Monday 25 July 2016

New Perspectives: Thiepval Memorial Museum, France

The Museum of Oxford Young Innovators are a multi-national and well-travelled group, so we will occasionally be posting about our visits to other museums we love both within and beyond the UK! Today’s post is by Hanna.

I was fortunate to be in France recently as part of a group of 25 PhD students from 11 countries who all study the First World War. We were brought to the Verdun and Somme areas for a week by l’Historial de la Grande Guerre, a FWW research centre in PĂ©ronne. A highlight of the week was attending the ceremony at the Thiepval Memorial for the 100 th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Thiepval Memorial is the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and lists more than 72,000 names of British and South African soldiers who fought in this region and whose bodies were never found. It is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) monument, and is their largest monument in the world. The line between ‘memorial’ and ‘museum’ is a fascinatingly blurry one, and many war museums consider themselves to be memorials. Additionally, many
monumental memorials, including Thiepval, are accompanied by interpretive centres/museums so that visitors can fully grasp their significance. Thiepval's visitor centre underwent an enormous upgrade, with the addition of a museum wing, time to coincide with the 100th anniversary on July 1st. Here are some of my favourite features:

The centrepiece is a massive hall (with mirrors at the ends, creating false impressions of an infinitely extending space) with line drawings depicting the battle in a continuous narrative chronological sequence, in the tradition of the Bayeux tapestry or the lion hunt reliefs from the palace of Ashurbanipal in the British Museum. Rather than have traditional interpretive panels, accompanying the walls of drawings are primary source quotations from a refreshingly diverse array of perspectives; alternating nationalities and levels of seniority. The entire museum is also multilingual, with consistently two and sometimes up to four languages.
Running through the centre of the room are glassed-over floor cases interspersed with digital screens offering facts and figures about the battle. The layout of the space- particularly the location/height of interpretive text- is very accessible for wheelchair users and children. The use of embedded floor cases creates an almost archaeological effect, and is also a subtle yet effective reminder of the lethal danger that buried unexploded shells from the First World War are still posing to French farmers today.

I have a Masters degree in Museum Studies which involved spending a lot of time learning about different interpretive techniques and design elements, so I always love finding new ones that I haven’t seen before! One room of the museum was entirely dedicated to remembrance of individuals, with the walls covered in photos of soldiers who went missing on the Somme. On the floor are projected biographical details about specific soldiers, on a rotating basis. The information is projected in four languages, and visitors are given blank white pieces of board to hold up in front of them and 'intercept' the projection of the language they want to read. 

The Thiepval Visitor Centre welcomes 150,000 visitors in an ‘average’ year, and these First World War centenary years are producing public interest and visits well beyond average. The addition of the new museum will no doubt continue to keep Thiepval a relevant and meaningful place for visitors from the UK and beyond. 


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