Most cities have moments in their history that remind us of the extent of humanity’s capacity for cruelty. Arguably, Berlin has witnessed more of it’s fair share of these moments. They are events that it would be easier and more comfortable to forget, but that is exactly why we must remember them. Memorials serve as physical reminders of our past, commemorating people and events that are triumphant and inspiring as well as dark and shameful. There are numerous memorials in Berlin that mark events that should never be allowed to be repeated. On a recent visit to the city, I visited many of these memorials, including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, the Topography of Terror, and the Berlin Wall Memorial. The memorial that most resonated with my research interests, however, is the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which commemorates all those who stood up to the Nazi regime in various ways. It is housed in the Bendler Block, which was used by the military during the Nazi regime and was the centre of an attempted military coup on 20th July 1944.
Like other large memorials in Berlin, there are two key elements to the German Resistance Memorial Centre. The commemorative courtyard is the site where several of the officers involved in the failed uprising were executed on 20th July 1944. There is a statue and two plaques. The second element is a memorial and education centre, on the first and second floors of the building. It is designed to inform people about the motives, aims, and forms of resistance against the Nazi state. The Bendler Block also houses the Silent Heroes Memorial Centre, which commemorates people who helped Jewish people facing persecution during Nazi rule.
The commemorative courtyard is a fairly typical memorial space, calm and reflective, with a sculptor inspired by what happened there. The memorial and education centre feels more like a museum, although it displays very few objects. Instead, it uses text, images, and copies of documents to tell the stories of hundreds of individuals who used a whole range of tactics to resist Nazi rule. The Nazi state used a thorough process of dehumanisation to rationalise and justify their systematic persecution and murder of minority groups. Berlin’s memorials are highly effective at ‘re-humanising’ what happened, highlighting the stories of individuals, and putting faces to tragedies which are often difficult to comprehend because of their sheer scale.
In Britain, if we hear anything at all about German people living under the National Socialist regime, its that they quietly accepted the cruelty and violence. They were all too scared to speak up, or were perhaps willing to accept the excesses of the Nazi government as long as the economy continued to prosper. The German Resistance Memorial Centre completely turns that narrative on its head. It tells the story of hundreds of people who resisted the Nazi regime for religious, political, or moral reasons, or even just because they wanted to listen to genres of music that the Nazis frowned upon (Swing Kids, for example, liked to listen to jazz music, which the Nazis classified as “cultural degeneracy”). Resistance ranged from listening to foreign radio stations and printing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets to attempts to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the entire government. The Silent Heroes Memorial Centre tells the stories of Germans who hid Jews from Nazi soldiers, classified their Jewish employees as essential workers to prevent their deportation, and forged passports to enable Jewish people to escape Nazi-controlled territory. When even the most basic act of resistance carried the potential for severe punishment, or even death, I am amazed at how many people were willing to take action. I left the exhibition with more faith in the bravery and integrity of humanity than I had when I arrived, which is always a nice feeling.
The German Resistance Memorial Centre is not one of the best-known tourist attractions in Berlin. It is even not one of the city’s best known memorials. However, a visit there is not only educational and moving, but also unexpectedly uplifting. I highly recommend checking it out if you ever visit Berlin.
On the third floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum at the Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool is the International Slavery Museum. Opened in 2007, the museum aims to increase understanding of the transatlantic slave trade and its continuing impact, but also draws attention to contemporary slavery. From the 5th of October 2018 until the 7th of April 2019, the Museum is playing host to the travelling Journey to Justice exhibition, designed by an organisation of the same name that uses the arts and education about human rights movements to try and inspire people to take action for social justice.
The Journey to Justice exhibition focuses on some of the lesser-known stories of the American civil rights movement, highlighting what motivates people to get involved and stay active in social justice campaigns. Unlike a lot of museums, the temporary exhibition space at the International Slavery Museum is not clearly separated from the permanent exhibitions, so Journey to Justice almost merges with the museum’s section on the contemporary impacts of the transatlantic slave trade. This is quite effective, highlighting the links between the legacies of the slave trade and the civil rights movement.
The exhibition features a number of ‘bus stops,’ each one telling the story of an individual or small group of people who took a stand against injustice during the civil rights movement. It starts with a map, detailing the dates and locations of 21 important moments in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 60s. As a Geographer I may be biased, but I always find maps a really helpful way of contextualising examples and getting my head around the bigger picture.
