Once Upon a Wartime, an exhibition which opened earlier this month at London’s Imperial War Museum, takes five children’s novels about war and conflict and uses them as a starting point to explore what war can mean for children.
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall and Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley provide the inspiration and setting to explore themes of loyalty, separation, excitement, survival and identity. Whilst these are books typically read by children older than my normal focus here on Playing by the book, I was nevertheless extremely keen to visit this new exhibition, to discover what inspired the authors to write their books and find out about the historical context of each story through objects, photographs and films.
I was also very interested to see how the museum chose to bring these books to life – exhibitions about children’s literature are not that common – and I thought you too would be interested to see how these books have been translated into a family exhibition.
In my review which follows I’ve included plenty of photos (to give those of you unable to visit the exhibition the best possible flavour if it) and I’ve split my review over two posts – the second half will appear tomorrow.
Once Upon a Wartime is divided into 5 distinct sections each focussing on one children’s book about conflict. The first zone visitors enter is dedicated to War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, the story of Joey, a farm horse who is caught up in the horrors of the First World War.
In this area of the exhibition you come face to face with a life-size horse used in battle, giving you an impression of the power and stature of these beasts.
There is a moving display of posters promoting horse welfare during the First World War, medals and medicine they received.
As in each zone, one cabinet is given over to items directly relating to the novel, including in this case an excerpt of the manuscript for War Horse (see below). I learnt that Morpurgo drew on three main sources of inspiration for this book: By chance Morpurgo met a First World War veteran in his local pub who told the author about his experience in a cavalry regiment, then Morpurgo came across a painting of a cavalry charge that profoundly moved him, and thirdly Morpurgo overheard a shy boy with a stammer talking to freely to horse – just as Albert does to Joey in the book.
As well as a model of a warren of trenches this section of the exhibition includes a life-size wooden cavalry horse, which was used to teach soldiers how to equip horses.
In the darkened space, thinking about the First World War and the real soldiers who had originally used this horse, and wondering about the experiences they went on to have, and whether or not they made it back alive I was moved and saddened. I couldn’t but help think of my own family members who went to war and what happened to them and so before even leaving this first area of the exhibition, my mood was reflective and what I was looking at suddenly became personal. Now that I’m writing this up, I can’t get the song Two Little Boys out of my head, actually a beautiful song about friendship and war if you can get over the associations it has with Rolf Harris – listen to Hue and Cry performing it (slightly adapted) here.
Moving on, the next area is dedicated to Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, a book about a sister and brother’s experience of being evacuees during the Second World War. Artefacts on display include a suitcase full of items an evacuee might have taken with them, the documentation that surrounded being sent away as an evacuee and visiting evacuees and posters of the time encouraging families to see evacuation as a good thing.
Here a model train whizzes round and round at knee height – just right for young children to watch – symbolically leaving London and arriving in rural Wales, the journey taken by Carrie and her brother in Bawden’s book.
Next up is Hepzibah’s kitchen, a place of warmth and security for Carrie and her brother. Visitors can sit at the table, open the cupboards and learn about rationing. Although the items here are all “fake” – a stage set essentially – I really liked the opportunity this gave for me to actually step into the story, rather than to simply look into glass fronted cabinets full of museum items.
No one in my family was evacuated, but I couldn’t help pondering what sort of lasting impact it may have had on both the children and parents involved. Being separated at a time of high anxiety can’t have been easy for either the adults or their kids, and I would have like to have seen this explored a little in the exhibition, perhaps with some interviews of evacuees as adults much later in life – especially as this reflection on Carrie’s time as an evacuee is what frames the book.
A panel in the exhibition notes that Carrie’s War was very much based on Bawden’s own experience as an evacuee, and apparently the author found being an evacuee “wonderful” but I can’t believe it was as idyllic for all children (or parents) involved. How would you feel if you had to send your children to live with an unknown family hundreds of miles away for months on end?
The next space is dedicated to The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall.
As for each book, there is a display including original manuscripts from the author alongside items mentioned in the text, and also an audio excerpt of an interview with the author.
An MG15, the type of gun that Chas takes in The Machine Gunners from the crashed German bomber is, of course, on display.
I particularly liked the planes flying above – all accurate models of different types of plane flown during the Second World War. These cast fantastic shadows over this section of the exhibition, creating an atmosphere in which it was easy to imagine oneself running for cover during an air raid.
A mock-up of the fortress which Chas and his friends build is a fun part of the exhibition. Visitors can go right inside, sit down and imagine themselves defending the country from occupation.
Don’t forget to come back tomorrow when I’ll continue with my description and review of Once Upon a Wartime.