Glasgow University's Great War Project

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Curating the war

by Michael O’Brien, MSc Museum Studies postgraduate student

Of the many tasks that were presented to me on my Museum Studies MSc placement with the Great War Project, I believe the artefact selection and curation was possibly the most challenging. In this post I will discuss these challenges and the subsequent conclusions that led to the curation of artefacts in the exhibition, Glasgow University’s Great War: the University Officers Training Corps.


Michael O’Brien in the University of Glasgow memorial chapel

The curator’s job, in regards to artefact selection, is that of selecting an artefact and elevating it to that of an object: giving a semantic curatorial form or narrative to an artefact and giving it a place in the story that they are articulating. In the context of the First World War, the challenge is to say or narrate that which has not already been said. Prominent dates and key historical figures are well known. The two key themes of the First World War that presented themselves most consistently throughout my early research of the literature was that of people and materiality. The lives of the individuals of the First World War is something that always stands out. The letters, diaries and literary reflections and careers of the people who served are rich accounts of the conflict and their own ideologies and lives, each contributing to the wider war narrative, but each unique and different.

Field diary of JK Thomson, GLAHM 138404.

Field diary of JK Thomson, GLAHM 138404.

The materiality of the war is overwhelming in regards to its destruction and its commonplace overabundance. The First World War is greatly noted as a material war and this is a theme that needed to be addressed. As Nick Saunders (2004: 1) notes in Matters of conflict: material culture, memory and the First World War:

‘War is the transformation of matter through the agency of destruction [….] war creates and destroys [….] Modern War has an unprecedented capacity to make, unmake, and remake matter….’

Following this, I considered the ready-made mass-produced materiality of artefacts and how the First World War is also noted as a war of mass production. The artefact selection process greatly reflected at once the dichotomy and the juxtaposition of mass production and destruction reflecting the everyday abundance of such objects and generating a sense of absurdity when viewed how ready available and common the artefacts are.

In these two themes contradiction causes a sense of absurdity: the achievement and technological advancements that allowed society at that time to create such vast amounts of material artefacts, is contradicted and rendered incongruous by the fact that this manufacturing capacity was turned to war. The further point of contradiction is that these commonplace, mass-produced artefacts have subsequently come to stand in for people that were lost. Otherwise indistinguishable objects are individualised, inscribed with names, like that of the owner of a binocular case, or filled with handwriting and personal observations, like the diaries. Despite this, they remain commonplace in that they are very much standard-issue, quotidian objects, reminding us of the conflict of individuals confined in a collective suffering.

JK Thomson's binoculars, GLAHM 138403

JK Thomson’s binoculars, GLAHM 138403

The presentation and display of these objects was as important as the objects themselves, in that displayed incorrectly, or even insensitively, I faced hindering the narratives or even offending the audience. The exhibition, after all, is displayed within a building built as a war memorial, which also features a prominent Roll of Honour. I chose to present the artefacts in a minimal context, allowing them enough space to develop their own voice, and subsequently enough space to allow the viewer to play their part. By allowing the objects to speak for themselves, I felt I could challenge a brutal and barbarous conflict without condemning or criticising those involved, acknowledging and moving past the devastating reality of war without misleading or mollycoddling the audience.

Installing the objects in cases in the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel.

Installing the objects in cases in the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel. The displays used perspex cradles and stands with minimalist object labels.

Specific aesthetic influence on display came from a vast amount of interdisciplinary research. I naturally studied contemporary displays around the Glasgow area specifically focusing on the closest popular public museums, such as the Riverside and the Kelvingrove and their influence needs to be credited and duly noted. Beyond display and working to incorporate general forms of aesthetic, I studied a lot of contemporary art that I felt could lend itself to the display process. Man Ray’s Photograms and Rayographs represented artefacts in a new way, specifically incorporating or forcing a phenomenological shift in the viewer; they demand that the viewer question their understanding of what an object is, and subsequently who they are and how they relate to the object, which is consistent with the methodology already discussed in the artefact selection process. Prompting an audience to look at things anew is something I feel can be incorporated into any exhibition and is particularly pertinent to displaying artefacts of war. Another point of influence, in a similar vein, was borrowed greatly from the display of John McCracken’s work. The main point to note from these is a simplified reduction of display to the object as it is; the object is presented as itself, forcing the audience to ask existential and ontological questions not just about the First World War, but elicit wider reflection on war and their existence. From this it is clear that I had to avoid over-interpreting the objects with lengthy object labels, as the objects themselves communicate a more poignant story than could ever be attached.

With the key themes and display methods designated, I set the task of which objects to select from the University Archives and Hunterian Museum. The object-selection process was both easy and difficult: objects had to reflect the duality and dichotomy of materiality and the person, being at once personal and yet disposable, commonplace, and with a mass-produced nature, but there were only certain things that could be displayed. The objects selected and now on display in the university memorial chapel are: JK Thomson’s binoculars, compass, diary and two service medals; Andrew Shaw’s, service medals, cigarette case and matchbox; Thomas Crouther Gordon’s, diary and pipe fragments; JAH Telfer’s pocket-sized Gospel of Luke; and Archibald Bowman’s manual for map reading.


The exhibition includes a framed group photograph, a map reading manual, soldier’s pocket gospel, and service medals. Information panels on the chapel’s west wall give the history of the University Officers Training Corps and four different members who fought in WWI.

Although challenging, the process granted me a great insight in to my own life through that of people and their lives a century earlier. I was afforded an insight into the very familiar lives which were unfortunately played out in the extremely unique conditions of war. With this I gained insight in to how I function and interact with the material aspects of my society and ultimately what these objects are to me, and what I am through them. With this I hope the artefacts selected for, Glasgow University’s Great War: the University Officers Training Corps, afford the audience members a moment for reflection and a new way to look at war and its unique part in our history.

Michael O’Brien’s exhibition, Glasgow University’s Great War: the University Officers Training Corps, is free and open to the public in the memorial chapel until January 2015.

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