One of the bloodiest battlefields during the four years of World War I was located in and around Ypres, in Flanders, Belgium. The prosperous market town was completely destroyed during the War. Its most impressive symbol and landmark, the magnificent 13th-century Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) overlooking the Market Square, was burned down in the early part of the war.
In recognition of its terrible history, Ypres embraced the importance of remembrance; through the construction of the Menin Gate Memorial, the ritual of the Last Post ceremonies, the reconstruction of the Cloth Hall, and the creation of the In Flanders Fields Museum.
Named in honour of the famous poem by Canadian doctor Capt. John McCrae, the Museum is located in the meticulously reconstructed Cloth Hall. It is one of the finest museums of any kind I’ve visited, and offers an excellent opportunity to help educate oneself and one’s children about WWI, and about what life as a citizen and soldier would have been like at that time.
Upon entry, each visitor is given a keycard to swipe at several stations throughout the Museum. The keycard represents the identity of one person who lived during WWI; a soldier, nurse, child, doctor, town resident. As you make your way through the Museum, you learn more about the individual’s life and situation, and towards the end of the visit, whether he/she survived the war or not.
We found this interactive connection to be a wonderful way of learning about actual people and their wartime experiences. So much of the history we study (in school anyway) is dates, locations and big events. These are important, but it is so valuable and memorable to realize how ordinary people were affected by them.
The Museum offers a multi-sensory experience that can be overwhelming, especially for young children. There are large photographic displays, timeline charts, movies, weaponry displays, and mementos from the war. There is also an important audio component; the singing of famous wartime songs, and unexpectedly, bombs flying overhead and exploding at the other end of the Museum. Everyone jumps the first time that happens.
Equally as disturbing is the poetry display area, where clear plexiglass pipes with gas masks suspended within fill slowly with green gas, while the poem Dulce et Decorum Est is read over the speaker. It creates a memory that is meant to linger long after you leave.
Another area where parents may wish to be cautious is the recreation of a scene during the battle of Passchendaele. This part of the Museum can be bypassed if desired, but if you choose to enter the space, the 10-minutes of multimedia activities go on beneath, around and over you, just as they would have during an actual battle. While there are no graphic scenes of violence, the experience is disturbing. It may have contributed to two sleepless nights for our 11-year old, who is at the age of understanding what he witnessed, but found it difficult to come to terms with the reality behind it all.
In Flanders Fields Museum is an outstanding facility that presents the many and complicated aspects of the Great War in an interesting and educational way, to all age groups and knowledge levels. If you’re planning a visit to Belgium, don’t miss a visit to Ypres and the Museum.