Each ‘bus stop’ features text, images, quotations, and recorded interviews or a poem written by local schoolchildren in response to the exhibition. The final example represents the Greensboro Sit-ins, when four black students sat at the lunch counter in an all-white restaurant and refused to leave. It also encourages visitors to interact with the exhibition, filling out labels about how they can take action for social justice. There is also a map of the UK labelled with important social justice campaigns which visitors are asked to contribute to. These interactive elements highlight the importance of properly maintaining exhibitions; the labels for people to write on had run out, which meant that no one else could contribute. It is a minor issue, but demonstrates that a museum’s work isn’t finished once the exhibition opens.
There is also a section for radical zines, self-published magazines that are frequently produced by activists. The Represent! exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester (open until the 3rd of February 2019) also has a section for zines; perhaps this is an emerging trend amongst museums. It is also quite common now for exhibitions to feature sounds, speech, and/or music played out loud, so the visitor has no choice but to listen. The Journey to Justice Jukebox plays songs associated with the civil rights movement. I find speech played out loud in museums distracting, as I struggle to listen to one set of words and read another at the same time, but music I can deal with. In this case it adds an extra dimension to the exhibition, illustrating the relationship between the civil rights movement and popular culture, and highlighting the role music can play in motivating and inspiring activists.
Journey to Justice is a small exhibition with ambitious goals. It aims to use the history of the civil rights movements to encourage people to take their own stand for social justice. Whilst I am not convinced that a museum exhibition is an effective method of creating activists, I do think it is a thoughtful and interesting exhibition that is well worth a visit. The exhibition will continue to tour the country when it’s stint in Liverpool finishes, visiting London, Edinburgh, Leeds, and Leicester over the next few years, so don’t worry if Merseyside is a little too far for you to travel!
Last week, I wrote about my visit to the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. As I noted in that post, there a lot of books, events, documentaries, and exhibitions commemorating the centenary of some women winning the right to vote. I recently visited another exhibition inspired by this anniversary, this time at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. The museum’s collections are all about the development of democracy in Britain, so the centenary of the Representation of the People Act is an event they really couldn’t ignore. The result is Represent! Voices 100 Years On, a thoughtful exhibition that explores how far political representation, in a variety of forms, has come since 1918.
Represent! is crowd-sourced and inspired by zines–low-cost, self-published magazines that have been closely associated with radical culture since the 1960s. Acknowledging that voting is only one form of political representation, the exhibition also considers other kinds of representation, such as media, self-representation, and voice (protest). It also asks questions about the ‘legacy’ of 1918, questioning whether you (the visitor) feels sufficiently represented, and what can be done to reduce inequality and increase representation of marginalised groups. The exhibition includes images, placards, banners, art, clothing, and films. Much of the text is in the form of quotes from those who contributed the items (such as activists, historians, and journalists), so it feels as if they are telling their story in their own words. There are also a series of ‘referendums’ dotted around the exhibition (e.g. is it ever justified to break the law during a protest? Should the voting age be lowered 16?), so visitors can add their voice to the exhibition too.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a recently rediscovered banner from the Manchester branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It was uncovered last year in a charity shop in Leeds, and was bought by the People’s History Museum, partially thanks to a Crowdfunder campaign. There are links throughout the exhibition between the women’s suffrage campaign and modern social movements: a replica suffragette’s outfit is contrasted with the outfit worn by a member of Sisters Uncut at a recent protest; and connections are drawn between suffragette’s experiences of prison and Safety4Sisters, whose work includes campaigning for the rights to detained migrant women. These connections encourage the visitor to think about how far we have (or haven’t) come in the 100 years since the Representation of the People Act.
There is no obvious order in which to move around the exhibition, no single narrative to follow. This is apparently becoming an increasingly common strategy for museums, giving visitors the freedom to choose how they experience exhibitions. Whilst I understand the logic behind it, I still find it a bit disconcerting, like if left to my own devices I might ‘do it wrong.’ This is something that I will probably get used to as I encounter more museums designed in this way; the Museum of Warsaw is another example of this unstructured style that I have visited recently. For now, however, it does make me feel a bit uncomfortable.
Represent! is a thought-provoking exhibition that asks more questions than it answers; I think that is the intention. It is critical and reflective, representing a range of different ideas and voices. I visited on a Saturday and there were very few other people there, which is a real shame, I think it is a fantastic exhibition which as many people should visit as possible. It is open until the 3rd of February 2019, so do go and check it out if you get the chance!
