Fighting for Peace: IWM Exhibition on Peace and Protest

WCIA Review of 'People Power: Fighting for Peace' Exhibition and Panel Debate

At the Imperial War Museum until 28th August 2017. Panel debate on the role and direction of protest in the UK held on 12 July 2017.

By Craig Owen.  view Photo Album - view Debate Vlog - View Exhibition Video

“Museums should show all sides of history – not just take on an agenda to show any one opinion or idea. War can only be a final resort – surely discussing other means of protest has to be valuable for maintaining peace?” IWM Chair


I am in the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in Lambeth, London, as stimulating debate stirs on the topic of #FightingforPeace. IWM’s new exhibition “People Power” explores how peace and protest movements have influenced perceptions of war and conflict from WW1 to the present day. Starting with those Conscientious Objectors who took a stand against conscription from 1916, the exhibition takes visitors on a journey - through banners, letters, objects art and video – via the League of Nations movements of the 1920s and 30s, WW2 Objectors, the arms and CND movements from the 1950s, to the recent anti-Iraq ‘ Stop the War’ movement.   

Where are we Marching? The Future of Protest 

Tonight, over 100 people have gathered - with a panel of leading Peace speakers sharing their perspectives.


Kate Hudson from CND gave a great introduction to why protest matters and how it makes a difference. “From the view of the anti-nuclear movement, we know we’ve helped to prevent nuclear weapons from being used again, as well as inputting into treaty law, stopping tests in the atmosphere and more. But protest has a wider significance – the way I see it, virtually everything good achieved in society over the last 100 years has been achieved through protest and democratic demand. Be it votes for women, for men in 19th century, civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights... All those things have come about through protest. It also acts as restraining forces on governments as well, so plays a hugely important democratic role. And it’s something we do collectively, where we can come together and actively demonstrate our views to government.”

Ben Griffin from Veterans for Peace highlighted that “The UK is one of the key drivers of warfare in the world. In the last thousand years, we’ve invaded every single country in the world bar 22. Since the War on Terror we’ve invaded and destabilised 8-9 countries. So it we’re interested in world peace, we need to take responsibility for the actions of our own government, to restrain them from intervening in the affairs of other nations, especially through warfare.”  

Matt Bronson from IWM explained how protest has have evolved, from his work in collating the ‘People Power’ exhibition. “One of the things the exhibition shows is that the effects of protest are not always immediate. For example with Conscientious Objectors in WW1, only about 16,000 opposed conscription. But in WW2 there were 60,000 - in a context where Nazi Germany made it more difficult to be a CO and pacifist. Going into more modern times, the largest demonstration in British History in 2003 against the Iraq War did not stop that war – but it has made governments more reluctant to engage in conflict in quite the same way since.”

But does that mean that much peace campaigning is just a ‘long-game’ for future generations? “Each generation has had some victories,” Kate Hudson pointed out. “For example, President Nixon wanted to nuke Vietnam, and its on the record that he was told by his advisors ‘you can’t do that – public opinion will not accept it.’ In the 1980s we helped prevent the US situating Neutron Bombs in Europe – seen as the perfect ‘capitalist bomb’ as they didn’t destroy buildings or property, they destroyed people through radiation. Those successes were ‘unsung victories’ for those generations. So through history we have shaped things, often in ways that are not known at the time, by creating a culture and influencing wider attitudes in society.”

TV Celebrity Activist Mark Thomas explored the question of ‘What makes a good protest?’ “If it’s effective!” he answered pointedly.Protest is a tool, it’s tool to get things changed. If you believe in something, you have to become an ambassador for that cause, you have to talk to people. Not just about going on marches – about the issues. It has to come from the grassroots.”

Mark brought it back to the theme of holding governments accountable and responsible in our name. “It’s not just about military intervention, it’s about arms and arms dealing. The UK sell arms to some of the most ridiculous people, who you wouldn’t trust with a sharp pen.”

