In Conversation With… Michael St Maur Sheil

21 April 2017 | Pamela Linden

Left to right: Mike Sheil (Photographer), Dr Matthew Naylor (President and CEO National WWI Museum and Memorial), Doran Cart (Senior Archivist)

Michael St Maur Sheil

Michael St Maur Sheil

In this month’s ‘In Conversation With’, we speak with acclaimed photographer Michael St Maur Sheil  about his latest exhibition examining American WWI troops, and his experience of touring the exhibition in the USA and UK.

Tell us about the project and how it has developed.

Our first exhibition was hosted by the French Senate in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris in April 2014 which we then transferred to St. James’s Park, London for the period of August to November.

In 2015 the Turkish government commissioned an exhibition which was mounted in Istanbul at the inauguration of their international commemorative programme for the Gallipoli centenary.

Then in 2016 with the support of the Royal British Legion we created Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace: SOMME 100 which was hosted by the City of London. This was the first time that a photographic exhibition has been held in the Guildhall Yard: at the same time the City commissioned an associated exhibition on Verdun which was probably the only exhibition on the subject held in the U.K. We then transferred this exhibition to Ireland where it was mounted as a cross-border reconciliation project in both Belfast and Dublin and we were especially delighted to be asked to extend the show in Dublin by two month

This year the U.S. National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City have commissioned the creation of Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace: The Doughboys 1917-18 to introduce people to the story of American involvement in WWI. This is an especially challenging project as Standard8, our exhibition designers and builders, were required to mount two identical exhibitions simultaneously on 6 April in both the U.S. and the U.K. These two exhibitions will now tour five cities in both countries so I feel that we have created a rather special link between the two countries. In addition I am mounting two small exhibitions, one in France and the other which will open in Passendale Church in June.

What do you want people to know about WW1 and why?

The concept is very simple: the intended audience are people who have possibly have no interest in the First World and who would never undertake a visit to a museum or art gallery. We seek to achieve this by creating an outdoor photographic exhibition which is mounted in public places so that people just come across it and are hopefully drawn into the exhibition with the pictures act as a gateway through which they can visit the battlefields of WWI.

The content is simply landscape photographs of the battlefields, as they are today, combined with archive pictures and supporting text. We are not seeking to explain the history but are rather using stories to create a narrative that introduces the visitor to the subject and which hopefully encourage them to read further for themselves.

What does Centenary Partnership mean to you?

When I started working on this project in 2005, it was impossible to interest any but a few in the centenary and it was pretty lonely working without any response from official bodies. The Partnership was really the first official body who showed any interest and they have helped introduce me to other people and bodies who have similar aims and attitudes when it comes to centenary commemoration.

What does the centenary mean to you?

It means the completion of a project which I commenced, in collaboration with the late Prof. Richard Holmes, back in 2005 and thanks to the goodwill and support of some fantastic people, Field of Battle, Lands of Peace has established itself as the only international project which tries to involve other participant countries and the various exhibitions have now been seen by over five million people in eight different countries.

From the outset Richard and I were agreed that this work should accept that the war has passed from all living memory and become history. We felt that it was only the landscape that could tell the story of those tumultuous events but that it was a landscape where time and nature had healed the scars and created places of great beauty and tranquility. So these photographs are intended as a reflection on reconciliation, hence the title Fields of Battle – Lands of Peace. 

As a photographer it has been the most challenging and sustained assignment of my life and I have been the client from hell because I always knew when I wasn’t trying my hardest so to be honest I am looking forward to ‘the peace” in November 2018 when I can retire and concentrate of long walks with my greyhound.