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK. The anniversary has been marked with a whole range of events, books, documentaries and exhibitions (I have collected together all my blog posts on the topics here). One of the exhibitions is Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament. It is only a small exhibition, but it does a great job of putting the story of women’s fight for the right to vote in the context of the spaces women have occupied in Parliament both before and after 1918.
The exhibition is divided into 4 areas: the ventilator, the cage, the tomb, and the chamber. Each area includes a reconstruction of a particular space that women have inhabited in parliament over the last few centuries. These spaces include a ventilator shaft in the loft space above the House of Commons chamber which women used to listen to debates before Parliament was destroyed during a fire in 1834; the Ladies Gallery, a small and stuffy viewing space high up in the rebuilt chamber; the broom cupboard in which Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the 1911 census; the Lady Members’ room (known as ‘the tomb’) which became increasingly overcrowded as female MPs were elected in the years after 1918; and the chamber of the House of Commons, in which 208 women now sit.
Alongside these recreated spaces are items, documents, images and quotes that illustrate women’s relationship with the UK’s democratic system both before and after they won the right to vote. Parliament has quite substantial archival collections of its own, and many of the items on display came from these collections. Personal highlights for me were a banner used during a protest in which Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to the bars covering the windows of the Ladies Gallery in 1908, and a pair of bolt cutters bought afterwards so that similar protests could be dealt with more easily. They were used in April 1909 to remove members of the WSPU that had chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen’s Hall. Other items are loaned from elsewhere, including papers and objects relating to Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins, which are still owned by her family.
Voice and Vote is a small exhibition, but it makes the most of the space. It contains a lot of items and information, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. The recreated spaces are an effective way of putting the visitor in the shoes of the women who interacted with Parliament over the last few centuries, even when they were not welcome. They are a clear way of structuring the exhibition, and they are something a bit different–a creative and novel way of engaging with history.
I would highly recommend a visit to Voice and Vote. It is well designed, and puts the campaign for women’s suffrage in wider context of women in Parliament. I also think it will appeal to those who have limited background knowledge, and those who already know quite a bit about women’s history in British politics. The capacity of the exhibition is limited, so it is recommended that you book, and it runs until 6th of October 2018.
A few months ago, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. Whenever I visit a new place I try to find out as much as I can about its history of radicalism and dissent, and there’s no doubt that Warsaw has plenty of that. In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May 1943, and the ways that it is remembered in Warsaw’s streets and museums. Part 2 is about the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted for 63 days in 1944. The Uprising has an entire museum dedicated to it, as well as an impressive monument.
During the summer of 1944, the German Army was retreating across Poland, pursued by the Soviet Army. The Polish Home Army undertook uprisings in several cities in order to help the Soviet Army, and to assert Polish sovereignty–there were fears that the German occupying force would just be replaced with a Russian one. As the Soviet Army advanced towards the Vistula river, the Home Army in Warsaw decided to begin their own uprising on 1st August. It became the largest military effort of any resistance movement during the Second World War.
The uprising was only ever supposed to last a few days, until the Soviet Army reached Warsaw. However, the Soviets halted their advance on the eastern bank of the Vistula, and the resistance forces ended up fighting, almost entirely unsupported, for 63 days. The Home Army, aided by other groups including the National Armed Forces and the communist People’s Army, quickly took control of large sections of Warsaw. These areas were separated from each other however, and communication was difficult. The resistance fighters had received training in guerrilla warfare, but they were inexperienced at prolonged fighting in daylight and severely under equipped.
On the 4th of August, the Germans started to receive reinforcements, and began to counterattack. The following day, they began a systematic massacre of civilians in order to crush the resistance’s resolve. The strategy backfired however, only making the people of Warsaw more determined. Resistance fighters captured the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto (see Part 1), and liberated the Gesiowka concentration camp. At the end of August, the resistance decided to abandon the Old Town; the area was evacuated through the city’s sewers, which also served as a major means of communication for the resistance. The resistance eventually surrendered to the Germans on 2nd October; the expected help from the Soviets never came. The city wasn’t captured until 17th January 1945, giving the Germans plenty of time to systematically destroy the city and transport many of its residents to work and concentration camps.
Life in Warsaw was very hard during the uprising, for civilians as well as resistance fighters. There were severe shortages of food; people largely survived on ‘spit soup,’ made from barley captured from the Haberbusch i Schiele brewery. The media flourished in the city however, multiple newspapers were published frequently, and 30,000 metres of film documenting the uprising was produced.
