Image of IWM logo with photographic background IWM Research Blog

The Military History Museum, Dresden. Visible is architect Daniel Libeskind’s shard-like ‘intervention’. Image courtesy of Alys Cundy.

From October to November last year I took time out from my research at IWM to undertake a residency in the German town of Bremen. I was selected to take part in the Goethe Institut ‘Scholars in Residence’ programme, which pairs German scholars with international early career researchers to work jointly on a project. My project explored the ways in which a number of German museums represent twentieth-century conflict. I was paired with Dr Yvonne Pörzgen of the University of Bremen, whose own research looks at the way in which Germany is represented within Russian museums of the Second World War in St Petersburg.

The residency was a fantastic opportunity to meet German scholars and to look at my own research in a different light. My CDA focuses on the history of display at IWM since 1917 and explores themes of cultural memory and conflict and the way museums and memorials represent difficult pasts. In light of my interest in these subjects, Germany was a fascinating place to be. German museums of conflict face the balancing act of representing traumatic past events without sensationalizing or offending. At the same time their displays must acknowledge both German responsibility for wartime actions and the suffering of German soldiers and civilians. During the six weeks of my stay I was able to visit Dresden, Berlin, Munster and Munich and see how museums in these very different German cities meet these challenges.

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Herrenhausen Gardens venue for 'The World During the First World War'

Herrenhausen Gardens, Hannover. The venue for the conference ‘The World During the First World War’. Image courtesy of Anna Maguire.

One of IWM’s new Collaborative Doctoral Award Students, Anna Maguire, describes an inspiring recent conference on the global impact of the First World War.

At the end of October, Hannover played host to the symposium ‘The World During the First World War’. This was my first academic conference as one of the IWM’s new Collaborative Doctoral Award students of 2013. My PhD is one of three which have started this autumn under the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership which IWM has with the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) whereby students are embedded in national museums, libraries and archives while at the same time belonging to a university.   My focus is ‘Cultural Encounters and Cultures of the First World War’ and my study will seek to address the experience of colonial troops, on which IWM has very rich archival sources.   It complements a major new project London funded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), led by Kings College, in which IWM is an Associate Partner, and also builds on work carried out by IWM’s AHRC-funded project Whose Remembrance?, led last year by my IWM co-supervisor, Suzanne Bardgett. 

Held at the beautiful Herrenhausen Gardens and hosted by the Volkswagen Foundation, the conference provided auspicious surroundings in which to begin thinking and talking about my research. It was organised by the Foundation, the University of Hanover, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin (the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies) and the German Historical Institute, London. With views from Latin America to the Middle East, via Africa and South Asia, papers were diverse and truly international. Talks from Babacar Fall about forced labour in French West Africa, from Joan Beaumont on Gallipoli, national consciousness and memory in Australia and from Samiksha Sehrawat addressing Indian voluntary aid all provoked lively questioning and debate. There were introductions to new resources for historians, including 1914-1918 Online

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Image of German troops advancing on the Russian army. Image courtesy of Fremantle Media.

Our guest blogger Taylor Downing is a historian and writer whose best selling books include works on the Second World War as well as other popular histories. Taylor also writes on the history of film and television. Recent publications include The World At War (BFI Palgrave Macmillan 2012) an account of the making of the landmark documentary series, and a number of publications on the Second World War including Night Raid (Little, Brown 2013), Spies in the Sky (Little, Brown 2011) and Churchill’s War Lab (Little, Brown 2010). Taylor is currently writing the history of a series of change making scientists from the First World War, to be published in 2014.

The World at War is forty years old! It was first shown to immense acclaim on ITV from October 1973 and it has never been off television screens somewhere in the world since. It is as popular with viewers today as it was when first shown, making it the most successful history series ever produced by British television. The title music by Carl Davis, the graphics with the flames and faces of war, the heavyweight commentary by Laurence Olivier, the stunning archive material and the brilliant interviews with those who took part in and witnessed events are as dynamic and compelling a combination today as they were forty years ago. The Imperial War Museum (IWM)World  played an important role in making the series with the then director, Dr Noble Frankland acting as historical consultant. IWM staff viewed and commented on copies of the programmes as they were being made so it is entirely fitting that the IWM should mark the anniversary. Behind the entire project was Jeremy Isaacs (today Sir Jeremy Isaacs). It was his vision that imagined the series in the first place and as producer he oversaw every step of the production process, but he is the first to admit that the series would not have been as successful without the team of fifty talented people who worked on it over a period of three years. It was a young team and many of those who made the series gathered at the IWM to mark the birthday. For nearly all of them, working on the series was the most important creative experience of their lives.

