London, Empire, and War

A piece of the Berlin Wall at the Imperial War Museum

A piece of the Berlin Wall at the Imperial War Museum

Growing up in the United States in the 21st century, it is fairly easy to live life without ever thinking about the effects of war and global imperial projects.

But in London, if you keep your eyes open, the evidence is all around you. Pock marks on the sides of buildings from the Blitz during WW2. A field of poppies to honor those who fell in WW1. And the diverse foods and cultural influences from many of Britain’s former colonies.

When we visited the Imperial War Museum and the British Museum, I was really overwhelmed with emotion as I came closer-than-ever before to the effects and brutality of war.

Spencer and I just have so much privilege. Accepting that and learning that is critical, challenging, and illuminating, but doing so will help us be more informed, empathetic, justice-driven citizens of the world.

Today, at the Imperial War Museum, I visited the Berlin Wall. Or a piece of it. I saw machine guns from World Wars I and II. I saw the melted wreckage of a car that was destroyed by a suicide bomber.

I thought at first that this museum was some sort of strange fetishization, these relics, of the atrocities of wars and the violence of mad men. But I came away with a strong belief that these stories must be told and remembered, and that it is important to face these realities (even in small doses, for all the highly sensitive people out there like me) in a tangible way.

How many of us know why World War I started? How many of us know how many Allies or Germans died at the Somme? How many of us know what a U-Boat is? Why the first Gulf War happened? And the arguments for American military presence around the world?

Don’t take these questions as me saying that the military is all bad; that is not true. I am instead questioning our capacity and willingness to remember, to learn the stories not only of those who came before us but those who are different than us, as well.

Today, I stood next to the wreckage of a Japanese bomber that had been shot down in the Pacific while a Japanese couple next to me chatted about it and took pictures. My best friend is Japanese, and her family is from Hiroshima. How many of us know about the bombs we dropped on her country? There are many faces to war. It’s not so easy as this side vs. that side, allies vs. axes of evil. These words are narratives, interpretations, and media strategies in some cases.

Beyond these generalizations are human stories. I feel strongly that we need to seek out these stories. We need to learn to talk to each other, ask questions, have compassion for those of us who are behind in our learning, help each other along, share how this education makes us feel. It was visceral and intense and uncomfortable to stand beneath a bomber that fought in the Battle of Britain. I got dizzy looking at the vestiges of a WW2 bomb shelter. I felt fear and pride and anxiety and concern and sadness. But I feel like a stronger person now. I encourage you to seek out these stories, too.

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Later in the day, for the first time ever, I felt very unsettled visiting a museum. After visiting the Imperial War Museum in the morning, we went over to the British Museum after lunch. I couldn’t help but think about how the title “war museum” could apply to this one, too. After all, how were most of the artifacts acquired? Wars, occupations, imperial projects...

I felt very uncomfortable looking at objects placed in these sterile, glass boxes that were or are very sacred to various cultures. Yes, they’re being “preserved” so that we can learn, and accessibility to knowledge is important. But there is also an inaccessibility because they’re in London, a very expensive city that not a lot of people can afford to visit. These artifacts generate a lot of wealth for the city, even if the museum is “free.” They promote tourism. And I’m uncomfortable that they have been categorized and “scientifically classified” in a way that robs them of their cultural context, significance, and sacrality.

For instance, the items pictured above were taken from the Parthenon. Athens has been asking the British Museum to return them, but the museum refuses, saying that they were acquired with the full knowledge of the authorities that were ruling at the time (18th/19th century-ish) - the Ottoman Empire. But there still feels like an unequal power dynamic at play here that I am just not on board with. There were also religious or magical objects in cases that felt like...I felt like an intruder seeing them. It felt like they were sacred, and not for everyone to gawk at. It didn’t seem respectful.

I was unsettled thinking about my own discipline, Sociology, and if I am participating in reproducing this kind of culture of “knowledge acquisition and display”... I think yes and no. It’s probably both/and instead of either/or.

It’s thoughts like these why I love to travel. It broadens the mind and heart.