Warsaw Rising Museum
The Warsaw Rising Museum was opened in 2004, to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising. The Museum contains more than 800 items and 1500 photographs and videos spread over 3000 square metres. It covers all aspects of the uprising, and provides visitors with a huge amount of information. It is arranged chronologically, and I would recommend following the order of the galleries carefully (you go from the ground floor to the top, then work your way back down, which could be more clearly sign posted). I think you need at least 3 hours to see everything, and I would recommend stopping halfway through for a drink and a slice of cake in the cafe, otherwise you will get too tired to take it all in properly. A highlight for me was the Kino Palladium, a small cinema that shows footage of the uprising that was used to make newsreels. I was also particularly moved by the collection of armbands. Soldiers in the uprising didn’t have uniforms, so used red and white armbands to identify themselves. Some people personalised theirs, and it really brought the human element of the uprising home to me.
Monuments and Memorials
The Uprising Museum is located in Freedom Park, where you can also find several memorials connected to the uprising. The memorial wall documents the name of more than 10,000 resistance fighters who died during the fighting. Set within the wall is a bell dedicated to General Antoni Chrusciel, one of the uprising’s leaders. There is also a memorial to the estimated 150,000 civilians who lost their lives during the uprising, as well as the 550,000 who were deported from the city after the uprising failed.
Set into the city walls surrounding Old Town is the Little Insurgent, a memorial to the children and young people who served as orderlies and runners during the uprising. The statue is based on a small plaster statuette created after the war by sculptor Jerzy Jarnuszjiewicz. It was paid for by former scouts, and unveiled in 1983 by Jerzy Swiderski, a cardiologist who had served as a scout during the uprising. It is a moving reminder of how the uprising consumed every aspect of Warsaw; even children could not escape the brutality.
The best-known memorial to the uprising, the Warsaw Uprising Monument, is on a much grander scale. Located on the southern side of Krasinki Square, the momument was unveiled in 1989, and is up to 10 metres tall. The monument has two sections: the larger represents a group of insurgents in combat, running from a collapsing building; the smaller section, in the foreground of the above photo, shows fighters and civilian woman climbing into a manhole. This is an acknowledgment of the significance of the city’s sewer system to the uprising. The monument is impressive, and you’d be hard pushed to walk past without stopping for a closer look. Monuments and statues can often blend into the street around them, which I think defeats one of the key objectives of memorials; drawing attention to the event, person or people it is meant to commemorate. There is no danger of the Warsaw Uprising Monument failing to attract attention.
Like all cities, Warsaw’s past is inscribed into its streets, buildings and public spaces. Warsaw’s history is more violent than many cities–it has faced more than it’s share of death, destruction, and upheaval, and not just during the Second World War. There a number of different approaches to dealing with such a traumatic history in Warsaw: the city’s museums use different balances of objects and multimedia; and the monuments work on different scales, from the small and personal to the grand and official. Which approaches work best probably depends on personal taste, but the fact that so much effort and thought has gone into all of these commemorative practices demonstrates an admirable relationship with the past.
In July, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. The Polish capital is a vibrant city with a fascinating, if traumatic, history. As ever, I paid particular attention to the history of protest and dissent in the city, and Warsaw has plenty of that. Whilst under German occupation during the Second World War, the city experienced two significant uprisings. The first took place in the Jewish ghetto in April and May 1943, and is known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The second is known simply as the Warsaw Uprising, and engulfed the whole city between August and October 1944. In retaliation for these two events, the Nazis destroyed more than 85% of the city. The total death toll from both events is around a quarter of a million people, both combatants and civilians. It is hard to forget such awful events, but they are still actively commemorated in Warsaw, both in the city’s museums, and on the streets through memorials. This post will focus on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whilst Part 2 will look at the Warsaw Uprising.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was established not long after. More than 400,000 people were crammed into an area of little more than one square mile, and many died from disease and starvation. In 1942, the Germans began deporting people from the ghetto to concentration camps (mainly Treblinka) and forced-labour camps. Around 300,000 people were deported or murdered, leaving 55-60,000 fearing they would suffer the same fate. They began to develop resistance organisations; the Jewish Combat Organisation (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) decided to work together to oppose any further deportations. On 18 January 1943, the fighters manage to disrupt a deportation, and drive the Germans out of the ghetto.
