Thursday, November 1, 2007

Canadian War Museum Exhibit Review

War Brides: Portraits of an Era. Travelling exhibit organized by the Canadian War Museum in collaboration with Bev Tosh, contemporary Canadian artist. On display at the Canadian War Museum from May 12, 2007 to January 8, 2007, as viewed on October 7, 2007.

The travelling exhibit, War Brides: Portraits of an Era, is an alluring artistic interpretation of the physical and emotional journey many women made to foreign countries, alongside soldiers they had met and married during World War II. The war brides include 44, 000 women who moved with their new husbands to Canada, 1,000 who moved to Newfoundland, and 4,000 who moved from Canada to other Commonwealth countries. This exhibit is based on artist Bev Tosh’s travelling exhibit One-Way Passage which was comprised solely of paintings. War Brides: Portraits of an Era is an updated version by Tosh that includes mixed media photographs and additional portraits, and is currently hosted and organized by the newly built Canadian War Museum. Since thousands of Canadians today are descendants of the war brides, Tosh’s exhibit compliments the overarching theme of the Canadian War Museum, which is to demonstrate the effect war continues to have on the country. This is an engaging exhibit which draws on the war brides’ own stories and Tosh’s artistic interpretation of these women’s experiences. Although it relies too heavily on personal accounts and not enough on the historiography, this exhibit successfully juxtaposes the romantic vision these women had when they embarked for new countries, with the harsh realities they often faced when they reached their destination.

When one enters the exhibit, the beauty of the room is striking; the walls are painted a deep plum colour, and the room glows due to strategic placement of lights, which accent the abundance of both photos and paintings of the young brides. Upon a closer inspection, the visitor also realizes that the exhibit is not only aesthetically pleasing, but is also saturated with powerful interpretations and renditions of multiple women’s lives. In particular, this exhibit aims to let the visitor experience the overwhelming range of emotions that enveloped the war brides, whose journey began with love, excitement, and happiness, and often led to loneliness and loss. Therefore the appearance of the room combined with the focus on images over heavy amounts of text, encourages the visitor to absorb the emotion of the exhibit, rather than strictly read their way through it.

The displays themselves are a unique presentation of thought provoking mixed media photographs and portraits, personalized by Tosh’s own experience as a war bride’s daughter. An example of a mixed media display is “Leap of Faith” where the picture of the Canadian Air Force war brides is projected onto a World War II parachute set up like a wedding gown. Another innovative display includes framed photographs of individual women layered overtop of objects such as barbed wire. These manipulated, war-etched photographs are then juxtaposed with the joyful scrapbook of Tosh’s parents’ “honeymoon”, and the “Wall of War Brides” which is a collection of tea stained pictures of the women and their new lovers. The variety of ways these photographs are presented demonstrates to the visitor how multifaceted the war brides experience was; in particular it emphasizes the atmosphere of war in which the relationships were formed, and imply the complications that such marriages were bound to encounter. The paintings, unlike the pictures, tend to place emphasis on life after the war. In fact, most of the paintings are part of a display called “Bride Ships” and are portraits done on wood, which are arranged to represent the ships that the women travelled on to reach their new destinations. The wooden portraits are purposely placed so they are leaning on each other to represent how heavily the war brides found themselves relying on each other.

The exhibit also contains an interactive element, in the form of a wall where visitors are urged to “Please Share your Memories”. This portion of the exhibit promotes visitors to become personally engaged. The wall is especially relevant to relatives of war brides, and most of the letters and pictures posted on the wall are from grandchildren who have come to see the exhibit, and have left messages to or about their grandmothers. That being said, those who do not have a personal relationship with a war bride are still able to feel included by having a chance to read the poignant notes left to the women by their loved ones. The creation of the memory wall and its high levels of visitor participation, demonstrates that the exhibits foremost intended audience is the war brides themselves, along with their families and descendants. In addition to the families, however, this exhibit also appeals to social historians or people who are interested in hearing a less conventional narrative about the Second World War.

The main criticism of this exhibit is that much of the information presented comes from potentially unreliable personal accounts, which is a cause for concern considering that most museum visitors completely trust eye witness accounts of historical events. On one hand, this seems unavoidable in an exhibit that focuses on involving the actual people who lived through a particular historical event; however, this exhibit would have been able to present a more balanced historical interpretation had it drawn on the contemporary historiography available on this topic. To counter this, the Canadian War Museum has provided the museum gift shop with a wide variety of academic material on the subject, for anyone interested in a more comprehensive historical account on the war brides.

To conclude, this exhibit successfully captures the complexity and depth involved in thousands of women’s decisions to move to a new country with their recently acquired wartime spouses. Although this exhibit could be strengthened through the addition of historiographical interpretations; War Brides: Portraits of an Era would still be an excellent permanent addition to the Canadian War Museum, since most of the other exhibits do not focus on social history and present more traditional militaristic historical narratives.

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