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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, January 02, 2003
    New ways
     
      We are all of us made by war,
      twisted and warped by war,
      but we seem to forget it.
      A war does not end with the Armistice.
    This quote from Doris Lessing greets the visitor to the Imperial War Museum of the North as they enter the main exhibition space. To read it you have to be standing beneath an AV8A Harrier fighter jet; alongside these words is a display case containing a metallic artificial leg, as worn by World War II amputees.


    I revisited the museum today, with family. I could spend a lot of time there; it's a very provoking place. Lessing's observation informs the displays and ambitious multimedia presentations - war is seen as a given part of human life, a universal experience by which we are all affected.

    The museum concentrates on how war has affected people in modern times, whilst sidelining questions about the prevention of future wars. Well, perhaps that's inevitable in such a place; today I suspended criticism about what was missing and instead engaged with what was there. And it got personal. Watching a film of the Manchester blitz on 23rd December 1940 we remembered a distant family member who had died there - and later we found his name and biographical details on an interactive archive of the local war dead. And reflecting on Lessing's words I thought about closer family, how their experiences of war had changed them and by extension, impacted on the rest of us. Especially the man after whom I'm named, my great-grandfather who survived the U-boat attack on the Luisitania in 1914 but who was, by all accounts, scarred for life by the trauma.

    Kate Adie is quoted as saying: "Peace is the absence of war. You have to actively promote peace to avoid war." I criticise the museum for devoting so much of its presentation to a sort-of 'neutral' view of war, passing up the opportunity for peace education. But they do some groundwork along the way. The best thing about the place for me, is the building itself, which is fully intended to stimulate ideas about new possibilities in a war-torn world; Jim Forrester, museum director, writes:
      "Having seen our world shattered through the wars of the twentieth century, the question is whether we can rebuild something spectacular out of the pieces."
    Architect Daniel Libeskind imagined the globe broken into fragments and the museum structure consists of three shards pieced back together. It's astonishing and wonderful, disconcerting (in that no surfaces are straight, everything connects at odd angles), and it is a sign written very large on Manchester's post-industrial skyline that, indeed, something beautiful can be produced out of the world's wreckage.

    Libeskind's creation is physically thrilling, and there is also something spiritual about it: no doubt his intention, as his website makes clear, he sees architecture as a 'spiritual domain' which 'deals with the unspeakable'. I like what Marc Schoonderbeek writes about Libeskind's vision:
      Another way of thinking needs to be started, constructed with different methods and based on different principles. Our relationship with the Spirit should [be] reinvented from a different point of view, bearing in mind the experiences of the twentieth century. Although times are dark and complex, there is Hope and we might be at the verge of a tremendous creative era.
    Stood on the viewing platform at the tip of the museum's air shard, Lancashire's cityscape spread out below and beyond, this seems possible. For that feeling alone, the museum succeeds.