What Remains review

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4 out of 5 stars
What Remains review
'Exeter after the 1942 Baedeker Raids' © Historic England

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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On November 14 1940, Coventry Cathedral was almost completely destroyed by incendiary bombs. The ruins remain, right next to Basil Spence’s brilliant modernist replacement, in what functions as a memorial and a symbol of Coventry’s commitment to peace. If you’ve never been, go. It’s a genuinely incredible place.

Coventry Cathedral and the Frauenkirche in Dresden – the German city it twinned with as an act of reconciliation – feature prominently in this exhibition describing how culture of all kinds fares during times of conflict (in summary: generally not very well). Forming part of the Imperial War Museum’s three-part ‘Culture Under Attack’ season, ‘What Remains’ comes at its subject from a number of angles: what gets destroyed, why it gets destroyed and what happens afterwards.

Take a step back and the different parts don’t quite add up to a coherent argument; although, to be fair, this is probably one of those topics where a case-by-case approach is required to gain any insight. This exhibition is more about gathering together a long list of examples that together demonstrate how questions of culture are almost impossible to disentangle from any true conversation about war.

Along with many images of destruction on a mega-scale, including the infamous detonation of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the smashing of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, some of the most affecting sections relate to acts on a more personal or individual level. There’s the carefully preserved charred remains of a book from Leuven’s incinerated library, an official document listing artworks seized from specific Jewish families by the Nazis, and a video clip showing artefacts in Mosul Museum being thwacked with sledgehammers.

It’s a sense of pointlessness that really dominates the last of these. Blasting a building accidentally in a bombing raid is one thing, but the idea of actually bothering to take a hammer to an ancient statue is just… sad. Which is pretty much the overriding feeling of this exhibition. Humans, eh? We can’t be trusted with nice things.

By: Rosemary Waugh

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