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A short history of violence

19 March 2014 by Richard

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Dr Richard Benjamin, Head of the International Slavery Museum looks at the different ways museums have told the story of violence.

Hello, in February we launched two new exhibitions ‘Their Spirits’ by Laura Facey and ‘Brutal Exposure: the Congo’ images by Alice Seeley Harris from one of the earliest human rights photographic campaigns.

I was then invited to participate in a panel discussion titled ‘Photography and Violence’ at Rivington Place in London by Autograph ABP, focusing on images in our exhibition and ‘When Harmony Went to Hell’ Congo Dialogues: Alice Seeley Harris and Sammy Baloji in London.

That exhibition juxtaposes images from Belgian archives, some showing rather grotesque pictures of gorillas and other animals shot as trophies, with modern images of Congolese life.

The panel consisted of Mark Sealy, Director of Autograph, Rebecca Seeley Harris, great grand daughter of Alice Seeley Harris and Baroness Lolo Young.  Mark noted that the gallery itself (designed by David Adjaye) is designed so that there is an ongoing dialogue with the surrounding streets. It is tucked away down a rather small street in Shoreditch, an area which has seen a great deal of gentrification in the past few years.   Alice Seeley Harris images were shown on the exterior walls of the building which I think was a very bold and engaging move.

On a similar theme from the 28th Feb- 1st March I attended the ‘Exhibiting Violence’ workshop in Lille and Péronne organised by the Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena. I spoke on Day 2 which was hosted by the Historial de la Grande Guerre, located in the heart of the battlefields of the Somme.   The museum explains the historical and social dimensions of the conflict through three of the main belligerent nations who fought on the Western Front – Germany, France and Great Britain.  Some of the most striking displays are the shallow pits displaying uniforms, military equipment and personal objects of the soldiers.  Delegates were comprised of museum professionals and academics from Belgium, Germany, Austria, Poland and Romania who chiefly specialised in WW1 and WW2 and the holocaust.  For instance I met an educator from the State Museum at Majdanek and one of the winning design team of the Sobibór Museum-Memorial competition.

I spoke about the different types of violence we have on display at the International Slavery Museum and the ethical issues the team have to deal with on an almost daily basis.  It seemed to me that many of the delegates were looking at ways to move away from displaying very disturbing and visceral images of violence, without lessening the impact of the subject matter.  Not an easy thing to do.

One of the images that really stuck with me was from a  presentation which looked at photographs from the private collections of German soldiers during WW2, some of which are published in the book ‘Strangers in Sight – Private War Photography and the Subjective Construction of Memory’.    This particular image shows a woman wearing a headscarf, wading through a river on a sunny day, a tree reflected in the water, a rather innocuous, pleasant photo, until you read the caption on the back, “Clearing landmines …” and only then are you confronted by the violence.

Bye for now, Richard.

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