Eating a chocolate and hazelnut cookie, I contemplated the missile pointed at my head. On one of the most scorching days of the year, I had ducked under the long prongs of the double barrelled cannon outside and into the cool confines of the Imperial War Museum. Like many museums these days, you enter almost immediately into the gift shop, where Winston Churchill grimaces at you from t-shirts and umbrellas and tea towels, and where World War II posters pleading that you eat potato peelings and sign up to be killed in the trenches have been repackaged as historical kitsch. Such forced jollity sends you into the welcoming arms of the café, where you can drink an overpriced cappuccino and munch the aforementioned cookie while contemplating weapons of mass death and destruction. Around you, young boys swarm reverent, goggle-eyed, reciting their mantras of statistics and the mechanics of war in hushed awe. Yes, it’s safe to say the Imperial War Museum is an odd concept.
Even within its own space, the Imperial War Museum makes room for opposition. The missiles and bombs and planes hang over their own consequences. On the ground floor sits a burnt out car, a victim of a 2007 suicide truck bombing in Baghdad, Iraq which killed thirty-eight people. It’s displayed by the artist Jeremy Deller as silent synecdoche for the millions of victims of such bombings across the Middle East. He toured it across America in 2008 in the company of an Iraqi citizen and a US soldier, asking people about the Iraq War as he went. The car here has a visceral rawness, shredded where the missiles and planes are sleek; rusted red metal where they are clinical grey steel; a mess of sharp edges amidst the aerodynamically ordered. The attacker and the attacked nestle up side by side, here, by proxy. As art it’s a found piece, working that old question about the nature of artistic creation. Deller hasn’t created it, or even destroyed it. A deliberate act of violence gave it special meaning in that Baghdadi street, and Deller’s only action has been to transpose it from one context to another, and then to allow it to be transposed again by offer of the Imperial War Museum. (He is “delighted” it is there.)
I had come to review Edward Barber’s photographs of the protests against nuclear missiles in the 1980s, displayed here in the Imperial War Museum in another pleasing juxtaposition of protesters and the objects of protest. The exhibition was small, containing twenty black and white photographs, which felt more of a period piece than any thematic reflection. Here floppy-haired earnest young men mingled with permed women in shoulder pads, all caught defiant at the scenes of protest. Those angry teenagers must be old by now. I wonder if they carried on protesting, if they do Occupy and ‘die-ins’ still, or if they live in million pound houses and vote for Brexit.
The best part of the exhibition, tucked around a corner, was Barber’s own tapestry of information, specially designed for the exhibition that linked the news events to the protests to historic moments. In sprawling pen and leaning letters he has written the history of the protests. It was a timeline of paranoia from the first nuclear test to the end of the Cold War—you could almost smell the creeping mushroom clouds hanging in the air. I didn’t know, for instance, that the peace sign was designed in 1958 for the movement for nuclear disarmament. The symbol represents the semaphore for the words N and D (Nuclear Disarmanent) in its branches. Here’s a piece of art that’s managed to outlive its origins, being adapted and adopted by everyone from travelling hippies to anti-apartheid protestors.
One interesting theme in the Barber photographs concerned the use of fashion and art as protest materials. This homespun, low-fi art feels like a particularly British form of protest: offbeat, folksy, defiantly mundane. Home-stitched banners decry the bomb; top hats are studded with anti-nuclear badges; signs are scribbled biro on cardboard; a tie is made of newspaper and studded with dollar signs in a protest outside the Bank of England. If Grayson Perry and Vivienne Westwood had a baby, it might be the higgledy-piggledy protesters of Greenham Common. I would have liked a special exhibition tracing the origins and evolution of such protest art, with examples and explanations. Even now, the litanies of protest signs are a major target for the photography departments of the British press: the wit, the one-liners, the cardboard cut-out of David Cameron humping a pig. But, sadly, Barber’s exhibition was as flimsy as a cardboard sign waving in a nuclear wind.
Cookie and exhibition consumed, I descended under the empty cockpit of a World War II fighter plane to the exit, via the gift shop. As I left I was taunted by the worst ‘art’ of war that continues to haunt us: the Keep Calm and Carry On poster. Appearing on everything from mugs to tea towels to t shirts, the sinking terror on finding a coy ‘Keep Calm’ poster in your friend’s bedroom is akin to finding their personal hard drive has a folder labelled ‘sheep porn’. They emerged during the recession; perhaps it says something about the British public’s that a ‘credit crunch’ should seem equivalent to a war that threatened the life of a nation; speaking either to contemporary complacency or its hypochondriac opposite. I’d rather have one of Barber’s cardboard signs scribbled with amateurish passion and framed on my wall than the propaganda of war sold back to me as jocular, jingoist commodity.