It’s very easy to feel despondent about politics, both domestic and international. Whether you’re pro or anti Trump, believe Brexit is the end of Britain or the beginning, or nuclear war is a real threat or a load of hot air (no pun intended), it’s clear that there’s some divisive decisions being made by those at the top. What can we, the poor plebs at the bottom, do about it?
Make a noise, that’s what. The newest exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum – People Power: Fighting for Peace – explores just how citizens have been doing that over the last century. From pacifists refusing conscription in World War I, to the protests against military intervention in Iraq, individuals have always come together to collectively make their voices heard.
Postcards, letters and images sensitively portray the personal aspect of global issues, and reflections on the dilemmas individuals face when choosing their side are a reminder of how morally complex so many of these issues are. Describing himself as a ‘practical pacifist’ author A.A.Milne wrote in a letter displayed here that to fight would seem to support war, and to not would feel like allowing concentration camps and Nazism.
For a long time protest was the only way that women in particular could try to have their voices heard. Those marching earlier this year follow a long line, from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom to the women of Greenham Common in 1981. The famous Greenham Common protests are represented by carefully hand crafted banners, and the creativity and role of art in anti-war protests runs throughout the corridors and displays that step through the decades.
Early sketches of the anti nuclear war symbol, now synonymous with peace movements, are a reminder of how these things start out. Grassroots to global. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), launched in 1958, asked artist Gerald Holtom to design an image to be brandished on banners and placards at the march outside nuclear weapons research facility in Aldermaston, Berkshire. The now ubiquitous symbol was partly derived from the letters N and D in the semaphore alphabet, representing nuclear disarmament.
The brutality represented in Paul Nash’s depictions of the trenches is one that disappeared with the advent of the Cold War and technological advances, making warfare seem all the more remote. Blood splats on David Gentleman’s posters for the Stop the War Coalition may be intended to be explicit, but feel less emotive today when war is something fewer of us have direct contact with.
Peter Kennard and Cat Phillip’s iconic 2007 photomontage Photo Op which depicts Tony Blair taking a selfie against the backdrop of a devastating explosion, feels as much a slur in this context on society as it does on Blair. It’s all too easy to click a petition or share a link, without really making an effort. It’s easily understood. Despite all of these years of protest, the many banners waving, every individual who has been scorned as a coward, every person who has stood up and shouted, we’re still at war. Ernest Rodker, a young activist who marched at Aldermaston and later in February 2003 as one of the 2 million strong crowds against the war in Iraq, echoes that sense of disillusionment in an interview for the show. ‘Many people thought ‘What’s the point?’ The biggest march that had ever been and no impact, just ignored by Blair.’
But that’s no reason to stop trying. These people didn’t. If there’s one message to take away, it’s that we can’t give up. Use your voice, your legs, your hands and your heart. Make a noise and cause a scene – they can’t ignore us forever.
Running at Imperial War Museum London until 28th August 2017.