Listen: Professor Robyn Sloggett in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
Flanders poppies have a special connection with World War One. Imagine the surprise art restoration expert, Professor Robyn Sloggett, got when she opened a letter from a soldier on the Western Front and out fell dried and pressed poppies from that battle field.
On Open House she discussed the stories that are embodied in such simple objects and issues of culture, ownership and identity that arise in times of conflict. She has been an Open House guest before and always has a very thoughtful perspective.
Professor Sloggett, from the University of Melbourne, is the Director of the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation. It is the only facility of its kind in Australia. An internationally recognised conservator herself, Professor Sloggett has qualifications in Art History, Philosophy and Cultural Materials Conservation and holds the Cripps Foundations Chair of Cultural Materials Conservation.
There are many aspects to the destruction of war. There is of course, the human toll of soldiers and civilians who are killed or injured, physically or mentally. That ripples out to their family friends and wider community. It is part of what makes personal family momentos precious. Wars also involve the destruction of landscape, structures, buildings and objects.
Often there are deliberate attempts to destroy people and their cultural identity. That reached a hideous zenith with the repugnant decision of the Nazi state to eliminate the Jewish population in the concentration camps of the Holocaust.
The Nazis plundered massive amounts of art and other valuables from Jewish families and had very definite ideas about what items were valuable. Professor Sloggett says the Nazi ideology considered some cultural artifacts worthy and kept meticulous records of them but there were some items that they found intrinsically offensive.
“They destroyed people’s identity for sure. Also the Germans certainly wanted to hold this plunder. They knew it was valuable.” she says.
Destroyed What Didn’t Fit the ‘Ideal’
“But things like what they called ‘primitive’ art they would destroy. So things like contemporary artists of the time who referenced African sculpture – they would destroy those works. Of course, they also burned books and archives as well.” Professor Sloggett explains.
“But they kept cultural material that belonged to people, particularly if it was valuable. If it was valuable they recorded it in great detail. The Germans kept the best records. When it came to repatriating the items those records made it easier to identify who it belonged to. However in many Jewish families there was simply no one left to claim it” she says.
“We work here [at the Grimwade Centre] with the Jewish Holocaust Centre. What is interesting is the material held by families. It might be a button from a concentration camp uniform or a letter that was buried and retrieved later.
“By themselves they don’t seem to be much but you take them into a place like the Holocaust Centre and they do oral histories with people about the objects. Then you start to build this really rich history of a group of people the Nazis tried to disappear completely. If you get people talking about it, the objects start to live and their stories become part of the meta-narrative about what happened.” says Professor Sloggett.
A Letter From the ‘Great War’
She was very excited some years ago in the 1980’s when a University of Melbourne archivist approached her about a letter from a First World War soldier that had been given to the archives by a family.
“It was a letter that had been written by their brother to his parents. When we opened it, the letter – the family had kept it- it had poppies from Flanders fields that he had pressed and dried. And of course, those poppies have become so symbolic. There is the great John McCrae poem about them. Also there is how those poppies become part of the fundraising for returned soldiers. At the moment the Australian War Memorial have all those thousands of knitted poppies out the front.” says Professor Sloggett
“So I opened it and here’s these poppies that were directly from Flanders fields that had been held by that family, they had kept them all that time. They are in our archive now. We very carefully mounted the poppies and we keep them in the dark so they don’t fade.” she says.
Many people have momentos, such as letters, photographs or uniforms related to the war service of relatives and Robyn Sloggett has some advice about how to look after them.
“The first thing is to identify and document items. If you remember the story, write it down so the story can be passed down with the object. These things have been held in families because they have stories that meant something to someone. If you lose the story, you lose so much of the value of that object. Documenting the story is part of the conservation, that’s the intangible part.” explained Professor Sloggett.
Keep moths and silverfish away
“The tangible part is to make sure if it is a letter, that it is not under the bed where the silverfish can get at it. If it is a uniform, that its kept away from moths – those basic, first aid, housekeeping aspects which everybody knows – It’s hardly rocket science! You don’t need to be a conservator to understand that kind of thing, but it’s amazing the number of things that come to conservation because people didn’t think about the moths in the cupboard or the silverfish under the bed.” she says
A sketch of wild poppies growing in front of Mont Kemmel. Photo credit: Australian War Memorial.
Famous War Poem
‘In Flanders Fields’, the poem by the Canadian officer Lieutenant Colonel J.M. McCrae (1872–1918) is well known. McCrae was a professor of medicine at McGill University before the war. A gunner in the Boer War, he served as medical officer with the first Canadian contingent in the First World War and wrote this poem at the second battle of Ypres in 1915.
He was serving with a Field Artillery Brigade in Ypres. His close friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed during battle on May 2nd 1915. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance at an Advanced Dressing Station outside Ypres. This location is today known as the John McCrae Memorial Site. There is more information about the importance of the poppy on the Australian War Memorial site.
McCrae wrote his poem as a way of expressing his anguish at the loss of his friend. However, he was dissatisfied with the poem when he finished it and threw it away. Fortunately, one of his fellow officers retrieved it and was so moved that he sent it to Punch magazine in London. It was published anonymously by Punch on 8 December 1915.
McCrae later became a casualty of the war, dying of pneumonia and cerebral meningitis in January 1918. On January 28, 1918, he died at the military hospital in Wimereux and was buried there with full military honours. His poem has endured as a symbol of the sacrifice of those who fought during the First World War and is particularly identified with the losses around the Ypres salient.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae (1872–1918)
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