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Poetic pathways to peace

Dr Maria Castrillo and Rebecca Simpson introduce Senate House Library’s new exhibition, ‘Writing in Times of Conflict’. It highlights the power of words to achieve peace and reconciliation in response to conflicts – a very topical theme and quite extensively covered in literature.

How did you approach the library’s collections and made the decision on what to include?

It is very topical and that is incredibly important when designing exhibitions that speak to both an academic and public audience. We wanted to create a space for people to reflect and consider the power of words in the quest for peace and the stories of those that tell them. However, those words in isolation can seem somewhat idealistic without the context in which they were in, and so it was important for us to show the conflict they responded to, and the courage needed to write those words.

In terms of agreeing the time span to cover, that was a difficult choice to make. Senate House Library has a vast collection of items relating to peace spanning centuries and covering several parts of the world. All of them were considered but we needed to think about how we wanted people to experience and engage with the exhibition – and remember that we have one room to display material and not all 19 floors of Senate House.

Ultimately, we wanted people to be able to relate to a very diverse range of material showing different voices, and for the material to have some resonance today and inspire a new love for writing. Whether it’s a new student just starting school or university comparing the brave words of ordinary women at Greenham Common next to contemporary campaigner Greta Thunberg, or someone older who may well have experienced some of the conflicts, we wanted people to rediscover the power of words. Therefore, it had to be thought-provoking, providing time and space for reflection on how these stories can help navigate a path for peace today and in future.

One of the central questions is whether the ‘pen is mightier than the sword’. Did you come to a conclusion while putting the programme together?

Yes, our final answer is…There is no simple or right answer. In selecting the items, we can see many powerful words that still have resonance today when the conflict has stopped and so in that sense the pen has been more influential. And yet many of these words and stories were cut short when authors sacrificed their freedom and often their lives when striving for peace, defeated by the weapons and the harsh reality of conflict. A good example of this is Rodolfo Walsh’s hugely powerful letter criticising the Argentine Military Junta in 1977, which Walsh sent for publication in local newspapers and foreign press. He was assassinated the very next day.

Of course, some conflicts continue today and several items in the exhibition show how words of peace and liberty have been disregarded when power is won. One example is a Robert Mugabe supporters’ cap designed to celebrate Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, which encapsulates hope for a peaceful future and a reminder that abuse of power can lead to further conflict.

What are the key start and end dates for the exhibits on show, and are they tied to specific events?

Many contemporary peace movements, such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), were established in 1919 after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that brought about the formal end to the Frst World War. With that key moment for peace, it felt like a good place to begin. We wanted to bring stories together into a ‘snapshot or timeline’ over the past 100 years to explore the power of words and to use the exhibition as a public space for considering the act of writing in its many forms to learn from them as we face new conflicts in 2019.

There are famous works of literature on show from authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Carol Ann Duffy. What else can visitors expect to see?

We have many unique photos, drawings, letters and posters from peace activists, journalists, well-known authors and community activists in our collections. One of the most striking items in the exhibition is an original letter from Virginia Woolf in her own hand describing the World War Two bombers flying overhead. It is shown alongside one of few surviving copies of the Nazi black book containing a list of nearly 3,000 people to be targeted by the Gestapo – including Virginia Woolf.

We also have photos of the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common showing activists holding hands around the compound, and a 10,000-strong crowd in protest following an appeal by the International Peace Campaign in 1938. We also have The Left Unity posters relating to Brexit and Trump which are highly visual and powerful objects. They are a key example of the intense polarisation of society today, and the response from emerging contemporary political movements.

These items from our archives help paint the picture and show how words have been used and communicated. We have four themes in the exhibition: Writing for Peace, Writing in Wartime, Writing from Exile and Writing in Protest. Each uses the power of words in different ways in the name of peace.

The series of events will complement the exhibition. What are the highlights for the next six months?

We are building our events programme around the four themes in the exhibition with film screenings, writing workshops and activities with authors and journalists who have campaigned for peace during conflicts. We can’t reveal our programme just yet but watch this space for details of some exciting events when term starts again.

Finally, which particular book from the exhibition would you recommend to present-day politicians and why?

Tough question. There is a book entitled, Challenge to Death (1934), which contains essays against the looming Second World War from influential literary and non-literary figures on a number of topics relating to warfare and peace.

Storm Jameson [the author who worked tirelessly on behalf of exiled European writers] took it upon herself to edit it and see it to publication and it contains essays from J B Priestley and Rebecca West, among others. Given the variety of voices and the many different topics it covers in light of what would be one of the biggest world wars ever seen, we would hope it would be particularly thought provoking for politicians. And maybe reading it alongside Greta Thunberg’s new book of her speeches [No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference] that have influenced a global movement, maybe we really can give peace a chance.

Rebecca Simpson is public engagement officer at Senate House Library, and Dr Maria Castrillo is the library’s head of special collections and engagement.