Art Fund Prize 2008 - Helmand At The National Army Museum

By Richard Moss | 25 March 2008
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a photo of camouflaged jackets on coat hangers

Photograph © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

The Art Fund Prize judges have already started their deliberations over the ten longlisted museum for the Art Fund Prize 2008 and their shortlist is due in April, but who do you think should win the coveted prize?

To help you decide, the 24 Hour Museum continues its alphabetical round-up of the museums on this year’s longlist by looking at The National Army Museum’s Helmand Exhibition.

The £100,000 Art Fund Prize is awarded to the museum or gallery whose project demonstrates the most originality, imagination and excellence, and the National Army Museum’s Helmand exhibition can rightly claim to be quite unlike any other entrant of the Prize longlist.

Conceived by the Parachute Regiment who approached the museum with the idea of mounting an exhibition that revealed the truth about their experiences, HELMAND: The Soldier’s Story has been built by, written and contributed to by soldiers of 16 Air Assault Brigade.

a photograph of a sand bagged emplacement and display case

A recreated sangar and case containing relics from the Helmand frontline. Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

Unlike previous exhibitions at the Museum, it is alive with the voices of the men who have, and are now again, being deployed against the Taliban in the desert plains and mountains of southern Afghanistan.

Helmand is the first time a detailed exhibition of this kind has been mounted whilst a conflict continues to unfold and it has provided the exhibition team at the museum with certain challenges.

“It’s been quite a high risk exhibition to do – we had no benefit of hindsight,” said Jo Wooley, Head of Marketing at the National Army Museum and exhibition leader for the Helmand project.

“Normally we are looking at a conflict retrospectively; with Helmand we had to create a new collection to enable us to put the exhibition on – and we didn’t have the direct expertise ourselves.”

a film still of a man on a bunk reading a book about su doku

An impressive array of films and photographs reveal all aspects of the soldier's life at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. Photograph © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

The solution was to involve soldiers as key stakeholders to get the first hand knowledge to create it. Allied with the curatorial skill of the team at the NAM this first-hand knowledge was used to create a cohesive narrative that explains the conflict and the experiences of the soldiers in the frontline.

“Soldiers are used to being soldiers, not exhibition curators, so we had to make sure we conveyed what they wanted to convey about the conflict,” explained Jo, “and also make the exhibition something that told the Brigade story as a whole rather than a regimental or unit based approach.”

There are many poignant and insightful moments in the exhibition, including a piece of shrapnel donated by a soldier who lost his arm – look closely and you can still see the shreds of uniform attached to it – and battered helmets, body armour, mortar bombs and other objects that tell a human story of a far flung conflict.

As well as recreations of sangars (defensive emplacements) and billets, there is equipment, uniforms, mortars, message boards plucked form the front line and a series of films showing men in combat, returning fire or sheltering from mortar attacks, or simply seeing out the days within the walls of Camp Bastion, the army’s defensive encampment in the heart of Helmand Province.

a photograph of a desert sand coloured quad bike

A quad bike of the type that brought back the body of posthumous VC winner Corporal Bryan Budd of the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment.

(Above) Photo © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

An evaluation wall for people to post comments has also become an integral part of the exhibition experience. Installed at the end of the visitor’s journey it has created a forum for people to comment on the exhibition and the wider politics of the conflict. Comments have ranged from the highly personal to the political.

“We’ve had a huge range of responses that are all very emotive in tone, and they show the huge range of people coming to the exhibition,” said Jo. “It indicates people coming from all over the globe and people commenting from all angles of the political spectrum.”

Some people have written messages to soldiers like ‘come home safe’; others have written messages to the museum to praise them for engaging in such a relevant issue. There have been political comments such as ‘all MPs should be made to come and see this before they create wars’, whilst some people have left messages commenting on what other people have said on the message board. Together these messages show the huge social response the exhibition has set off.

a photograph of a man in combat camouflage gear looking at a museum interactive screen

A Para from 3rd Air Assualt Brigade takes a look at one of the films at the Helmand exhibition. Photograph © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

However, the most poignant part of Helmand is a wall marking the names of the 16 soldiers of the 16 Air Assault Air Brigade killed in the 2006 deployment to Afghanistan. For some visitors this has meant the exhibition has become a de facto place of pilgrimage. Some people have even laid flowers.

“Quite clearly some of the audience coming are regarding it as commemorative visit, and it’s not just the friends of family of people who have been involved,” said Jo, “but it’s quite clear that people who feel soldiers are dying quite needlessly are coming along commemoratively and leaving comments on that basis.”

The continuing relationship with the 3rd Air Assault Brigade, who are currently redeploying to Helmand, means the exhibition is going to continue to be a focal point for the loved ones and for the soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

The exhibition will be the first to feature changing displays of objects, photographs and footage, and online blogs sent straight from the front line. For the NAM this is key to keeping the Helmand exhibition authentic and continually relevant, in what will be a significant six months in the history of this bloody conflict.

a photograph of a sign next to sandbags saying warning two way range

Many items have been brought straight back from the front line for the exhibition. Photograph © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

Regardless of the Art Fund Prize, Helmand has already been a pivotal exhibition for the NAM.

“Our market research has shown that Helmand has changed perceptions of the museum,” said Jo. “The year before Helmand opened only 10% of our visitors thought we should be dealing with modern day issues, now a third of our visitors think we should be commenting on modern relevant subject matters and that’s had an impact on how the museum takes it product development forward.”

It has also impacted on the museum’s collecting strategies, with the NAM now focussing more on collecting objects relating to modern day conflicts. “The exhibition has helped to establish really good relationships with the army allowing the NAM to collect objects straight form the frontline,” said Jo.

“Finally Helmand has really impacted positively on staff morale,” said Jo, “because it’s shown us we can deliver something that not only gets public recognition but sector recognition, which is something we’re all very proud of.”

a photograph of a display board showing members of the Taleban surrounded by sandbags

Photograph © Richard Moss / 24 Hour Museum

Following the judges’ visits, four museums and galleries will be shortlisted and announced in early April. The winner will be announced on Thursday May 22 at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London during Museum and Galleries Month 2008.

Before then we would like to know what you think. Do you think HELMAND: The Soldier’s Story should win the 2008 Art Fund Prize? Vote for this museum or any others on the longlist here

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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