A guest post by Gallery Assistant and resident Spanish Civil War expert Andy Hoyle
Every year the People’s History Museum utilises the quiet weeks in early January to replace their impressive banner collection on display. Banners that have been proudly exhibited for the past 12 months are returned to storage, to be substituted on the galleries by replacements. Often, those going on display are new acquisitions (such as the current Fakenham Labour Party banner on Main Gallery One) or are being exhibited to the public for the first ever time.
The museum does this for two reasons. The first reason is that many of the banners sustain wear and tear. The second is that the museum has such an extensive collection (the largest collection of trade union and political banners in the world – over 400!) and cannot possibly exhibit all of them at one time.
It is not just banners that are annually changed however. This year, a number of Spanish refugee drawings from the late 1930s are displayed on Main Gallery One. Although they may not be as immediately eye-catching as the neighbouring banners they are just as fascinating.
The Spanish Civil War was fought between 1936 and 1939 and is often seen as a precursor to World War II. The conflict was a fight between democracy and autocracy. Although Nazi Germany and fascist Italy supported the rebel leader Franco (and provided troops, aircraft, tanks and artillery) Britain remained neutral throughout the conflict. ‘Appeasement’ was the watchword of British politics in the 1930s.
By 1937 Spanish republican heartlands were coming under attack. The Basque country in particular was subject to heavy bombardment, Guernica being just one example of a city effectively razed to the ground by aerial attacks. Despite such conditions, a number of Spanish children from republican areas managed to board ships bound for England.
Arriving on the south coast, many of the young refugees were placed in camps and were soon adopted by sympathetic British families. The drawings currently on display at the museum are sketched by these children, some as young as 3 or 4. The vivid detail is telling. Not only do they depict the true nature of mechanised warfare in the 1930s, they reveal just how close ‘total war’ was to the civilian population.
The grizzly and macabre depictions in some of them (notably the bodies floating along the river Ebro) are too disturbing to have been made up by children this young. Others, such as the shaded republican soldier or the ‘Mosca’ aeroplane are beautiful pieces of art in themselves.
These drawings are important for historic, political, artistic and also human reasons. I really do think that they are well worth seeing!