Fresh from two hours of document analysis with the students of the University of Westminster I was absolutely in the mood for the kind of exhibition that ‘Easter Rising 1916’ at the Photographers’ Gallery purports to be, especially as I’ve got an upcoming seminar to teach on British stereotypes of Irishmen in the nineteenth century. Looking on the website I found some good introductory blurb which promised an exploration of the complex events of the Irish revolution through documentary photographs, propaganda images and personal memorabilia. The promise wasn’t kept.
Sure enough the documents presented are complex enough. A standout object was a complex collage of images juxtaposing a photograph of John Wilkes Booth (the assassin of Abraham Lincoln) with pictures of Irish nationalists and a derogatory cartoon depiction of simian Fenians. You could write a decent essay on such a document. That is if you were told (among other things) who had assembled it, where the pictures and images that made it came from and to whom it was distributed, if it was distributed at all. There was no contextual information at all.
Some explanations were given of the political and social context for the Easter Rising (and its political aftermath) but not enough. Even for a historian who has written (marginally) about the politics of the period there was not enough information on the images to really let me know exactly what was going on in a particular shot. There were a lot of pictures of Men in Uniforms but too often no information as to whose uniforms they were wearing. And the occasional laconically expressed moral judgement reminded me of the Empire exhibition at Tate Britain in that it showed the modern taste for self-righteous condemnation of a group of people of whose lives and motivations the commentator has a limited historical grasp.
Worse, it made no effort to make life easy for the non-specialist, for someone who may be interested in the events of the time but who hasn’t made a life’s work of knowing about Collins, French, Parnell or Markiewicz. To take one example, a picture is shown of Michael Redmond reviewing troops in 1915. A student of history would know who Redmond was and why his reviewing of troops heading to the Western Front (if that’s where they were going – we’re not actually told) would be a controversial action for a significant section of the nationalist public.
Unfortunately for non-historians none of that is explained. Redmond doesn’t even feature in the historical account of the period that appears on the PG website or in the information panels on the walls and in the picture he is one of five or so men on a platform above the troops. So if you weren’t familiar with who he was before you got to the exhibition (physically or politically) you still would be none the wiser once you get there even though you were staring at a photograph with him in it.
So this is an exhibition that if it were in Dublin would be forgivably light on context. But for a London audience it needed a lot more work. And ideally an Irish historian on board, I can’t imagine that Diarmaid Ferriter or someone of his ilk would have turned down the opportunity.
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).