I stood less than 30cm away from one of the guns carried by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassins, yesterday.
The gun was part of the Imperial War Museum’s In Memoriam show, which is currently being taken down (so sorry, you’ve missed it), and I was there on behalf of The Women’s Library to ensure the safe transit of some World War One artifacts back to Old Castle Street.
It struck me, as the white gloved museum technicians (that’s not their official title – I just can’t think what that official title would be. Professional Case Emptiers?) began the logistical nightmare that is moving around a very famous and old gun, that this small metal object, less than a metre away, may have prompted one of the longest, most bitter periods of human slaughter in history. The thought amazed and revolted me.
I happened to mention this exciting brush with historical infamy to the Momart couriers who transported me back to the library.
“Oh yes? We have a right to transport arms too,” said one of the drivers. “We recently brought over Anish Kapoor’s canon for his Royal Academy show.”
Now that, my friends, is a job worth having. All day these men – who are practising artists working as couriers to pay the rent – drive precious and priceless works of art around the country, with all the drama and glamour of a bank heist but none of the whole getting-arrested-and-possibly-shot drawbacks.
During his first day at work, one of the couriers actually had to pack up this:
Can you imagine? On my first day I got nervous about breaking the kettle.
Now, art couriers aside, I find the Imperial War Museum a little unsettling. As I walked around the tanks and shells in the atrium I couldn’t help but feel slightly uncomfortable, especially as a group of very young (I mean, eighteen at the most) soldiers were having their photos taken next to these objects in their full military uniforms. To me, that is like visiting an Imperial Slavery Museum, and having Primark factory workers getting their photos taken next to really dangerous, ill-lit sewing machinery.
War, in all its brutal, wasteful horror is still happening all around the world. Much as I’d like to think that the exhibits at The Imperial War Museum serve as a warning to us about the folly of war, I think the truth is that many visitors do not see war in those terms. The people who I saw at The Imperial War Museum were intrigued, excited and in some cases proud to be surrounded by the weaponry of recent and not-so-recent conflicts.
Which, I suppose, makes me a hypocrite. Because I was, undeniably, fascinated to stand beside the gun that (possibly) shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand.