Ypres (Ieper), Belgium: In Flanders Fields Museum

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After visiting the IJzertoren, we stuck to the WWI theme by heading to Ypres; unwittingly arriving on the day of the Ypres Rally, which meant navigating around closed-off streets.  In Flanders Fields Museum is located in the centre of town (which was full of frituur carts on account of the rally, bonus!) in the attractive Cloth Hall, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in the war along with much of the rest of Ypres. Admission to the museum is  8 euros, which includes access to several other museums in Ypres (none of which we had time to visit, unfortunately), and a poppy wristband, which is the really the main gimmick.  At the start of the museum, you enter in some personal information into a computer (age, gender, country, etc.), which allows your museum experience to be personalised based on your life experiences.

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Scattered throughout the exhibits, you’ll find little scanners to scan your wristband with, which will bring up a screen of information on someone in the war who is a similar age, or from near your hometown, clearly designed to make you empathize with the soldiers (the closest they got to my hometown was through the story of a Belgian lady who emigrated to Detroit).  Though I found this element of the museum neat, it was nowhere near as powerful as actually looking at the possessions of soldiers who were killed in action, which were placed in glass cases along the walls.

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Unlike the IJzertoren, In Flanders Fields was very technologically orientated.  In addition to the wristbands, video screens were also placed throughout the museum, which projected actors playing soldiers, doctors, nurses, and townspeople onto the walls, so they could talk about their wartime experiences.  Because of this, the lighting was kept quite dim, which made reading some of the captions a bit difficult.  But, only a few of the cases had actual captions to read in the first place – most of the information was kept on yet more wristband scanning screens, which was fine if you had a display case to yourself, but if an area was quite crowded, you were left fairly clueless about the artefacts.  I presume this came about to facilitate the inclusion of more languages than they could have put on a physical sign, but I’m old-fashioned in my taste in museums, and would have preferred at least some basic signage to accompany the computers.

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The artefacts included the usual sort of war memorabilia – uniforms, armour, weapons, and other general kit.  As I mentioned above, the most poignant parts of the museum were the cases full of the belongings of deceased soldiers, which included things like photographs and snippets of letters written to family that never made it home. I wish there could have been more of that sort of thing, and slightly less gadgetry.  Still, some of the technological aspects were actually pretty cool, namely a huge map of Belgian battlefields that you could click on to see the changes in the landscape from 1914 to the present day.  The work Belgium has done to preserve the history and appearance of its towns is truly impressive, unlike some of the hideous post-war construction in other countries (er, like the UK).

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The focus of the museum was largely on combat and the experience of the average soldier, so there wasn’t too much on more specialist topics, like wartime medicine (though I see there’ll be a special exhibit on it next year).  They did have some pictures of injured soldiers and reconstructive surgery, but they were hidden, as were all the other “grisly” photographs, inside these weird tent-like structures, which were even darker than the rest of the museum, so it was quite difficult to look at them.  I understand this museum is aimed largely at schoolchildren, but I don’t think images of death should be hidden away; rather, I think it’s important for people to see the cost of war.  I think even putting them in a special section with a warning or something posted outside would have been a better choice than pasting them to the roof of a wigwam.

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The current special exhibition features art by Stephen Hurst relating to Ypres and his impressions of the First World War.  Most of it was surprisingly playful in tone, but I don’t think there was really enough signage to adequately explain why this was so.  The entire museum was on the upper floor of the building, as the ground floor was devoted to tourist information, and a shop that seemed to have a nice collection of relevant books, and a WWI deck of playing cards that I secretly wanted after noticing Woodrow Wilson was on one of the cards (I’m a complete sucker for presidential tat.  I still desperately want the Presidential Pez set, especially the lesser known presidents).

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Though the museum ostensibly told the story of WWI from a Flemish perspective, due to the personalised interactives, it felt like a more inclusive interpretation of the war than at the IJzertoren.  However, by taking a broader outlook, the history was by necessity far more general, so I suppose it just depends what sort of presentation you prefer.  Obviously, I like a specialised and more intimate approach, so I preferred IJzertoren.  I think In Flanders Fields often felt like it was trying too hard; it should have taken its cue from John McCrae’s eloquent (and eponymous) poem, and kept things simpler.  The rare moments where I was able to feel an emotional connection to the soldiers through the things they left behind were ultimately spoiled by the overuse of modern technology.  2.5/5; probably more enjoyable for the many children visiting than for adults.

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Whilst near Ypres, we also stopped to visit the restored Yorkshire Trench in an industrial estate outside of town. Though the underground part is closed off for safety reasons, it was interesting to be able to walk through the trench, to get an idea of the dimensions of it.  Our last stop of the day was Tyne Cot cemetery, where over 10,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers are buried.  Tyne Cot has a visitor’s centre full of soldiers’ possessions, like at In Flanders Fields, but they are made even more moving by the fact that all the soldiers are buried right there.  Although the visit was marred somewhat by the British schoolchildren who were allowed to run screaming through the cemetery and clamber all over the monuments, I still think everyone should visit at least one of the war cemeteries, as staring at thousands of identical graves really drives home the human scale of the devastation.  It was quite a sombre day overall, but I’m glad I finally got to experience Ypres.

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