Sometimes you just have to write…

In Flanders Field Museum

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow       Between the crosses, row on row" Poppies have become a symbol of remembrance of World War I

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row”
Poppies have become a symbol of remembrance of World War I

An effective museum doesn’t just display items drily in glass cases; an effective museum gives those items meaning to the people viewing them. It entertains, but it also makes visitors think. It gives the items an emotional weight.

The In Flanders Fields Museum in Gent, Belgium, is one of the most effective museums I’ve ever been to, and there aren’t many I’ve been to that fit my description: Ellis Island is another, as well as the Tenement Museum, both in New York City.

I’m not normally a museum person. I may find the topic interesting – modern art, say, or a particular period of history – but my attention span is short. An hour or so is generally the limit of my patience.

When my daughter was little, that was perfect. While my husband went through the museum item by item, reading, it seemed, every single explanatory sign, I would walk around with her, at her speed. Art museums were the best. We had a system: in each room of the museum, I’d ask her which piece she liked best. She’d study them all and choose one. So would I. Then she’d explain to me why it was her favorite, often making surprisingly astute observations. (Not surprising that she’s now in an art-related field: graphic design.)

I had heard that the In Flanders Fields Museum was good, but we chose to go there because of our son, Robert, who is even less of a museum person than I am. He did, however, shape this trip because of his interest in the world wars.

It did not disappoint. It was engaging, moving, personal, yet included a lot of information as well. Items were displayed in glass cases, but there were also, for example, interactive maps on which you could compare and superimpose current overhead images of battle locations with the overhead photos from the war, complete with clearly visible bomb craters and destroyed buildings.

One of the things this museum did well was to make the personal connection between the men and women involved in World War I in the Ypres Salient and the museum visitor. On entering, we were asked to enter basic information about ourselves in a computer, linked to an armband we’d been issued: our names, ages, genders and where we were from. That information was then used at various points in the museum to show the life stories of individuals who we were most likely to relate to. In my case, for instance, one of the profiles I got was of a woman from the US who worked as a nurse in field hospitals near Ypres toward the end of the war, and who died of a liver disease in 1918.

The only picture I took inside; it wasn't a very photographable museum. This shows items that were dug out of a muddy field quite recently.

The only picture I took inside; it wasn’t a very photographable museum. This shows items that were dug out of a muddy field quite recently.

Here and there throughout the museum were cases displaying the personal items of individual soldiers who died in the war: a personal diary, a small sketch pad, a photograph of the family that they carried with them. This personal touch works far better than numbers, such as how many people died on a particular day in a particular battle.

There were also films here and there with actors playing the parts of actual soldiers, looking straight at the camera, telling stories of their experiences: very dramatically presented against a black background, and speaking in their own languages. One group story-telling, involving an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Belgian and a German taking turns describing the Christmas truce of 1914, was particularly gripping. It nearly brought me to tears.

I was pleased to see, too, that the Germans were not presented as the enemy. Germany may have been the aggressor, but in these exhibits, the common soldiers – Germans, Belgians, French, English, as well as colonial conscripts from all over the world – were all equally victims of this war.

This row of buildings, seen from the tower above the museum, were all built in the early 1920's.

This row of buildings, seen from the tower above the museum, were all built in the early 1920’s.

A more subtle aspect of this museum is the layout. It’s in a reconstructed medieval market hall with vaulted high ceilings – pretty much all buildings in Ypres are rebuilt, since the city was flattened by the series of battles that raged in, around and above it. The various parts of the exhibit are scattered around a long, wide hall. There’s a sequence to some extent in that the stages of the battles in the Ypres Salient are chronologically placed, but the displays on different topics – uniforms, gas attacks, weaponry, communications, trench warfare, tunneling, and so on – do not seem to be in any particular sequence. There isn’t a single route to move through all of the exhibits; the viewer chooses her own path.

The effect of this, since everyone else in the museum is also choosing his or her own path, is a certain level of discomfort. I had to double back a couple of times, since following the exhibits more or less in a row on one side would lead me to skip exhibits elsewhere in the hall. I had to watch out for other people making unpredictable movements as well. It was a very subtle thing, but I suspect this was designed into the museum on purpose. One shouldn’t be too comfortable in a museum about something as horrifying, gruesome and costly (in terms of lives as well as money) as the battles in the Ypres Salient.

If you’re ever in Belgium, go to this museum. You’ll spend several hours if you find it as gripping as I did. You might cry. You’ll certainly get a much clearer idea of what the soldiers and civilians went through who were swept into the chaos of the Ypres Salient. And you’ll be much better able to resist the glorification of war that is presented so often in the media.


The Menin Gate is a memorial to all the Commonwealth soldiers buried in the Ypres Salient.

The Menin Gate is a memorial to all the Commonwealth soldiers buried in the Ypres Salient.

At the exit gates, we noticed a row of simple banners hanging down from the ceiling. Here, after reading about all of these horrors of war, I realized that the words on the banners were lists: lists of every war that’s been fought since World War I. And it was an impressively long list. The last banner ends with the Syrian war, but has ample space for more. We never learn.


3 comments on “In Flanders Field Museum

  1. Robert Tuttle
    August 5, 2013

    Wow Rachel, sounds like a fascinating place. My Grandfather, rest his soul, was in WWII and had a large collection of war photos along with some over seas stamps and currency collection from his travels through Egypt and such.

    It is so fascinating to go through all that stuff and see the history it presents.

    I think the reenactments are a great idea that inspire some visual learning about history. It’s too bad this one is so far away, me being in the southern U.S., I would love to check that place out. Thanks for sharing such great detail about your visit!

  2. Delia @ Blog Formatting
    August 5, 2013

    I am not much of a museum person myself, but this sounds like a great one indeed, Rachel.
    And I agree it’s so sad that we keep lots of room on the banners for other wars to come 😦

  3. Rachel Heller
    August 5, 2013

    It seems to me that the key is the emotional connection between the viewer and the object. You have that connection, Robert, because he was your grandfather. This museum creates that connection even though you don’t know the individual they’re portraying. Thanks for commenting!

    And you too, Delia, thanks for commenting!

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This entry was posted on August 4, 2013 by in Reviews, Travel and tagged , , , .
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