Buoyed by this success, the ghetto population began to build underground bunkers in case the Germans tried any more deportations. Unfortunately, the reprieve was only temporary, and German soldiers re-entered the ghetto on 19 April. Most of the ghetto’s residents were hiding in the bunkers or elsewhere. The Germans put down the uprising by destroying the ghetto building by building, forcing people out of hiding. Resistance continued for almost a month, but on 16 May the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street was destroyed to symbolise the German victory. Almost all of the remaining Jews were deported.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest Jewish uprising, and the first urban uprising, in German-occupied Europe. It inspired uprisings in other ghettos and concentration camps. Although the ghetto was destroyed during the uprising, its memory is inscribed in the urban fabric of Warsaw through various memorials. It is also commemorated in the city’s museums.
Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Opened in 2013, Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews won European Museum of the Year in 2016, and it’s clear why. It uses the latest technology to explore 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland, and it is absolutely overflowing with information. The building was constructed in the former ghetto, in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (more on this later). Personally, it was a little lacking in actual objects for my taste, but it’s still a wonderful museum. One of my favourite things about it is that it whilst it does cover the holocaust, it doesn’t dwell on it. Jewish history in Poland is so much more than World War Two, and Polin reflects that. It does, however, cover the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it does it well.
There are many memorials in the area of Warsaw that used to be the Jewish ghetto, but there are two that relate directly to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The first, as I mentioned above, is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, next to Polin. Designed by Natan Rappaport and Leon Marek Suzin, the monument was built in 1948, near to the location of the first skirmish between the Jewish resistance fighters and German soldiers. It is an imposing structure, built from stone that was originally bought to Warsaw by the Nazis; it was intended to be used for monuments to Hitler’s victory. There is a bronze sculpture on the western side of the monument, depicting both resistance fighters and civilians. It represents the resistance’s struggle, and the suffering that civilians experienced. On the eastern side is a relief of women, children and the elderly being led by German soldiers.
During a state visit to Warsaw in 1970, Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany, fell to his knees in front of the Monument in a solemn gesture of apology and regret. It was a fitting location for such a significant political act; the Monument has a very grand, official feel. The second monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that I visited feels much more personal.
A few hundred metres from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, on the corner on Mila and Dubois streets, is a large mound of earth surrounded by trees. It is all that remains on the bunker at 18 Mila Street, one of the largest bunkers built during the Ghetto Uprising. It it thought that more than 100 people died within the bunker, both resistance fighters and civilians. Many of their names are not known, but it is thought that Mordechaj Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the resistance, was killed there. Their bodies remain there, in the words of the monument, “to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.” I personally found this memorial much more moving than the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes; it feels more connected to the extent of the human tragedy experienced by Jewish people during the German occupation of Poland.
Warsaw is a city that is thriving in almost every way, but you don’t have to look far to find signs of its traumatic history. Varsovians don’t try to ignore that history or sweep it under the carpet, but neither do they dwell on it. I think it is a city that has struck a good balance between learning from the past and looking to the future.
Don’t forget to check out Part 2 of this post, about the Warsaw Uprising, here.
Royal Holloway, University of London, has pretty good credentials when it comes to historical feminism. Officially called Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, it was formed from a merger of Royal Holloway and Bedford College in 1985. Both of the original institutions started out as women’s colleges. Bedford College was the first higher education college for women in the United Kingdom, founded by Elisabeth Jesser Reid in 1849. Royal Holloway was founded in 1879 by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Thomas Holloway. As such, both colleges have a number of notable female alumni, including…
In 2017, Royal Holloway opened a new library building named after the well-known suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison. She studied English at Royal Holloway in 1891 although she could not complete her studies because she could not afford the fees after the death of her father in 1893. The Emily Wilding Davison Building includes a small exhibition space, which is currently hosting Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women until the 17th of March 2018. As someone studying historical protest at Royal Holloway, I felt almost obliged to go and check it out.
The exhibition includes items from Royal Holloway’s own Special Collections, as well as the British Film Institute, the Museum of London, and the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. It covers the period from the foundation of Bedford College in 1849 to 1918, when the Representation of the People Act entitled some women to vote. The items are mostly textual, but there are also images, video footage, posters, and suffrage-based souvenirs.
