Ypres is as charming as I recalled, though busier. The biggest development in terms of this project – aside from the carnival rides in the market square of course – is the completion of the new In Flanders’ Fields Museum. And what a cracking good one it is. The fact that it’s in the Cloth Hall doesn’t hurt, as the space available is just fantastic. But it’s the design and execution of the exhibits that make it so special. I didn’t have time to explore it fully, but the quality shines through even in a relatively quick visit. The museum makes especially good use of digital technologies, both in terms of projecting multi-media content in interesting ways and in differentiating visitors’ experience based on age, gender, and nationality. The traditional displays of artifacts are also unusually well done and the overall chronological narrative layout works.
Personally, I found the projection of the operations leading to the formation of the Salient onto a 3-D relief map of the region compelling. And the material recovered from Yorkshire trench and dugouts and the accompanying video of the excavations underway are especially interesting – though archaeologically speaking some of the recorded practices are a little sketchy. And the images of damaged faces suspended from the ceiling in one of the abstract explosion installations are harrowing, to say the least. The stately pace of the patrons through the other exhibits suggests they were equally engaging. What a contrast this presents to the Canadian interpretive centers I mentioned yesterday. I can’t see any reason – other than the almighty bottom line – why those sites couldn’t rise to a similarly high standard of curation.
But there I go ranting about things I can’t change again. Back to the In Flanders’ Fields Museum.
It’s not perfect. The interpretation advanced with regard to the origins of the war left me shaking my head. It is written down to imperial rivalry combined with the tyranny of the state over the individual. As if imperial rivalry was something new or the relationship between the state and the individual in all the Great (and lesser) Powers. I’m sure this tendency to focus on the forest rather than particular trees and their specific relations is a reflection of Ypres’ status as a city of peace and a laudable desire to make all feel welcome. But it strikes me as a perfect example of how present circumstances tend to shape our interpretations of the past – of the best intentions paving roads to bad places.