Syrian Civil War examined in series of exhibitions at IWM North

By Adrian Murphy. Main Image: Homeless children play in the ruins of Homs after Opposition forces left the area. © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times Homs, Syria, 14 June 2014 Assad’s Syria (2013-2014)

Today marks seven years since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War and the second iteration of the Syria: A Conflict Explored, a season of exhibitions and events reflecting on the ongoing Syria conflict is currently underway at Imperial War Museum (IWM) North in Manchester, which was first shown at IWM London between April and September 2017 and attracted 138,000 visitors.

Here Advisor talks to Gill Webber, executive director of content and programmes at IWM, about the aims of the exhibition and its purpose

The Syrian Civil War can trace its origins to protests that began on 15 March 2011. Linked to the Arab Spring the protesters were showing their resentment of the authoritarian Assad government. However, the situation quickly escalated into an armed conflict after protesters began calling for Assad’s removal and were violently suppressed.

And as the Syrian war rages on into its eighth year and continues to hit the headlines again with government forces bombarding eastern Ghouta, the Syria: A Conflict Explored exhibition is a way of putting into context a highly complex war. Part of IWM’s Conflict Now programme, the season will include Syria: Story of a Conflict, an intimate display exploring the origins, escalations and impact of the Syria conflict, which has been co-curated by IWM and Christopher Phillips, Reader of International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary University. This exhibition will sit alongside Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria, an extensive series of photographs addressing the consequences of the Syria conflict by award-winning Russian documentary photographer Sergey Ponomarev. The season will also present a series of associated events, including an artist residency by creative collective Anagram, exploring information and misinformation relating to the Syria conflict. As well as this, a series of Conflict Cafés will offer visitors the chance to talk with those who have experienced the conflict first-hand.

An inflatable dinghy, crowded with refugees and migrants, is pulled ashore on the island of Lesbos after sailing five miles across the Aegean from Turkey on 27 July 2015. The Exodus (2015-2016) © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Gill Webber, executive director of content and programmes, said the exhibition continues the work of the IWM, which was created in 1917 during the First World War, to document contemporary conflicts, as well the historical, with a role to explore the human impact of war. “We were created while a war was going on and with the express purpose of exploring the impact of that war: it is still our remit today to do the same for contemporary conflicts,” she said. “If you asked the person in the street to name a contemporary conflict most people would instantly say Syria and in fact we have conducted market research among our visitors that said exactly that.”

The Syria: A Conflict Explored exhibition attempts to explore and try to explain in various mediums the on-going civil war. The museum frequently explores conflicts that have an established narrative and an historical perspective, such as the Second World War and The Falklands War, however, the Syrian Civil War is a far larger challenge as it is still being fought and has a multitude of factions fighting, and therefore a seemingly countless array of narratives.

A child's life jacket is one of six objects on display

“If you are looking at a contemporary conflict, something that is going on today, of course that is entirely different. There’s no historical perspective, there’s no established narrative. This is a hugely complex story with literally thousands of different groups that are fighting in this conflict,” says Webber. “To explain that hugely complex story in a way that is accessible to our visitors has been a really big challenge for us. And it’s one of the reasons that we worked in partnership with Dr Chris Pillips from Queen Mary University of London who is a Syrian expert. We have curatorial expertise, we have expertise in engaging the public with these sorts of complex narratives but we also wanted to get that up to the minute subject expertise.”

As well as providing insight into a conflict that has killed nearly half a million people, displaced more than eleven million (half the pre-war population) and left cities in ruins, Phillips will also highlight the unknown but long-standing links between Manchester and Syria, which have been connected since the 19th Century; just as Manchester is known as Cottonopolis, the textile capital of Britain, Aleppo was considered the textile capital of Syria.