The exhibition space is small, but Suffrage makes good use of it. It is covers both suffragettes and suffragists, which is good to see– although suffragette organisations like the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League were good at attracting publicity and are still quite well-known, most of the women who campaigned for the right to vote were suffragists, believing in legal methods of persuasion. Unsurprisingly given the exhibition’s location, Suffrage also makes a strong connection between the suffrage campaign and women’s education. The fight for the right to vote is one of the most studied and represented campaigns in British history, particularly in this centenary year, so it is refreshing to see the topic approached from a different angle. I also like the long time period covered by the exhibition; events after 1905 tend to receive the most attention, but campaigners had been working hard for half a century before that.
At the back of the exhibition, almost hidden behind a partition, footage of suffrage demonstrations is projected onto a wall. The campaign was one of the first to be filmed quite extensively, and I have always found the black and white grainy footage captivating. I suspect that I am not the only one who enjoys watching such footage, I think it helps to make historical protest more accessible. I was pleased to see the films included in Suffrage, therefore, although I think they could have been given more prominence.
Due to its origins, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College has a strong connection to women’s history. Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women highlights some of that history in a balanced and accessible way, as well as showcasing the College’s impressive archival collections.
This summer, I spent a few days in Vienna on a family holiday. Although beautiful, I found the city, particularly the city centre, had an add, formal feel that didn’t sit very well with me. It didn’t feel lived in, more like a model city than an actual place. There were some parts of the city I did connect with however, like the Prater funfair, the city’s lively protest sticker culture, and the street art. I quickly discovered however, that the advice the guide books give you about finding street art is not necessarily the best.
Dotted around the Museum Quarter of the city there are a series of Micromuseums, small passageways that focus on different art genres, including literature, typography, and sound art. They are the brainchild of Q21, which provides creative work and exhibition spaces in the Museum Quarter. One of these Micromuseums is called Street Art Passage Vienna, and its where a lot of guide books direct you if you want to see street art in the city. Whilst I like the idea of turning “simple means of entrance and exit to innovative art spaces,” I found the reality a bit disappointing. The space is almost 10 years old, and it feels a little neglected.
The main feature of the passage is a tiled bridge by French artist Invader (2008). His distinctive Space Invader mosaics are a recognisable feature of many cities. There is also a permanent typographic piece by Lois Weinberger (2013), which is visible in the above picture on the wall behind the Invader bridge. There are also temporary exhibitions by a wide range of artists (you can see a full list here). There are two vending machines, which are supposed to contain mini catalogues and sets of stickers that you can buy for 2 Euros, but the machines were empty when I went there. In addition, each temporary artists produces a limited number of affordable screen prints, designed to encourage young art collectors.
When there is crossover between the informal, ephemeral tradition of street art and more formalised traditions of artistic display like art galleries and museums, there can be tensions. Whilst street art is often associated with a certain urban ‘scruffiness,’ in the case of the Street Art Passage Vienna it just felt neglected. For me, street art is exciting and vibrant, it makes a city feel more alive. The Street Art Passage felt…stagnant.
If you want to see dynamic and vivid street art in Vienna, and lots of it, then I would recommend going to the Danube Canal, which splits of from the Danube proper north of the city centre, then loops round to the west of the river before rejoining the Danube further south. The canal is below street level, with a tow path on either side and concrete walls rising to the main roads that run either side. The walls on both sides of the canal are covered in street art, and there are also some sculptures along the tow paths. In the hour or so I was walking along the canal, I saw several artists working on pieces on the walls.
Most guide books and websites will send you to the Street Art Passage Vienna if you’re looking for street art in the city. But I wouldn’t recommend it. The litter, dust bins, and empty vending machines felt a little sad. The street art at the Danube Canal, however, is energetic and vibrant, and helped me to connect to a city that had I had struggled to relate to previously.
Every two years, the Defence and Security International exhibition, known colloquially as the DSEI arms fair, takes place in the vast ExCel Centre in East London. People come from all over the world to see and purchase the latest weapons and defence technology at one of the world’s largest arms fairs. Every year, there are protests attempting to stop, disrupt, and draw attention to the event. This year, at the same time, the 12th-15th of September, a very different kind of exhibition also took place in East London, with the aim of raising awareness of the DSEI, an event which most Londoners have no idea exists. The Art the Arms Fair exhibition took place at SET Studios in Capstan House in Poplar. It was preceded by an art event on the 9th of September at the ExCel Centre, where artists produced works in a variety of mediums. The exhibition displayed art that responded to the arms trade. Events, such as spoken word and comedy, were held in the space in the evenings. Works were sold to support the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), an organisation which aims to end the international arms trade. I have always been a little sceptical about the significance and power of art, so I went along to see if I could be convinced.
