Behind the scenes of the Museum’s upcoming WW1 exhibition

March 31, 2015

Photograph of selected objects for the exhibition

At the Museum we are considering what to call our upcoming WW1 exhibition. Exhibition titles are key to understanding the themes and stories presented in exhibitions. Titles must be accessible, clarify the contents, resonate with audiences and capture public imagination. Like all exhibition development, devising a title is a truly collaborative process. A good title is informed by research and community stories, suggested by the intellectual framework, responds to the objects, influenced by marketing needs, complements design and is approved by the director. Above all it captures the main idea of the exhibition.

Book of Honour, 1923

Book of Honour, 1923

That now distant conflict has come to mean many things to people. The events of World War One have been framed for many purposes as people struggle to make sense of what was arguably a senseless slaughter. Narratives about World War One have been constructed for political advantage by those across the spectrum of beliefs.

There has been a shift in recent scholarship to emphasize the lived human experience of war and the context at home and abroad. This is the approach of the new Galleries of Remembrance at the Shrine. Jean McAuslan, Manager of Exhibitions and Collections at the Shrine, indicated this when she spoke to Jewish Museum guides this week. It is also the approach of a compelling exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. The exhibition title, WW1: Love and Sorrow, suggests its humane focus.

Photograph of postcard with 6 soldier’s names on the back, 1914-1918

The Jewish Museum’s exhibition intersects nicely with these current museum and historical approaches. It is uniquely placed to sit along side other World War One commemoration projects, adding to but not repeating the stories told in them. It complements discussions of military strategy and innovation that was a feature of the War, emphasizing the ingenuity of Australian Jewish Commander-in-Chief, John Monash. It deepens social histories of the War because the context and consequences of World War One had profound impact on the Jewish community.

As part of this season of commemoration, the Jewish Museum explores motivations for enlistment and the social context, the experience of conflict and the impact of War on Australian Jews through the stories of people who were there. John Monash’s boots, Oswald Benjamin’s uniform, Phyllis Slutzkin’s autograph book, Algie Sander’s photographs tell different aspects of the Australian Jewish experience of this war.

Lieut. Gen. Sir John Monash, 1921

Pair of ankle boots : Lieutenant General Sir J Monash, Australian Corps, AIF 1914-1918

Jews fought hard, for strong reasons, with devastating consequences and suffered tragic legacies that transformed Australian Jewish life. Australian Jewish experience was the same and different to the broader Australian story. Our exhibition considers why and how this was so.

Many motivations and experiences were shared, but for Australian Jews World War One had particularly high stakes. In the newly federated nation of Australia, Jews were able to participate in civil society in ways prohibited to them in most other places, where persecution and prejudice still influenced the laws and practices. Australian Jews went to war to secure the freedoms and democracy they found here. They wanted to participate fully in civil society and to secure these rights for their children.

We hope to engage these children and their descendents so that one hundred years later they, too, recognise the remarkable history and situation of Jews in Australia. The Museum is devising an education program with the Victorian Association of Jewish Ex Service men and women, our exhibition partners, and representative of the schools. Stories of individual participants in the War will be researched and presented by Jewish school children. Students’ responses to the experiences of this earlier generation will then form part of the display.

In this exhibition we hope to make sense of the Jewish community’s experience of World War One for a contemporary audience. The display responds to material in the collection and uncovered through research. It is particularly focused on the unique implications of these events for the Australian Jewish Community.

Written by Deborah Rechter, Curator of the Australian Jewish experiences of World War One exhibition.