Explaining the intricate patchwork of military groups that are involved in the war has not been the only challenge facing the IWM team. Another test was designing and building the exhibition in house within a nine month timeframe. During this time the team also had to create a collections as they did not have objects readily available to draw on. So, to tell the story the IWM loaned items and also collected its own. They have therefore kept the displays simple with just six objects from the region representing a particular story. For example, there is a child’s life jacket, which was found abandoned on the Greek Island of Chios, which is a route many Syrian refugees have taken into Europe, and a white helmet from the Mayday Rescue Foundation.

In the IWM workshop a replica of a barrel bomb was also built, which was in response to comments made by visitors about the war’s destruction and the use of these improvised devices, filled with explosives and sometimes chemicals, by the Assad regime.

The IWM workshop made a replica of a barrel bomb

“Keeping it simple was so important to us because it’s such a complex story that we didn’t want to overcomplicate it and overwhelm our visitors within huge numbers of objects. But in addition to these objects we have introduced an immersive film, which really gets under the skin of the conflict and explains how it all started with the Arab Spring and explains the complexities of the different groups that are involved.”

The film has been created by Liminal who specialise in factual films and runs for eight minutes giving visitors an overview of what the conflict is all about. Another key element to the exhibition are the photographs of Russian Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Sergey Ponomarev. His A Lens on Syria, is an extensive series of photographs addressing the consequences of the Syria conflict. His work on display is split into two topics: Assad’s Syria (2013-2014), which offers a rare insight into what life was really like for people living in Government-controlled areas of Syria and Exodus (2015-2016), which documents the determination, endurance and suffering of people from Syria and elsewhere who sought asylum and a better life in Europe.

An immersive film explains how the war started

“The photographs really capture the moment and I think using that artistic and photographic means of exploring the story gives our visitors real insight as to what’s going on.”

There is also a BBC news feed within the exhibition, which relays the latest news on Syria so visitors are updated on the current situation while also learning about the origins and background to the conflict, which has now lasted longer than the Second World War.

“What we are trying to do is tell the story of how this war came about and the big picture of what’s going on. We also have on our website videos which our co-curator Chris Philips talk to camera answering some basic questions about what’s going on in Syria and how the UK is involved. So if there was a major change in events we could update the videos and include them in that series.”

The wider impact of the war is reflected in the programming the IWM has produced around the exhibition including a Conflict Café. The first Conflict Café took place on 17 February with people invited to attend who had a direct experience of Syria, such as refugees, nationals, aid workers and journalists. This gives visitors the opportunity to talk to them one-on-one. Within the exhibition there are also case studies, which tell the experiences of people who have been impacted by the war.

I Swear to Tell the Truth 

Opening today (15 March) on the seventh anniversary of conflict is an exhibition I Swear to Tell the Truth created by Anagram and commissioned by Imperial War Museums. This positions the Syrian Civil War as the world’s first conflict to be screened on YouTube much the same as the Vietnam War was considered to be the first conflict on television. The exhibition will explain how the number of minutes uploaded to YouTube exceeds the number of real-time minutes which have passed since the conflict began.

Anagram invite visitors to IWM North to actively and intimately think about how to make sense of what we hear from Syria. Taking evidence from specific events during the battle of Aleppo in late 2016, this experience asks: is confusion a weapon being used to stop the international community from acting; who controls the fog of war? From exposing the algorithms of media moguls to grappling with our cloudy internal prejudice, I Swear to Tell the Truth is a thought-provoking experience inviting you to inspect how social and information networks have affected your perception of the world we live in, and your place in it.

“At the IWM we have what is called our Global Citizenship Remit: we want to give our visitors the tools to understand what is going on in the world today and what’s going on around them, and part of that is giving historical perspective. When it’s something contemporary like the war in Syria we really want to enable understanding. I think that that is what we have achieved and is shown in the evaluation from the London run. People came out having a better understanding of what is going on in Syria and the feedback suggested that it made them think in more depth about particular aspects of it.”

Syria: A Conflict Explored runs until 28 May and the second and final Conflict Café will take place on 5 May.