This is particularly topical, given the current controversy over Home Office suppression of a Report into the funding of UK Terrorism through arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Mark Steel in the Independent on 13th July quipped “BAE Systems has managed to sell 72 Typhoons to Saudi Arabia in a deal known as “the peace project”. A quaint title, because nothing says peace like a Typhoon fighter jet capable of firing 1,700 rounds a minute, with an operating system that allows several targets to be attacked at once. I expect Tibetan Monks give them to each other on their birthdays.”

Ex-soldier Ben Griffin expanded on the dangers of unchallenged arms propagation. “At one point the Americans accidentally dropped a live nuke off the coast of New Jersey. Having worked within the military, having seen that a lot of what people see as being conspiracy is actually incompetence – that is what worries me.”

“We can’t look at the achievement of world peace as some sort of end goal, it will be a continuous process.  The war mongers, the arms dealers, they’re not going to go away; and even if we have a win, they’re still going to be there, and they’ll want to come back. We need to look at our own country.

Kate said of the future of protest in the UK, “it is an ongoing, almost permanent state of activity. Fortunately there are so many people who see that and are willing to work towards that, whether it’s civil society organisations, trade unions, faith communities as well as ordinary campaigning organisations like CND. There will always be a ‘next challenge’, a new conflict in need of its generation of Peace Champions. Now, with social media, small actions can have a big reach. Powerful messages can reach millions in minutes. But online activism cannot substitute for feet on the streets.”

All speakers emphasised the importance of inclusive campaigns reaching a wider public; that peace movements can never be successful by being restricted to ‘leftist worldviews’ alone. A particular challenge for many today is seeing beyond our social and media bubbles, finding common ground - not division – with those of many different motivations and views.

Mark recounted the advice of a campaigner who had led the Selma civil rights march, who said peace protestors need to maintain a ‘Constant Vigilance’. “We are never gonna just win and put our feet up. It’d be bloody great… But it’s a constant struggle, they don’t call it the struggle for nothing.” But he shared a positive vibe from recent campaigning. “I was reading about it, and I felt this jolt go through my body. It took me a second to realise - ‘my God that’s hope!’ Hope is a physical manifestation, you can really feel it. That’s what we look for, after all the work and work and work, and then that feeling of hope, that’s what we have to cling on to and work towards.”

Nowhere does this feel more current and topical than the successful passing of last week’s United Nations Treaty banning Nuclear Arms, supported by 122 countries in the face of strong opposition from nuclear-armed states and their allies (including the UK). The treaty is "the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty to be concluded in more than 20 years," UN Conference President Whyte Gomez said. “We (are) ... saying to our children that, yes, it is possible to inherit a world free from nuclear weapons. The world has been waiting for this legal norm for 70 years.” It will be opened for signatures in September and come into force when 50 countries have ratified it.

Kate Hudson from CND obviously celebrated the achievement. “Piece by piece, we must make Peace the norm for the survival of humanity; for people and planet.”


'People Power: Fighting for Peace' Exhibition

The exhibition is a moving and dramatic journey through the politics of protest, of a scale that reflects such a prestigious venue. It is particularly poignant in exploring really complicated issues, such the soul searching faced by Peace campaigners in the 1930s as the rise of Hitler, Fascism and WW2 challenged moral simplicities of ‘right and wrong’. In the aftermath of WW2, as the true scale of the holocaust emerged, the guilt felt by conscientious objectors on discovering the concentration camps was harrrowing. But WW2 also ended with the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an act of civilian murder and technological destruction that could spell the end of the human race, in the wrong hands – and so gave birth to the anti-nuclear movement, as a generation grew up under the shadow of the mushroom cloud.

Useful References and Links

In 2018, WCIA's Wales for Peace team will be developing alongside participating communities, our own touring exhibition exploring the 'whole story' of Wales' contribution towards the search for peace in the 100 years since WW1. Whilst the IWM exhibition is clearly of a far greater scale, and more 'objects-focused' than we can emulate with a small travelling exhibition, there are undoubtedly crossover themes and areas of learning we can build upon. In the meantime - I would highly recommend visiting the IWM Exhibition at Lambeth during Summer 2017!


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