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Anthony Delahoy, one of the British Second World War veterans interviewed by Greg Tinker as part of his PhD research project. Photograph courtesy of Greg Tinker.

Our guest blogger, Greg Tinker, conducted his doctoral research on cultural memory and the Second World War. Studying for his PhD at the University of Reading, he explored the relationship between British veterans and remembrance. Here he describes some of the findings of his thesis.

I joined the University of Reading’s Languages at War team to research and write my doctoral thesis on British Second World War veterans’ remembrance activities. Languages at War was an AHRC-funded research project that aimed to provide new insights into the policies and practices of language contacts in conflict. The research documented veterans’ ‘Heroes Return’ visits to former sites of battle, embarked on as part of the government’s Veterans Reunited national remembrance programme, mounted to mark the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day and the end of the Second World War in Europe in 2004-5.

The IWM contributed to the programme with Their Past Your Future (TPYF), an education project that grew out of a youth remembrance scheme created by the UK government’s cross-departmental Veterans Task Force. The Task Force had been set up by the Prime Minister in 2001 to promote wider public recognition of the achievements of British armed forces veterans and service personnel.

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Leanne Green, James Wallis and Alys Cundy at the Memory, Conflict and Space Conference at Liverpool Hope University. Photograph courtesy of The Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies.

Sunny Liverpool played host to the Memory, Conflict and Space conference that gave three of the Collaborative Doctoral Award students at IWM the chance to present together as part of a panel on aspects of representation and memory in the museum’s  collections.The conference addressed the real, virtual, imaginary and lived spaces in which conflict unfolds and the role memorialisation has played in interpreting conflict. Papers were diverse, with subjects that ranged from Lee Miller’s haunting photographs of concentration camp inmates in Dachau, to sites of memory in post-conflict Belfast, to the varied ways in which football fans remember disasters such as Heysel and Hillsborough.

On the IWM panel, Alys Cundy was up first with a paper on the memorial spaces that existed in the museum between 1920 and 1960. From bays laden with symbolism at Crystal Palace, to a ‘Hall of Honour’ at South Kensington, to enclaves of remembrance at Lambeth Road, in three different London buildings the IWM created commemorative spaces.  In these spaces the display of exhibits such as the top section of the original Cenotaph and wild flowers picked from the battlefields of the First World War meant that as well as collecting the historical records of conflict the museum also represented the urge to remember. The spaces chosen for these memorial exhibits were significant. Entrances, corridors and stairways were used as these areas framed the principal galleries, ensuring that visitors would have to pass through spaces of memory in order to learn more about the historical narrative of the war.

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Rod Suddaby

Rod Suddaby at a FEPOW round table meeting hosted by Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine on 15 February 2010 (detail from a photograph by Nick Parkes). Photograph by permission of Meg Parkes.

‘Never stray too far from your sources’.

This was the invaluable guidance of Rod Suddaby whom I had the privilege to have as my PhD co-supervisor for the last two years of his life – focusing on the stories of Far Eastern prisoners of war (POWs).

At first it was daunting to be Rod’s student. His knowledge was immense, and being an English graduate I had not studied history for at least a decade.  But Rod could not have been a more generous, patient, or thorough advisor, and my trepidation turned into delight. Rod put himself through the task of reading everything I churned out at least twice. First he did his ‘ring true’ test, to check whether what I had written was convincing historically. Only when he was sure of that did the pencil come out, and he would go through every sentence again, every footnote, and every reference with the utmost precision.

We would arrange to go to the museum café where an argument about him insisting on buying me a cake became customary, and as I nibbled my way through the cake he would make his way through each page – explaining his annotated comments, and the reasons for the suggestions he made. During a particularly tricky draft in which I tangled myself in theory, he cheerfully offered one concise comment: ‘I skipped all that’. Rod never strayed from his sources.

I laughed and learned a lesson he was keen that I understood – to keep my words grounded in the history of what POWs lived, to be sure of what we know by double checking everything against available records, and to let the stories of POWs speak for themselves.

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Margaret Thatcher visits the Cabinet War Rooms

The visit of Margaret Thatcher to the Cabinet War Rooms, 4 April 1984. IWM-1984-15-1.

With all the recent coverage of the life and times of Margaret Thatcher, I thought it might be interesting to delve into the Radio Moscow material stored at Duxford to see how the election of Britain’s first female Prime Minister was reported to British listeners by a Soviet media source. Expecting a diatribe against the ‘Iron Lady’ from a committed ideological opponent, I was surprised to find instead concentrated criticism of James Callaghan’s outgoing Labour government.

