Private museums and the battlefields

It has become clear during this trip that noticeably different attitudes to the war and battlefields prevail in France and Belgium (at least in those parts I’ve visited). In and around Albert and Arras only a few hoteliers and restaurateurs seem to be exploiting the battlefields as a source of business. In Ypres by contrast the Great War is clearly a going concern. There are bookstores, tour operators, and a wealth of public and private museums dedicated to the Salient. The latter interest me particularly. They vary considerably in content and quality, but they all appear to be based on private collections of artifacts. And most of those appear to be the result of digging in backyards and fields and occasionally when real estate or commercial developments reveal remains. I haven’t done any research on this, but it seems that as long as it’s your land (or you have the owner’s permission) it’s fair game to dig Great War sites – bearing in mind you could blow yourself up. It isn’t even clear to me that there are particularly strict rules regarding ordinance that’s recovered in such digs. One museum I visited contained boxes of rifle ammunition recovered from a well known site – no way had they all been de-activated then repacked…. I’m sure there are rules governing heavier ordinance and human remains, but are there no protections afforded the sites and the heritage they represent? Some of the ‘excavation’ practices I’ve seen in the videos and pictures presented at various museums/sites are frankly amateurish. Perhaps they’ve been edited for the purposes of entertainment – I certainly hope so, because none of them show much in the way of concern with provenance. And then there’s the question of publication. Assuming for the moment that everything has been properly recorded, does that data ever see the light of day?

About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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