In Flanders Fields museum

You can only understand today's world by reflecting on yesterday

Interview with Dr. Dominiek Dendooven, researcher at the In Flanders Fields Museum

The In Flanders Fields Museum – named after the famous poem by Canadian soldier John McCrae – tells the historical story of the First World War in the province of West Flanders. It is located in the rebuilt Cloth Hall of Ypres, an important symbol of war and resurrection.

The museum also has a knowledge centre, which carries out historical research and organizes conferences about it – or supports them, as may be the case with your association or PCO’s conference. The driving force behind these initiatives is Dominiek Dendooven, doctor of history at the University of Kent and the University of Antwerp.

Dominiek Dendooven, researcher at the In Flanders Fields Museum

The war that made modern China and India

Dominiek Dendooven: “Wars and conferences have long gone hand in hand. The most important conference ever was surely the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles. That treaty, which still determines how our world looks today, is the subject of an international conference about the Middle East that we are organizing in September. You can only understand the current situation in that part of the world in the light of the 1919 conference. The promise to make Palestine a Jewish homeland, the failure to grant the Kurds a similar national homeland, the current borders between Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Syria – it all stemmed from that conference. It was the last time that Western powers divided the world amongst themselves, without taking into account the aspirations of the people on the ground.

You can only understand today’s world by reflecting on yesterday. One of my research areas is the 140,000 Chinese workers who came to Flanders during the First World War, and about whom I organized a five-day conference. China is now a world power. They are actively seeking moments in history when their country played a role on the international stage. The fact that those tens of thousands of Chinese workers were here has indirectly played an important role in the creation of modern China with its communist ideology.

Another example is India’s involvement in the First World War. Until 1914, the Indian elite and the nationalists of the Congress Party reasoned that: if we loyally support the British, then they will reward us with self-government after the war. The 1919 bloodbath in Amritsar (where British troops shot and killed hundreds of unarmed protesters, red.) and the Treaty of Versailles betrayed that trust. From that moment, the goal was a completely independent Indian republic.”

Scientists of the world unite

What is fascinating about Dr. Dendooven’s research is the unique cross-pollination: the themes of his conferences frequently span various disciplines.

“At our conference on the Spanish flu, historians were present as well as medics, virologists and biomedics. It is quite unique to bring these disciplines together. You get to see this fascinating clash between different conference cultures.

We also wanted to organize a conference for historians, art historians, archaeologists and architects on the reconstruction after the First World War. Unfortunately, it couldn’t go ahead due to corona, but the Flemish Government Architect would have been present, alongside policymakers who decide on how to organize the urban space. That is one of the strengths of a museum: you are not bound to a particular field. On the contrary: you have to look beyond the obvious and involve other disciplines.


You have to look beyond the obvious and involve other disciplines

In Flanders Fields Museum © Stad Ieper - Harold Naye

For example, I was once contacted by a Cornell University sinologist specialized in medieval Chinese poetry. She had heard that Tang dynasty poems had been found in the art made by Chinese workers in the trenches. She went on to author an academic article interpreting those poems.

Another example: our conference on chemical weapons brought together not only historians, but also a biologist interested in soil contamination, high-ranking military officers responsible for the storage of chemical weapons and doctors who treat victims of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria. A subject such as war is pre-eminently multidisciplinary, especially because the In Flanders Fields Museum is not a military museum. We approach war as a global, inclusive, socio-cultural human phenomenon.”

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