's aftermath and lasting legacy (*cough* my research area *cough*). In doing so I find myself wondering how nation's will approach this. Looking back on the NUMEROUS, and I do mean NUMEROUS, commemoratory spectales, events, and momuments, that were held in August 2014; I do not doubt November 2018 will see an equal blossoming of commemoratory events marking the end of the War. Where from 2014-Present commemoratory events have centered on the actions of those who participated in the Great War, I begin to think that the commemorations of 2018 will feature how Europe pulled themselves back together through the cultural advents made in the 1920s.
The question I kept mulling over was: how will organizations address the need to commemorate the historical players of the Great War as well as their public duty to present factual information about the War in the most immersive way possible.
Reflecting on the idea of the Great War as a severed point in history. Yet, remembering that no period is devoid of the societal era that surrounds it, I conceived of a circular room to match the continual flow of history through time (s/o to Graham Smith's Waterland).
From there, the Great War would be placed at the circle's epicenter, dividing the room in half with the gouge of a trench. To convey the destruction of the War, the circular room was altered to be one continual wall with the radius of 275 yards which would enclose the trench. On the left side, when facing the structure due North, the walls are dedicated to Europe's Belle Époque period, on the right side the walls are dedicated to Europe's Interwar period. Given the large-scale of the circle's radius, the exhibit would have to be constructed in a grassy or woodsy area.
I. Opening Day: July 23th
Only the circular wall with a standard doorway is constructed, there is no roof. On the left side of the circle, the wall is covered with images, objects, and sound recordings that are most emblematic of Europe's Belle Époque period. These objects are reproductions and not shielded from the outside elements, in order to convey the decay of 14-18. Following British guidelines 450 men/women would enter the circle at 6pm (the time at which the Austria-Hungary Empire signed the State of War declaration against Serbia which document officially began the Great War) and begin to construct the trench. According to the guidelines estimation, digging a 7 feet deep and 6 feet wide trench would take those 450 humans 6 hours. They would work until they finished the trench.
II. Second Day: July 24th
At 8am those 450 men/women bring in sandbags, wire mesh, and wooden frames to reinforce the trench.
When the trench is finished, the workforce would leave the site to the sound of triumphal march music. As a battalion of 200 men, dressed in newly pressed WWI uniforms arrive and descend into the trench the triumphal march music fades to the sounds of Verey fire which grow louder and louder. The soldiers wander about reading newspapers, talking amongst themselves, flashes of light and Verey fire continues. There is a gas attack, simulated, which sends the soldiers scrambling to get on gas masks. On the stroke of every hour 20 men leave the trench at a time, they do not return, they've died. This continues until 7pm, then simulated rain falls on the men, they continue, the sounds continue, a gas attack occurs, the rain continues. The men go about their lives, sometimes singing, sometimes reading letters from the home front, sometimes reading magazines, etc. Each act is punctured by the fear of death.
III. Third Day: July 25th
At 8am the remaining soldiers leave, weary-looking with haphazard dirty clothes and drawn faces. Silence accompanies their march and as they exit the doorway of the circular structure the man at the head of the line begins to recite snippets from the war letters Max Arthur assembled in his book “The Road Home: The Aftermath of the Great War told by the Men and Women Who Survived It.” The first man begins by quoting Corporal Clifford Lane, 1st Battalion, Hertfordshire Regiment "...it was a kind of anticlimax. We were too far gone, too exhausted really, to enjoy it…We simply celebrated the Armistice in silence." As each men finishes his snippet the man behind him begins his and so on and so forth until the very last one.
IV. Fourth Day: July 26th
At 8am the 450 commissioned men/women who built the trench come back, sounds from a gramophone plays, they fill in the trench and plant a row of red poppies (already blooming) along the mound. At either side of the trench's end the men/women place two monument. One, a sculpture of the victorious soldier. The other, a cement slab with the names of 200 men who died in the war are inscribed the slab. The monument is commemorated with a boisterous speech, the 450 men/women there turn into mourners and begin crying silently as the trench is dedicated.
V. Fifth Day: July 27th
At 8am the exhibit opens to the public. For the first time there are no 'actors' but rather the public is able to enter the circular structure. They find that the right side of the circle's wall have images, objects, and sound/films that are emblematic of the Interwar period.
At 6pm, a closing ceremony is given with Historians/Researchers specializing in the field of Great War Commemoration.
In many ways, the Great War is understood as a period in time which stopped the ebb of time and dragged the world into an era of darkness.
It stole millions of lives and left physical as well as psychic scars behind. Those who approach the topic of how the bereaved of the interwar period grieved the massive death-toll find a period of history that seems almost dislodged from the ebb of time. Yet, the Belle Epoque, the years of 14-18, and the Interwar period exist only as they are linked together. The object of the exhibit seeks to incorporate this. It situates the Great War in the center between two eras, but it touches both; reflecting that the Interwar period is the product of the disillusions and horrors of the Great War as well as the product of the alterations made to the traditions of the Belle Epoque.
Ultimately, I found that engaging with this thought experiment of trying to determine how I would portray the impact of the Great War on European society to the public through an interactive non-written format actually lead to me a greater understanding of the impact. So, I'd call the experiment a success.