Bathed in a newly-painted rich sombre aubergine, the walls of the upstairs galleries of the Brighton Museum are busy as curators, designers and staff hang signs, secure lighting and slowly peel off sticky back plastic.
Photographers and a camera crew work their way around the show, interviewing the museum experts and focusing on individual objects.
There is little sign of panic but in just six hours, this room will be calm and pristine and ready for the grand opening of the museum’s major First World War exhibition.
War Stories; Voices of the First World War is the culmination of nearly two years of thought, preparation and research to discover a new and interesting way to tell the story of the Great War.
Built around the individual stories of 13 local people affected by the 1914 war, it has been a hectic few months for Creative Programmes Curator Jody East who has led the project.
“I’ve lived and breathed the First World War intensely for the last six months,” she says. “It’s a subject which I’ve always been really interested in. I studied a lot about the period while at university, particularly the literature of the time. That’s one of the reasons why I ended up so involved, it’s a time of history which I’m interested in.”
Nevertheless to cover such a momentous event is a huge task.
“We knew we wanted to do a show around the centenary but didn’t know what our angle would be,” she explains. “We began talking through the idea about two years ago and were clear we didn’t want to tell the story of the war. We realised people are most interested in people, rather than the dates and events. Last year, we asked the public to share their WW1 stories and held two drop-in days at the museum.
“Lots of people came to us with stories and objects and have kept ringing us through the year with information. We found some stories with great stories but no objects to illustrate, other people came with objects which they didn’t know what they were. In the end we had around 70 to 80 individuals who were of interest but we had to hone it down.
“Through lots and lots of research and interviewing, the team managed to choose just 13 individuals stories which had items such as letters, and diaries and so on to tell the stories in their own voices. It was the response from the families which also gave us the chance to present the exhibition from a local Sussex perspective which is not how we had originally thought of doing it.”
Museum Designer Alex Hawkey and Programme Support Officer Fiona Redford have both been putting in long hours in the last few weeks to get the show ready on time.
Fiona says;”There were 17 million people affected in the four years of the war. It would have been impossible to tell all those stories. You can’t tell the story of the war because it was different for everyone. It depended on what side you were on to how the story goes too. In War Stories nearly all the objects featured have a personal connection to the people we have chosen. They have nearly all been handled by these people or have a direct link to that person. They have been kept by their families and passed down to them by the generations which makes them very special.”
Programme Manager Helen Grundy has also been involved with the project from the beginning. She says;”We had long conversations about what the exhibition is about. It’s not a celebration – we are remembering or commemorating. It’s clear from the stories there is little to celebrate. But we reflect the patriotic feeling of that time. People believed they were fighting a right and just war.”
Designer Alex Hawkey has planned the exhibition to focus the spotlight on the individuals. With dark walls and up-lighting, underneath the stands, the visitor’s eyes are drawn and directed to the diaries, journals and historic items throughout. Classical music sets the mood and audio and video installations throughout give a different perspective.
As Jody looks around the show with pride, she admits it has been an emotional journey. “Some of the letters have reduced me to tears. They could have been written now; they remain so real and moving.”
War Stories: Voices from the First World War
12 July 2014 to 1 March 2015
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery
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Caroline Sutton, Blogger in Residence