“Camouflage”

 March 23–November 18, 2007; Imperial War Museum London

The focus of this fascinating new exhibition is the development of camouflage over the 20th century. It addresses four functions: conceal, distort, deceive and (paradoxically) advertise. Visitors discover the role artists and naturalists have played in the creation of camouflage—inspiration for which sprang from such surprising sources as the cubist movement. Much has been drawn from studying the way animals either blend into their surroundings or deceive predators by appearing to be something different. The exhibition also looks to the future, specifically how technological advances will aid both detection and concealment—for example, how scientists are seeking to counter thermal imaging by developing a heat-diffusing material for uniforms.

The exhibition showcases a wide variety of uniforms, photographs, film clips and artwork from the museum’s own collections, as well as borrowed items from around the world. Highlights include a fake armored tree used as a German observation post during World War I and lifelike dummy soldier heads used in the trenches to trick enemy snipers into firing, thus revealing their positions. A display of uniforms from various armies traces the evolution of camouflage patterns over the last century; look for the familiar desert chocolate chip pattern used in the 1990–91 Gulf War.

Other displays examine the Allies’ largescale deception schemes in World War II, including artificial towns and air bases created to mislead enemy bombers, as well as Patton’s “phantom army,” deployed in 1944 to deceive the Germans about plans to invade France. Also watch for the “Ruperts”—dummy parachutists dropped in Normandy to cause alarm and divert attention from genuine drops.

In addition, the exhibition shows how protesters and rock bands adopted camouflage to draw attention and shock the Establishment, till the look lost its confrontational edge and fashion designers brought it into the mainstream.

In association with the museum, Thames and Hudson has published an accompanying book, Camouflage, by Tim Newark. The exhibition runs through November 18, 2007. For online information, visit [www.iwm.org.uk/camo].

 

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.