War and peace, a tale of two museums

The city of Bradford has Britain's only dedicated peace museum. But seek other sites upholding peace and a better world, and ye shall find! 

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
22 December 2016

Bradford City Park. Curtis Malinowski/Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.As one of the countries that may well have fought more wars across the world than any other over the last two centuries, it is not surprising that Britain has a remarkable array of museums devoted to military history, technology and themes. 

In the lead is the Imperial War Museum which has its main base in central London, just south of Westminster. It has two more locations in the city: the Second World War cruiser HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames near Tower Bridge and the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall. And there are two other major centres: Imperial War Museum North in Stretford, near Manchester, and the aircraft collection at RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire.

IWM may be the largest museum group devoted to the military but there are numerous regimental museums dotted around the country, many of them illustrating Britain’s remarkable penchant for fighting colonial wars. Then there are the Royal Armouries, with the main base in Leeds and branches at the Tower of London and Fort Nelson near Portsmouth

Fort Nelson is probably the least visited but most interesting of these museums. A Victorian-era fort and “home of the big guns”, it was originally built thanks largely to the political drive of the mid-Victorian statesman Lord Palmerston. The fort was part of an immensely costly string of five such military sites built on the Portsdown Hills overlooking Portsmouth and the Solent to guard against the threat of a French invasion.

Construction was started in the 1860s, yet by the time it was completed and fully armed in 1890 it was thoroughly obsolete. The guns were removed by 1907. The forts were widely known as the "Palmerston Forts" but were so irrelevant that “Palmerston’s Follies” was a common term. They were the Victorian-era equivalent of the modern-day Trident nuclear-submarine programme, if admittedly much less expensive.

The IWM group alone has an annual budget of £57 million, with the Royal Armouries another £9 million. 

All of these museums emphasise war, conflict and weaponry in different ways, and they do not come cheap. The IWM group alone has an annual budget of £57 million, with the Royal Armouries another £9 million. 

Under the radar

It is fair to say, though, that the main Imperial War Museum in London does have substantial exhibits on the human cost of war, not least in relation to the nuclear age and also the Holocaust. It is also about to mount a substantial exhibition on resistance to war. People Power: Fighting for Peace will run for five months from 23 March 2017

Even so, it's sobering to contrast the addiction to war exhibits with the singularly limited interest in museums devoted to peace. Some museums and exhibitions do focus on elements related to peace, human rights and social struggles. The International Slavery Museum on Liverpool’s Albert Dock is a remarkable centre and there are several museums of labour history. The People’s History Museum, housed in an Edwardian-era pumping-station in Manchester is particularly impressive.

There are also isolated but remarkable examples of individual or group endeavours. One of the least known but most deserving of a visit is the thoughtful rendering of the courage of conscientious objectors during the 1914-18 war who were imprisoned in Richmond Castle, north Yorkshire, and whose graffiti on the walls of the prison cells has been meticulously preserved.

In addition, the permanent Quaker Tapestry exhibition in Kendal, Cumbria focuses on the enduring peace testimony of the Society of Friends. “The 77 vibrant embroidered panels were made by 4,000 men, women and children from 15 countries between 1981 and 1996,” the accompanying information says. Completed twenty years ago, the panels are impressive testimony to the work of many thousands of Quakers over more than two centuries.

Then there are the museums specifically devoted to peace. There are surprisingly many across the world, as Peter van den Dungen has chronicled. The International Network of Museums for Peace supports and helps coordinate them. Indeed, Belfast will in April 2017 host a major international gathering on this theme.

Peace work, peace memory

Britain is behind many other countries in this regard. It does at least have one such museum, however: the Peace Museum in Bradford, west Yorkshire. With a very small staff supported by volunteers, its vision “is to be seen as a national resource that educates and inspires people for peace, using a unique collection of artefacts and stories.” The museum was started in 1994 and has done its best to present a much more positive vision of a potentially peaceful world, but it has been an uphill struggle.

Located on the top floor of an old civic building in the city centre of the city, without a lift, the modest three-room museum is not the easiest to find; more accessible premises would be hugely welcome. At the same time, it is a delight to visit and worth at least an hour of anyone’s time. The artefacts, many of them original, cover a wide range of campaigns for a better world, their shared and inspiring message being that another world really is possible.

Britain’s one peace museum has an annual budget of around £50,000, roughly one-thousandth of that of the IWM.

There is also humour, including a number of cartoons. A light-hearted exhibit with a touch of dark humour is a tourist advertisement that the city council put out in the 1980s, when it was at the forefront of the nuclear-free movement among local authorities. Against a background of a moorland scene from "Brontë country" (which is actually within the city boundaries), the caption declares: “Have a peaceful week in Bradford”, with the sub-heading “visit Bradford before bits of Bradford visit you”.

In relation to the city, one room is intriguing in that it concentrates on the city of Bradford itself as a centre for social reform. That history is insufficiently recognised even within the city itself, and is almost unknown nationally. Yet Bradford pioneered many elements of positive social change: just two examples are campaigning by Richard Oastler (1789-1861) against child labour (“Yorkshire slavery”) in the Victorian-era mills, and Margaret MacMillan (1860-1931) of the Independent Labour Party with her decades of work to improve the health and education of young children. It's important to remember here that similar stories could be told about almost every city in Britain, but too often they have been relegated to a largely hidden history.

This is an additional reason why peace museums need much more support – not least the one in Bradford, where recent improving finances mean the museum is now open three days a week (Wednesday-Friday, 10am-4pm, free entry). To put this another way, the Imperial War Museum may have developed a welcome commitment in recent years to pointing to the costs of war, even if many visitors come to look at the weapons: yet the fact remains that Britain’s one peace museum has an annual budget of around £50,000, roughly one-thousandth of that of the IWM. Is there something not quite right here…?

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