Illuminating our history
Steeped as they are in stories of the past, it is not often that museums get to step back and take a look at their own history. The History of IWM Workshop, held at IWM London on 2 May 2012, brought together IWM staff, external researchers and several of IWM’s AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) students to review the current state of research into IWM and discuss avenues for further investigation.
Roger Smither, Research Associate, began with a look at the pioneering work of IWM’s Film Archive. Thanks to forward-thinking individuals such as Edward Foxen Cooper and IWM’s first Curator, Charles ffoulkes, the museum had been a leader in the field of film collecting. Next came Dr Toby Haggith who looked at memory within the museum – arguing that IWM has always been, through its collections and its displays, and the thousands of interactions between staff and the public, a site of both personal and collective remembering. Dr Catherine Moriarty of the University of Brighton, ended the first panel by describing IWM’s programme of art commissions between 1981 and 2007. Her conversations with former IWM Keeper of the Department of Art, Angela Weight, revealed how this creative programme allowed artists to draw inspiration from IWM’s unparalleled collections and added an extra dimension to the museum’s displays. Dr. Moriarty ended by urging future researchers to explore the lesser known stories within IWM’s history.
Leanne Green, the first of the CDA student speakers, gave us an insight into one such story. Leslie Bradley, the second Director-General of the Imperial War Museum, is an underexplored figure and Leanne’s account of Bradley’s First World War publicity collection - literally thousands of advertisements from newspapers and magazines of the time – revealed Bradley to have been an innovator whose collecting obsession has provided historians with an invaluable source. My own paper looked at several objects and their display in the early history of the museum and argued that such case studies can illustrate much about the themes that have shaped IWM’s past exhibitions. James Wallis brought us forward in time by looking at the museum’s 1964-1968 ‘Then and Now’ photographic exhibitions. He explained how in the 1960s Peter Masefield, nephew of the poet John Masefield and later to serve as chairman of the IWM’s Trustees, compiled an extraordinary record of the Western Front as it looked then compared with the First World War. The photos formed the basis of one of the early exhibitions mounted during the directorship of Dr Noble Frankland, who modernised the IWM against the backdrop of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Finally, Alyson Mercer, a PhD student at King’s College, London, introduced us to the Women’s Work Sub-Committee whose redoubtable members produced exhibitions that commemorated the role played by women in the First World War.
The range of topics and approaches illuminated IWM’s long and varied past. It is hoped that this session will be the first of many as IWM moves towards its own centenary in 2017.