To begin with, SET Studios is not your typical art gallery. SET is an initiative that provides artists with affordable studio and project space in buildings that would otherwise be empty. Capstan House is a stylish new office block, with an imposing foyer and fancy elevators. SET occupies the seventh floor, with beautiful views across the Thames to the O2 arena and the Emirates Airline Cable Car. You can see the artists’ studio space through the glass walls that are so fashionable in modern offices. The art, some of it attached haphazardly to plywood display boards, sits oddly in this environment. But none of that detracted from the effect the exhibition had on me. In fact, it might well have contributed to the disconcerted feeling with which I left the exhibition.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not a great believer in the power of art. I did not need to be convinced that the arms trade was a bad thing; I was already a strong believer in the futility and cruelty of war. But I left the exhibition feeling a lot more emotional than I expected to. Whilst I thought some of the artwork was good, I think what really affected me was the opportunity to ‘Make Your Own Art’ on blank postcards. Attempting to focus my response to the arms trade on one small rectangle of white card clarified and crystalised my feelings in a way that I was not expecting.
The Art the Arms Fair exhibition was powerful and emotive. It’s main stated goal was to make the DSEI arms fair visible, to make people aware of its existence. It would be hard to say how far that goal was achieved; the exhibition was nowhere near the ExCel Centre, and the area didn’t seem like the kind of place that people just pass through, so it was unlikely to attract many people who didn’t already intend to visit. I do wonder if an art exhibition in an out-of-the-way office block in East London is really the best way to raise the profile of the DSEI. Nevertheless, it hopefully raised some money for CAAT, and provided a space for creative opposition to the arms trade. At the end of the day, I am reluctant to criticise anyone who is attempting to make a positive difference in the world, as doing something is very often better than doing nothing.
The 20th of August 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike, a 2-year dispute that was an important turning point in the history of trade unions and solidarity. Workers at the Grunwick photograph processing factory in Willesden, northwest London, walked out after an employee was fired for working too slowly. To celebrate the anniversary, a group called Grunwick 40 organised an exhibition about the strike at Willesden Library in Brent, which ran from the 19th October 2016, to the 26th March 2017. The exhibition was called ‘We are the Lions,’ taken from a quote by Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the strike. I finally managed to visit the exhibition in its last week, and I’m really glad I made the effort.
The exhibition was well balanced; it mentioned that Jayaben Desai was a leader of the strike, but didn’t devote too much attention to her. In fact, it didn’t spend much time on the leaders of the strike at all, which I thought was good; it is very easy to get distracted by charismatic leaders. Instead, the exhibition focuses on trade union politics and solidarity, detailing how the strikers won solidarity from a wide spectrum of workers. The factory owners refused to back down, however, and as the dispute dragged on the strikers were abandoned by union leaders, a sadly familiar story. The strike eventually failed, but it remained significant because it was the first time that migrant workers received widespread solidarity from British workers.
The exhibition draws aesthetic inspiration from a distinctive banner produced for the strikers in 1976. It is owned by the People’s History Museum in Manchester, but it took centre stage at this exhibition. It was also part of the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in late 2014 and early 2015, so it might be familiar to some. There weren’t many objects in the exhibition; images of people, events, and texts were relied on heavily to illustrate the narrative. You do tend to expect objects when you visit a museum, but I realised that protests don’t often leave a lot of things behind, and what there is (banners, placards,clothing, flyers etc.) is ephemeral, and not intended to be kept or preserved. This must present a challenge for museums wanting to represent dissent.
The exhibition was firmly grounded in the local community, past, present, and future. There was a case of items putting the strike into the context of other radical events in Willesden’s history. There was a series of events associated with the exhibition, and its location in the local library made it quite accessible, although there are no guarantees that visitors to the library also went to the exhibition. There are also plans to produce a mural commemorating the strike, which will serve as a lasting legacy, long after the exhibition has been deconstructed.
Unfortunately, this post comes too late for me to encourage you to visit the exhibition. What I can do is congratulate the organisers for putting together such a brilliant exhibition. The Grunwick Strike was a key moment in the history of trade unions and solidarity. It often feels to me that solidarity is not something that we do so well anymore in modern society. We are the Lions was an timely reminder of how powerful it can be.