The World’s Unusual Military Museums
British photographer Jason Larkin has taken pictures inside military museums around the world including Egypt, Vietnam, Cuba and the UK. He reveals how different countries remember their violent pasts.
They recall scenes from Dr Strangelove, or Thunderbirds: the photos taken by Jason Larkin have a simplicity and shared aesthetic that is almost childlike – or shot through a Hollywood filter. Yet these images were taken in military museums around the world, and they reveal how different countries remember war and conflict. “It’s too easily sanitised,” says Larkin. “There should be much more context and nuance.”
The British photographer isn’t aiming to be political, however. His Past Perfect series – currently on show at London’s Flowers Gallery and set to be published in a book later this year – focuses more on how these museums put together their displays. “I didn’t want to make too much of a commentary on propaganda,” he tells BBC Culture.
“What I became interested in was what really reinforces this view on history and what makes the public think that it’s true – the ways in which this history is being presented, the aesthetic choices being made by the curators and the museum staff.” Between 2008 and 2016, Larkin travelled to Cuba, Egypt, Israel, the UK, the US and Vietnam, looking at how museums in each country take on roles in “constructing ideologies and interpreting cultural identities”.
He found striking differences in approaches to the curation of artefacts and memory. “Every country has their own way of presenting the past and their overarching approach to museums and displays,” says Larkin, commenting that in Israel “it’s much more about experiences and less about facts and artefacts – more about immersing the viewers in history”.
Although he started out photographing a range of museums in Egypt, he narrowed his focus once he got to Israel. “When I was there I decided that in somewhere like Israel, that has such a conflicting narrative and has had so much conflict with its development, it was more poignant to focus the series on just the museums that deal with conflict, war and militaries in all their different guises.”
Larkin discovered another slant in Cuba. “It’s about the revolutionaries, the first hundred or so that were part of the initial waves of revolution – everything they’ve touched and worn, everywhere they’ve been has been turned into a sort of memorial and canonised in glass cabinets,” he says. “It’s a way of presenting the past that really turns these individuals into folk heroes and legendary figures.”
In Vietnam, meanwhile, he photographed ways in which weapons and war machinery have been repurposed. “Vietnam deals much more with responses to artefacts – there are a lot of sculptures, and a lot of artists being employed to reconfigure war remnants and put tanks on top of each other, turning shrapnel into sculptures.”
This offers a chance to take a step back, and can give a more sophisticated take on conflict. “There are nuanced museums in most places,” says Larkin. “There are a couple of museums in Vietnam that are trying to present things in a more balanced way, and within the UK, the Imperial War Museum in London is incredibly nuanced – although there’s not much about contemporary conflicts with Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s more artists’ responses, which is a comfortable way for museums to tackle something, presenting somebody else’s interpretation of it.”
Yet Larkin believes “there are a lot of places that don’t do that” – including the UK. “The Imperial War Museum in Duxford, just outside Cambridge, is really just war machinery. Those spaces are sold very much as family days out – they can be entertaining, they put on big air shows – but most of the machinery on display is deadly, and has been used for deadly consequences.”
That hasn’t stopped him being drawn in. “I’ve got a one-year-old, and the last time I was in the Imperial War Museum in Duxford I thought: ‘I can’t wait til he’s two or three because I’ll definitely bring him along to these air shows, they’re amazing’.” He acknowledges the attraction of many of these spaces. “I can get pulled into it – it is awe-inspiring, being beneath a huge bomber – I’m not removing myself from it.”
But the way in which information is presented can be misleading. “It’s just a select few people at the top who get to decide on how museums are going to look,” he says. “There are a lot of people in the countries I’ve visited who would not agree with what’s in their museums – it’s just what the state or one rich influential group or the army want to say.”
And what isn’t said can be as important as what is. “Rather than just having displays where you’re looking inside the mechanisms of a giant bomb, and admiring that engineering might, if you were to have a plaque next to it saying ‘this could destroy ten schools at once’, it might make people think.”
Even the visual style in which war is depicted is significant. Some of the dioramas in Larkin’s images resemble toys, placing battles in an unexpected context. “There’s something interesting about that war panorama,” he remarks on an installation at the October 1973 War Museum in Cairo, “because it was painted by North Koreans – they built that museum for Egyptians, and their artists came over, because they’ve got a similar panorama in Pyongyang. It harks back to how the North Koreans see war – it’s a very American GI Joe style.”
The cultural filter on war can mean that less overtly ideological museums are in fact more influential. “I think America owns the military aesthetic in many people’s psyches, we recognise an American military jeep before any other type of military equipment because it’s been so engrained in our visual memories through films and comic books.”
While captions hammering home a great military ‘victory’ are obvious in their intent, Larkin believes that “with the aesthetics it’s much more subtle, it’s like going to a movie in a way, you’re pulled in and think ‘I don’t really know what happened in that film or whether it was good or bad, but it was kind of enjoyable’. That tends to happen, and if you do that enough with certain scenarios, it becomes a form of propaganda.”
Larkin hopes that by photographing museums in this way, he can create a critical distance. Before this project, he says, “I’d never really questioned a museum space: I’d always taken it at face value, and taken their authority as the final word.”
But now “you’ve got to question why they need to run it in that way”, he argues. “That’s what photography and art allows – I’m taking pictures from the everyday world and then representing them elsewhere, and hoping that by doing that with a certain approach and aesthetic there’s a different type of engagement than what you get from actually being there.”
Despite the need to question official narratives, however, there is a countering need to separate fact from fiction, especially in an era of ‘fake news’. “In some ways, it makes this project feel more relevant, but sadly it gets to this point where all truth is side-lined,” says Larkin. “All of a sudden people might look at my project and think you can’t trust anything anymore. But that’s so destabilising – where do we go from there, and who can lead us back into a place of authenticity?”