Last month an exciting new exhibition telling the story of World War II conscientious objectors opened at the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle. Conscience Matters is the result of a partnership between National Museums Scotland, and a University of Edinburgh project led by Dr. Toby Kelly, and features material from our collections.Discussion and planning for the exhibition started in 2016, so it is satisfying for us to see the project finally complete and open to the public.
The exhibition uses some material from our Friends Ambulance Unit and Central Board of Conscientious Objectors pamphlet collections, displaying some FAU badges, medals and medical supplies, and focuses on one FAU member in particular, Peter Tennant.
Peter Tennant was with the China Convoy section of the Friends Ambulance Unit during World War II. From a prominent Scottish family, before the war he had been working in London housing associations. While working with the FAU he was part of the group who became trapped by the advancing Japanese army in Burma, and were forced to walk a treacherous escape route to India with the American General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell. His photo albums from his time in China show both a fascination with the street life and landscapes of China, as well as documenting the people they treated and their illnesses (sometimes with graphic detail!).
Peter Tennant went on to a varied life after the war, working again in housing, then in farming and forestry. Towards the end of his life, he became involved with peace work in Northern Ireland.
Tennant was chosen as the museum wanted to focus on Scottish stories; after consultation with his family, we arranged for his FAU photo albums to be digitised, so that some of the images could form part of the display. The exhibition also looks at other Scottish COs including Scottish author, Fred Urquhart, and poet, Edwin Morgan.
A Scottish Friend went along to the opening night and had the following to say:
The exhibition is in a relatively small space but it is expertly produced to give maximum information, without clutter. It gives an overview of conscientious objection in World War II, with further details presented through individual stories, including that of Scottish Friend Peter Tennant, who joined the Friends Ambulance Unit. Interactive technology allows access to documents, letters, photographs, poems and artwork which enrich the experience and throughout the exhibition there are several references to Quaker work and there are Quaker memorabilia on display. The exhibition is well publicised and I think it will succeed in opening up public awareness and understanding of part of our history which is often overlooked. It is well worth a visit and the views from Edinburgh Castle ramparts are spectacular!
We have been increasingly engaging with opportunities to loan material from our collections to other institutions for exhibition. As we do not have a dedicated gallery or museum space at Friends House, it is a great way of ensuring material, especially our artworks and objects, can be displayed and viewed. It is also a wonderful chance for people in other parts of the UK to see our material – so far, Edinburgh is the furthest journey our items have made!
We believe these projects are a vital tool for public engagement. While they take a lot of time and energy to plan and implement, we can enjoy the knowledge that large numbers of people are seeing items from our collection, in a way that would not be possible at Friends House. The visitor numbers for Edinburgh Castle last year were over 2 million! If even a small proportion of those visitors view the exhibition, we have reached many people, from all over the world, with stories of Quaker war resistance.
The exhibition runs until January 2020. We hope it will raise awareness of the peace work of Friends, and of the collections available for research here in the Library. For more information, see the NMS website here: https://www.nms.ac.uk/exhibitions-events/exhibitions/national-war-museum/conscience-matters/