Art in Conflict

According to the Language Endangerment Scale, 3,176 global languages are endangered, taking with them centuries of tradition, culture and stories. In that, history is littered with sounds and images that have been lost forever. Although we live in a digital age, art is always at risk of being lost through political changes, social uprisings and natural disaster. IWM’s, London, Culture Under Attack season, examines how conflict has threatened art and music, and the wider effects this has had on humanity.

“We thought it might be interesting to pose the question to our visitors – is our culture worth dying for?” says Emily Charles, Curator of Rebel Sounds, one of three strands of the season. “We looked for stories about how and why people have risked their lives to enjoy activities amidst the turmoil that others consider frivolous and inconsequential. For the Swing Youth in Nazi Germany it was highly unlikely that they would ever have overthrown Hitler by playing jazz music – but they listened to it anyway. They could have faced severe punishment if they got caught, but to them, jazz was an essential expression of their identity.”

Air raid damage to the Naval Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London, 31 January 1941.

Rebel Sound charts decades of musical movements which have intercepted great times of war and chaos across the globe. This features Syrian death metal bands forced to flee their home country and stories of how a Belgrade station circumvented multiple attempts from the Serbian state to take them off air. Later in the year, they will revisit the 1990s Eastern Bloc rave scene, an era of great misery and trouble but also a golden era of underground creativity and DIY attitude. 

“Telling stories this way allows our visitors to engage with current events in non-traditional ways, but they should still come away with an understanding of how conflicts can destabilise regions, tear apart societies and force people to flee from their homes.” — Emily Charles

Part of the wider display is What Remains, curated in partnership with Historic England, which explores why cultural heritage is attacked during war. Using IWM’s own personal story as its starting point, Art in Exile uncovers how cultural treasures in British institutions like the IWM and the British Museum were evacuated and protected during WWII. 

Rebel Sounds and Rebel Sounds Live are part of IWM London’s Culture Under Attack season, open 5 July 2019 – 5 January 2020. All Rebel Sounds Live events at IWM London are free, but booking for talks is required via IWM’s website

Lead image credit: Photograph of Exeter after the 1942 Baedeker raids. Features in What Remains