Initial analysis found only a passing reference to Thatcher. There was an official greeting offered by Soviet Statesman Aleksey Kosygin and an acknowledgement that the first woman Prime Minister had made history. Otherwise, Radio Moscow reserved its criticism for Callaghan, and his predecessor Harold Wilson, accusing them of losing the election and attacking them on terms that would later become familiar amongst opponents of Thatcher.

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Image of German Historical Museum

The German Historical Museum in Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Angelika Schoder.

Our guest blogger, Angelika Schoder, conducted her recent PhD research into the representation of National Socialist crimes at IWM London, and the German Historical Museum, Berlin. Here she outlines the findings of her thesis, which will be published in Germany in spring 2014.

It’s not easy to explain the meaning of the term “Erinnerungskultur” – the German “culture of remembrance”. The struggle to come to terms with the National Socialist past has been a pervasive issue in German society since the 1950s. In Great Britain, on the other hand, a “commemorative culture” of the National Socialist period and its victims has developed slowly since the early 1990s – and has only gained prominence in national consciousness in recent years. Yet today, in Great Britain as well as in Germany, the Holocaust takes a central position in the national commemorative cultures.

The history museums of both countries put great store by showing the historical background of the National Socialist era and its crimes. In my PhD, I compared the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London and the German Historical Museum (GHM) in Berlin, with the goal of showing which museum-specific, pedagogical methods were used to accurately represent the National Socialist crimes in British and German exhibitions. My PhD analysed in detail the “Holocaust Exhibition” which opened in June 2000 at the IWM, and the exhibition “Holocaust. The National Socialist Genocide and the Motives of its Remembrance” (Holocaust. Der nationalsozialistische Völkermord und die Motive seiner Erinnerung), which was on display from January to April 2002 at the GHM.

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Image of a poster for the film Days of Glory (Indigenes)

Poster for Indigènes (dir Rachid Bouchareb, 2006) released in the UK as Days of Glory by Metrodome

The website Caribbean aircrew in the RAF during WW2 draws attention to the 1953 feature film Appointment in London, a story about Bomber Command starring Dirk Bogarde, and in particular to a scene showing Bogarde mixing with his peers: among the officers is one of Caribbean origin. There is no plot point hanging on this fact – it is simply a tacit recognition of the contribution made in the RAF, as in so many other ways, to the Allied effort in both world wars by people of the Empire.  What is sadly remarkable about it, however, is how rare it is to see black troops represented in this way.

One area that the Whose Remembrance? Project set out to explore was the extent to which the wartime role of the peoples of Britain’s colonies has been reflected  in the popular media. My contribution was to produce a database of relevant films, tv and radio.

A good start for my search was the Colonial Films Database the result of an earlier AHRC-funded project in which IWM was a partner.  As well as providing essays about contemporary films like With the Indian Troops at the Front (1916) and West Africa Was There (1945), this huge database also offers several dozen titles online. Trawls of various websites made it possible to add a number of retrospective documentaries, such as the 2009 Soldiers of Empire episode from Channel 4’s Not Forgotten Series, or Scottish Television’s 2004 programme Treefellers about  the work in Scotland during the Second World War of lumberjacks from British Honduras. Drama series which came immediately to mind included Granada’s 1984 adaptation of Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’ as The Jewel in the Crown, and BBC2’s 1992 Black Poppies.

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Image of Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles on the Amiens Road near Albert, September 1916

Men of the British West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles on the Amiens Road near Albert, September 1916. IWM Q1201

Arthur Torrington is one of three external specialist researchers on the Whose remembrance? project. Arthur’s research looked at the contribution of West Indian soldiers to the First World War which he writes about here.

Soon after war was declared, British military operations in Africa were  launched against Germany’s colonies of Cameroon and Togo.  Both the first and second battalions of the West India Regiments (WIR) participated in these attacks against German East Africa.  The WIRs  were highly commended for their service.  Formed in 1795, the West India Regiment  served the British Empire until 1927. The soldiers were mainly former African slaves.  

Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) encouraged his countrymen to volunteer to fight in order to prove their loyalty to the King and to be treated as equals. While Lord Kitchener’s personal view was that black British soldiers should not be allowed to join the forces, King George V ‘s intervention made it possible.  Over 15,000 West Indians volunteered and were included in new units called ‘British West Indies Regiments’. The recruits’ initial journey to England was perilous and hundreds of soldiers suffered from severe frostbite when their troopships were diverted via Halifax in Canada. Very many had to return home no longer fit to serve as soldiers. When the others arrived in England, they found that the fighting was to be done by white soldiers, and that West Indians  were to be assigned the dirty and dangerous work of loading ammunition and digging trenches.  Most of them went to war without guns.

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