Points of balance – interpreting current conflict at the National Army Museum

A month or so I wrote a blog about why interpreters need to tackle difficult and contentious subjects which, rather flatteringly, attracted discussion (see here and here). A lot of people made interesting and thought-provoking comments particularly about the need for neutrality and balance.  It occured to me that, like wisdom, balance may be easier to recognise than to achieve.

Coincidentally, at about the same time, I was asked to mentor two scriptwriters who were embarking on a new temporary exhibition at the National Army Museum. It has turned out to be  an exercise in balance.

Achieving balance takes care, practice and often some support.

Achieving balance takes care, practice and often some support.

The exhibition is called ‘Unseen Enemy’. It is about IEDs. Four months ago I didn’t know what IEDs were.  Now I know they are Improvised Explosive Devices.  I know that modern ones have changed the nature of warfare, what soldiers have to do and medical practices. This exhibition has taught me a lot.  It will be worth seeing. 

Much of the exhibition will be about the conflict in Afghanistan.  This is obviously contemporary and sensitive and ‘balance’ is  therefore crucial.

This project has highlighted three points about how difficult and precarious maintaining balance can be.

POINT ONE: SOURCING THE VOICES

The museum wanted to balance the voice of the museum, the Coalition soldiers, and the insurgents. I began by asking to the writers how they would find those three voices.

The museum voice was straightforward, defined by the function of the institution. It gives a factually-based narrative and context including historical context and comparisons, and definitions of new or ambiguous terms. It is neutral.

The soldiers’ voice was readily accessible too. One of the writers had spent three years interviewing British soldiers about their experiences in Afghanistan to create an audio archive. She understood their perspective and had a collection of their words. This voice speaks with authenticity and power, born of experience.  It is truthful, and a perspective.

The insurgents’ voice is, for obvious reasons, much harder. The Taliban doesn’t blog, nor regularly update a museum in London on how its members are thinking and feeling. This voice is unclear, the sources are unreliable, and possibly deliberately skewed by propaganda. Our understanding is shrouded by our unknowing and fear. We have no one to check it with.

The three voices cannot therefore be balanced in a simplistic way such as matching every quote from a British soldier with one from an insurgent.

So how do we represent a voice we cannot hear?

How do we include people who are silent?

In this case, diligent research by one of the curators helped us strike gold.

We also realised that we had to think about perspectives not voices.

POINT TWO: RECOGNISING BIAS

We realised we needed to keep all three perspectives in our minds as clearly and as accurately as we are capable of.

The very first question I asked the writers was about their personal connection with the exhibition content. Do they have military experience? come from a military backgrounds? have family in Afghanistan?

We all have bias on contentious issues. The vital thing is not to be neutral, which may not be possible, but to be clear about where our prejudices are.  Working in a  good, open team, such as the one we had, can help us to see this.

In this case, the curator who had spent so much time interviewing soldiers had inevitably come to sympathise with and understand them.  The exhibition had been her idea.  She understood the subject and its importance brilliantly and wrote the museum voice with clarity and passion.  Just occasionally, her identification with the soldiers crept in, in a word or a short phrase that skewed the point of balance and sent the narrative off kilter. So subtle yet so potent. We learned to be vigilant in spotting and tackling the small tell-tale signs of bias.

We worked to shift the bias too. In our conversations, behind closed doors, we practiced talking about topics from an (imagined) soldier’s perspective and an (even more imagined) insurgent’s perspective.  Looking at the difference between them helped us find the point of balance.

POINT THREE: INCLUDING ALL VOICES

Our brief specified three perspectives. As our understanding of the story developed, we found a fourth, the civilians’ perspective.  We found ourselves referring to it, hearing it, again and again until at last we gave it a place.

In fact the civilian perspective is vital, it is a fundamental part of how IEDs have changed the nature of war so that it is no longer just two sides. I feel it would have been easy to miss this.

All this talk of hearing voices and losing balance – it’s enough to do your head in! The process is complicated. Easy truths and simple solutions often look attractive but sometimes they are an inappropriate, disingenuous and disrespectful approach. Taking time and care at the National Army Museum has been a rewarding and fruitful experience.

There is still time to book on ‘Interpretation Now’ our new training course in Wales in May where, amongst other contemporary issues we will consider the complexity of interpreting for multi-cultural and mobile audiences.

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About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
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3 Responses to Points of balance – interpreting current conflict at the National Army Museum

  1. ultan cowley says:

    In the absence of reliable Afghan insurgent sources it might be useful to research recorded testimony from recently stood-down ‘Volunteers’ in the Irish ‘Armed Struggle’ and also, for cross-reference, published autobiographical accounts by the first generation of I R A veterans from the War of Independence (1916-1921). Motivation, and attitudes towards their antagonists, are likely to be not dissimilar to those of the Taliban. Care of course needs to be taken not to over-emhasise the sectarian dimension. I could provide some guidelines to the relevant literature if that would help. While my work in recent years has been concerned with the history of Irish labour migration in Britain my Master’s was in Strategic Studies (UCW Aberystwyth 1977) and my dissertation for same focused on the evolution of Sinn Fein strategy in the Irish Struggle for Independence. I am currently working on a book about this subject for publication on the centenary of the Rising of Easter Week 1916.

    • Hi Ultan, thanks for that comment. As you know I am not a historian but I would be extremely wary of equating two groups from such different times, cultures and places. I think it may be the sort of thing that you can do in a book where there is space and time to explore similarities and differences. Writing an exhibition is rather more limited and less appropriate for nuance. I therefore feel its important to stick with authentic resources , and to be clear about their gaps than attempt to cross-fertilise from elsewhere.

      Your work for the Rising sounds fascinating. I will be presenting some thoughts to the Interpret Europe Conference in June about Remembrance and interpretation. I am hoping to look at similarities and differences between them and am considering using Kilmainham Gaol as a case study. I may want to talk to you more about what Remembrance means in the Irish context, maybe both of the War of Independence and the Civil War.

  2. Pingback: Remembrance, heritage interpretation and WW1

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