An adapted version of a review for the Journal of Army Historical Research
This is an exhibition that will spark a great deal of thought and conversation, both about the history of camouflage and the purpose of the Imperial War Museum.
‘Camouflage’ has four sections – concealment, distortion, deception and advertisement. They chart the rise of camouflage over the twentieth century and its spread into the worlds of popular culture and fashion. Camouflage is defined very broadly, so that it includes not only a variety of DPM, but also the ‘escape boots’ manufactured for British aircrew, which could be cut down to resemble civilian shoes. A particular theme is the involvement of artists in the development of camouflage.
There are many points of interest for the expert and the non-expert alike. ‘Camouflage’ would therefore make a suitable excursion for readers and their long-suffering partners, friends and families. The exhibition opens with a greatcoat spattered with paint by the French artist and soldier Eugene Corbin: the progenitor of today’s camouflage uniforms. Towards its end is the camouflaged kit produced by the American army for pregnant soldiers. Even those familiar with the dazzle-patterns applied to British ships during the First World War will probably not have considered how these were developed. Here are the drawings and model ships produced to test out different designs. The latter are arrayed like a particularly well organised herd of miniature zebra in the corner of the room: each a work of art in its own right. ‘Deception’ features not only detailed descriptions of the creation of fake trees to act as observation posts on the Western Front during the First World War, but also amusing footage of British troops inflating, and then manoeuvring a decoy tank in 1944. Several reviewers have noted Roland Penrose’s slide of his lover Lee Miller, semi-naked and camouflaged, which was used to spice up his Home Guard lectures.
As this run through suggests, the exhibition is thought provoking. The visitor will certainly leave with a sense of the different methods and aims of camouflage. The intention, however, appears to be stimulatory rather than didactic. The narrative arc and analysis are inconclusive and unconvincing. Whilst the exhibition begins with the First World War, it is not until ‘Deception’ that we encounter a selection of the uniforms in which soldiers went to war in 1914. Yet in this context it surely matters that the British were already wearing khaki. It is in the interaction between weapons and optical technology, tactics and doctrine that we should seek changing behaviour. The First World War did not lead to the invention of camouflage, particularly not when it is defined as broadly as it is here. It did place new emphasis on concealment, and it resulted in a lot more things to conceal. Hiding an infantryman is relatively easy. Hiding a tank – particularly from the air – requires a bit more effort. Those camouflage schemes that have created the best artefacts were not necessarily those that worked. The dazzle patterns were obviously very exciting for the artists who created them. Whether they actually led to a reduction in ship losses is another matter: as one caption notes, it was convoys, not paint-jobs, that really mattered. Similarly, although the individual effort that went into creating fake trees on the Western Front was enormous, the times when they could be used were really few and far between. There is the root here for a really interesting discussion about how artists were mobilised for total war, but it is not taken. How useful was their military contribution, as opposed to the propaganda value of their enlistment? Was this just a particularly cushy number for artists, or did they genuinely want to make best use of their skills? Were they better utilised than, say, teachers or designers or accountants? The visitor is not encouraged to get beyond the surface of the exhibits and to question why they were produced and why they have survived.
How much this matters probably depends on what we expect. For me, ‘Camouflage’ functions better as an art exhibition than a historical one. It rather wants to be both, however, and perhaps as a result is satisfying as neither. The sheer range of material on display here makes it difficult for more nuanced interpretations to be explored (Online note: this was something that Brian Sewell also commented on in his review). Sadly, that also means that the final section, on the emergence of camouflage into the world of fashion, is dealt with cursorily. The exhibition is content to show us some disparate examples of camo-fashion rather than to explore processes and attitudes. There is an excellent exhibition to be made about the leakage between military and popular clothing in the era of total war and mass production. This is not it.
Given its subject matter, ‘Camouflage’ is surprisingly easy to find. Not only is the advertising poster, featuring a boot and a high-heeled shoe, displayed outside the IWM and all over the Underground, but it has also been used to decorate a selection of London taxis. The Museum plainly takes the need to publicise ‘Camouflage’ very seriously – as I left, I was approached by a market researcher employed to question visitors about why they’d come and what their reactions had been. How far did I agree that the IWM was ‘a place for culture and fashion’? Well, I do my best to dress up when I use the Reading Room, but I’m going against the tide, I’d have to say.
Excessive cynicism may be unappealing, but it is worth applying some critical thought to what this exhibition means for the Museum and its public. Curators and managers have a responsibility, of course, to bring in visitors and to generate funds – especially if it is these that provide for the Museum’s more scholarly activities. (Online note: it is worth having a read of the funding agreement between the IWM and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.) A museum of war may feel a particular need to attract those who would not normally consider entering its doors, although if this is the intention behind the references to ‘fashion’, it could be interpreted as pretty patronising.
As readers of this blog will know, I am all in favour of a broadened definition of war and military history – all wars affect the societies that fight them, the total wars of the twentieth century particularly so, and that inter-relation is a necessary and appropriate subject for exhibition, discussion and research. Nevertheless, it is slightly curious that in a year that marks the 250th anniversary of the Sepoys’ Rebellion, the 90th anniversary of Passchendaele and the 25th anniversary of the Falklands, the headline exhibition at a museum about Imperial War should focus on camouflage. It is noteworthy that this is the second major IWM exhibition in a row on the ‘softer’ edge of warfare. Its predecessor, The Animals’ War, was advertised to younger visitors with a trail of pawprints across the floor of the Museum’s entrance hall. If this is the cost of enjoying the Museum’s Reading Room, it is one I am willing to pay, but the way in which such exhibitions turn war into entertainment is troubling from a liberal as well as a military historical perspective. The Museum does the public and the nation no good if in seeking to broaden its appeal, it makes war a matter of fur and fashion, protection and diversion. These symptoms are important, but they are not the disease. Wars are about dying and killing. However hard that is to portray, those who obscure it do our post-military society no favours.