Side view of the atrium at IWM London © Foster+Partners
‘The description ‘permanent exhibitions’ is perhaps misleading for our main displays, since it is not the exhibitions which we regard as permanent but rather their themes and content’
Initial Brief for Redevelopment of Main Building of Imperial War Museum, November 1980 (IWM EN4/41/CF/1/1/4/8)
Making an exhibition about the First World War at IWM (Imperial War Museums) is no mean feat. Although IWM has been doing this for 97 years (and 78 years at the museum’s Lambeth Road site) as part of its remit, various factors during this period have influenced what is said, and how and even why it is said. My Collaborative Doctoral Award research focuses on these factors, through examining some of the permanent and temporary IWM First World War exhibitions between 1964 and 2014.
The Main Entrance at Budapest’s Hospital in the Rock, 1944 © hospitalintherock
Research Manager at IWM London, Emily Peirson-Webber, describes the history of Budapest’s Hospital in the Rock after a recent trip to the Hugarian capital.
During my recent trip to Budapest, I discovered the enigmatically named ‘Hospital in the Rock’. The site, which appears in the New York Times list of the top ten places to visit in the Hungarian capital and was nominated in the 2014 European Museum of the Year Awards, is still in its infancy as a visitor attraction – it was first opened to the public on a one-off basis in 2007.
The history of the Hospital in the Rock is compelling. Housed in a natural cave system spanning around 10km and located under Budapest’s Castle Hill (a 1km-long plateau situated 170m above the Danube); the site has been in use since the medieval period. However, it was during the Second World War that the caves took on a particularly important role for the city, due to their uniquely sheltered position.
‘No-one is forgotten and nothing is forgotten’ (Olga Berggolz): marking stone on the Piskaryov cemetery. Courtesy of author.
Visiting researcher, Dr Yvonne Pörzgen, writes about uncovering stories of the Siege of Leningrad in IWM’s collections.
Where do you go to research the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944)? As it turns out, IWM London and the University of Bristol are excellent places for such a project. The Goethe Institut’s programme “Scholars in Residence” brings young scholars from different countries in touch with each other to work on related projects. I was happy to support Alys Cundy in conducting her project on the representation of twentieth-century conflict in museums in Germany in 2013. In spring 2014, Alys introduced me to the scholars at the Research Department of IWM and at the History and Russian Departments at the University of Bristol who supported me with my research.
It was just the right time. On January 27 2014, St. Petersburg celebrated the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the Siege that killed over a million inhabitants of the city. How do you commemorate such an event that changed the city forever and whose traces are still to be found all over Saint Petersburg?
The British team at a football match between British and Italian Armies. © IWM (Q 26569)
During this World Cup year, it is worth reflecting on the role of football and sport in general during the First World War. Local football teams volunteered as pals’ battalions, most famously the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, also known as the Football Battalion. Walter Tull was both the first black professional footballer and the first black officer in the British Army.
Arabic monitors at the BBC Monitoring Service’s early wartime home in Wood Norton Hall, Evesham, 1941 © BBC
Former IWM Collaborative Doctoral Award Student, Laura Johnson, describes her exciting research into the BBC Monitoring Service.
The BBC Monitoring Service played an indisputable role in British intelligence during the Second World War. Their reports of international radio broadcasting, now held in the storage areas at IWM Duxford, provided the British Government with a daily assessment of news, information, propaganda, and indications of the intentions of other nations.
The fact that the Monitoring Service mainly reported on open, publicly available radio broadcasts has, however, resulted in its long absence from intelligence literature. This is because intelligence has traditionally been associated with secrecy. Whilst conducting my PhD research on the role of the BBC Monitoring Service during the Second World War, I was struck by a tension between the roles of openness and secrecy within its operation.
Letter from King George VI welcoming returning prisoners of war from the Far East. © IWM (MH 27887)
IWM holds a vast collection of documents telling the stories of the men who were held captive by the Japanese during the Second World War. The collection includes diaries, memoirs, photographs, artworks and oral history interviews, and all of these resources are invaluable in helping historians, researchers, families and members of the public to learn about the day-to-day experiences of the men who were prisoners of war.
Alongside my research at IWM, I have written catalogue entries for documents that have been donated to the museum by men who were imprisoned on the island of Sumatra from February 1942 until August 1945. This has been a fascinating task. The materials from Sumatra are exciting sources because there are very few first-hand accounts available from this theatre of captivity. Yet these documents tell the stories of the prison camps from the perspective of the men who were there at the time, and who continued to remember it after their liberation.
Tank F4 ascending a slope at the Tank Driving School during the special training for the Battle of Cambrai at Wailly, 21 October 1917. Tanks were one of the major engineering developments of the First World War and a key achievement of the ‘boffins’ © Imperial War Museums (Q 6299)
Our guest blogger Taylor Downing is a historian and writer. His latest book, Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War will be published by Little, Brown on 1 May 2014.
Taylor will give the Churchill Lecture at the Churchill War Rooms on Tuesday 29 April 2014 at 7pm on the topic ‘Churchill and the “Boffins” of the First World War’. For details and how to book click here.
So much writing on the First World War concentrates on the trenches and the fighting on the Western Front. That is understandable. The terrible stories of suffering and loss, in which so many died for so little gain, reach out to everyone who has an interest in war. But there is another side to the war that hardly ever gets a look in. This is the subject of my new book, Secret Warriors. It is the story of the scientists who made a little known contribution to many aspects of the fighting. In the next war these men were given the affectionate nickname of ‘boffins’. Although that word was never used in the First World War, the ‘boffins’ in that conflict played an important role, too.
Firstly, consider aviation. In 1914 aviation was only just beyond its infancy and flying was still a seat-of-the-pants type activity. Engines generated little more than 100 horsepower and most aircraft could only stay airborne for 40 or 50 minutes. The dramatic progress in the science of aeronautics during the war meant that by 1918 some aircraft could draw on 1500 horsepower engines, could carry a heavy bomb load and stay airborne for up to 17 hours. The armed services possessed 272 aircraft in 1914. By 1918, the RAF had over 22,000 machines. The First World War created the modern aviation industry and Britain would become a major player for the next hundred years.
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.
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.
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.