The Leeds Library Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery is just that, a treasure in the midst of a thriving campus. Developed for the centenary of the armistice in November, the exhibition Goodbye to All That? was curated by Professor Alison Fellalongside PhD researchers Alexander Shaw and Ellis Boyle. The exhibition itself is separated thematically into three areas revolving widely on the stories of Leeds men, women and children who were affected not just during the war itself, but the aftermath and the trauma many were left with. The political, personal and social legacies of the war are explored through the personal effects and photographs housed in Special Collections.
The first section of the exhibition focusses on the personal stories of men from Leeds who not only fought in the war but were injured in combat. An intriguing focus, the development of plastic surgery is a key element into recognising the inherent anxieties that many had after their disfigurement and whether they would be accepted back at home. The stages Reginald Evans’ facial reconstruction after he was shot in the jaw is an incredible resource into not only the history of medicine but the history of mental illness and opens a new and more personal insight into the lives of those who fought and their families. Letters, postcards and trinkets are displayed alongside their pictures, almost resurrecting their stories past the point of sympathy into empathy. The desperate struggles for wounded veterans to renegotiate their place in society and within their families.
The exhibition also provides a perception of the women back at home who were trying to reorient themselves from trauma and grief. The stories of the women and children who experienced the war in Leeds are revealed in an incredible display of nuance and empathy. The women who undertook roles that were before deemed only suitable for men are often regurgitated in the same way; this exhibition, however, manages to express their stories in such a way that their lives come into a clarity that is blinding. Not just nurses and land girls, the women who had to step into more ordinary jobs to keep the country functioning are often forgotten under the praising acknowledgement of other professions. Operating lifts, conducting trams and other such work alongside the more widely known occupations are acknowledged and it is a refreshing element. The more specific stories, like that of Gladys Tidmarsh and Ethel Robin Clowes, are highlighted through their preserved belongings: medals, certificates and letters all coalesce into a collective tale of loss, bravery and sheer willpower.
The final display highlights the alterations to the landscape, not topographically but economically and politically. The post-war society was a thriving influence for novels, poetry and art. Selections of magazines and toys reveal the lives of the children during the war and the nationalistic stories they were told, but not the personal ones if their father returned home. One of the most significant aspects to this section of the exhibition would undoubtedly be the history of the over 200,000 Belgian refugees who were brought over during the war but the hostile rejection after 1918. The exhibition manages to capture not only the personal stories of those who lived, but to highlight the similar political narratives that as a society we still face today.
The Goodbye to All That? Exhibition is an achievement of startling clarity and nuance. It allows the audience to not just read their experiences, but to understand their lives in more depth through the sheer detail and effort built into the exhibition’s foundations. As the culmination of years of dedicated research and exertion, it is a credit not just to its curators and the Treasures staff, but the University and the city. All contributing staff deserve the utmost praise for the sheer excellence and personal depth and I would highly recommend visiting it.