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Illinois Holocaust Museum explores British homefront during World War II

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If the latest traveling exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center feels a bit different than others, that’s by design.

Design, in fact, is an operative word for “Keep Calm and Carry On: Textiles on the Home Front in WWII Britain” – design of period clothing, beautifully-stitched patriotic scarves, home furnishings and more.

While the idea of bringing this exhibit to the museum initially raised eyebrows — some wondered whether it was the right fit for the museum  — don’t make the mistake of casting “Keep Calm” as a mere fashion show or furniture display.

Tucked within the show’s aesthetics of vibrant dresses and furniture, tablecloths and fashion magazines is an important chapter in World War II history.

Without Britain’s home front effort, without the country withstanding Germany’s devastating assault from above, World War II could have ended differently, Museum Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Arielle Weininger said.

“Churchill in his speeches was very clear about the fact that if Britain would have fallen, all of Europe would have fallen,” she said. “If Britain had fallen, there would have been no place for us to lead the D-Day invasions into France. And there might not have been the liberation of Europe.”

But there is another distinguishing reason the spaciously-laid-out exhibition, which runs through Jan. 26, belongs here. The museum’s focus has always been much wider in scope than the almost incomprehensible details of World War II genocide, although it has always captured historic monumental inhumanity powerfully.

Weininger emphasized that not every traveling exhibition can or should be about atrocities against Eastern European Jews; indeed, the museum’s basement space over the last four-and-a-half years has been host to an eclectic array of programming that consistently educates and elucidates about responses to oppression and brutality. 

“People are surprised that this exhibit is here at the Illinois Holocaust Museum,” Weininger said. “I do not find it surprising. I’m actually very happy that it’s here. This is the first exhibition where we have specifically looked at Britain during the war time.”

British Consul General of Chicago Stephen Bridges, who attended Sunday’s opening, is also happy it’s here.

“I don’t think we should just get pigeon-holed about one specific time in history no matter how powerful or however significant it is to the modern world,” he said. “It is about the pain that humans can inflict on each other, and I think exhibitions like this can show the strength of people.”

“Stay Calm” is also the first “fine arts” exhibition of sorts in this space. It qualifies as that because three sets of scarves, meticulously detailed and representing different British home front periods, are exquisitely rendered as are the dresses and other fabrics on display.

This exhibition has a different look and feel to it as well. More opened up in the tradition of art exhibitions, it takes viewers from Britain’s pre-war period through the war and to post-war victory.

It is peppered along the way with videos — including a huge “video cube” reflecting four-sided propaganda footage from the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Information, as well as blown-up photos of Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Queen Elizabeth and King George walking over rubble after a German blitz.

How Britain responded and survived such devastating years — before the United States joined forces — is really the heart and soul of the museum’s new exhibition. It aims to capture a seminal point in World War II history, not on the battlefield or in concentration camps, but in Britain’s own home.

Doses of British humor and the iron-willed spirit of the British people at such a pivotal time for the world are palpable throughout the exhibition.

“Without the sacrifices being made by the British people, Britain wouldn’t have survived for the years it was being bombarded by Germany and would not have held out,” Weininger said. As she noted, the Americans did not enter the war until two years after the Battle of Britain.

These sacrifices are remembered in the exhibition through the artistry and spirit of the Brits, but also through the inspirational words of their eloquent leader.

“We shall go on to the end,” Churchill famously said, which is reprinted as part of the exhibition. “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight...in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender...”

A small old-fashioned radio from that era with Churchill speeches seemingly coming from it sits just outside the beginning of the exhibition, casting just the right mood for visitors.

Bridges, from Plymouth in the United Kingdom, was a boy walking by a church damaged in World War II years after the war. He asked his father why the church wasn’t fixed, he recalled, and the answer he got could have been the very same one as to why “Stay Calm” is ideal for the museum’s newest exhibition.

“Because we need to remember,” Bridges’ father told him.

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