I recently attended the launch of Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its Legacy, a new First World War Engagement Centre funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. Birmingham City University are partners in the project, which is led by the University of Birmingham and also includes Newman University, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Worcester.
As the screen grab from the Voices of War and Peace website above shows, one striking impression I had at the launch was of the power of visual imagery used by artists at the time, both in support of and to protest against the war. In particular, the website features a section on Joseph Southall, an artist whose works are well represented in our own collections in the BIAD School of Art Archive.
I am, like many people I think, a little uncomfortable with the commemoration of WW1 – it is such a horrific history and there is the danger that commemoration be perceived as celebration. However, the aims of the Engagement Centres (according to the HLF website) do open up interesting possibilities:
Are you a community group or a small heritage organisation already doing, or thinking about doing, a First World War Centenary project?
If so, you may be able to get help with researching your First World War heritage from one of the five university First World War Engagement Centres ...these centres will be reaching out to communities and organisations, linking them up with researchers with relevant expertise, and providing advice and training, for example in using archives."
At the launch, alongside the speeches from Professor Ian Grosvenor, the Centre’s Principal Investigator, members of the city council and a panel debate between the other academic co-investigators, the most engaging aspects for me personally were poetry performances by members of Stoke-based youth group DJ School and readings of archive material by pupils from Birmingham’s Waverley School. It got me thinking that maybe the Centre could also have a role in encouraging and facilitating community groups to work creatively, and with creative practitioners, with the archival records of WW1? Given the amazingly powerful work produced by artists during the war, not to mention the complex and contested stories of war-time experiences in archives and the challenge posed by commemoration itself – perhaps creative practice is one way to engage that can negotiate the challenges and help to redefine both commemoration and public engagement.