Image of IWM logo with photographic background IWM Research Blog

Illuminating our history

Image from the history of IWM: the galleries at Crystal Palace, 1920-24.

The History of IWM: the galleries at Crystal Palace, 1920-24.

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.

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  1. Ross says: May 16, 20122:40 pm

    This sounds very interesting. The history of an institution also tells us something about the society it fits into more widely. It will be interesting to see how this all develops and what it tells us about changing representations of war since the museum was founded.

  2. Alys Cundy says: May 17, 20129:27 am

    Hi Ross, thanks for your comment and for your interest in the History of IWM project. You’re right , one of the most fascinating things about studying IWM is what it’s history can tell us about how British society has understood and engaged with the changing nature of warfare. This was an topic that came up in several of the papers given at the Workshop, and hopefully will continue to be explored as the project develops. There is plenty more to discover.

  3. Frederick Coxen says: October 6, 201211:38 pm

    I’m first generation American. My grandfather Frederick G Coxen served in the RFA from 1905-1919. I was fortunate to receive his war journal along with other military documents. I sent the sound and document section of the IWM a digital copy of the journal and plan on donating his military documents to the museum next summer.

    Besides the historical aspect of the journal it also comes with an interesting story of a promise that was made between my grandfather and three of his chums a couple of days before the battle of Mons. I’ve written a book titled , “The Great Promise” that tells this story and my efforts to fulfill it almost 100 years later.

    After the war he brought his family to the US and settled in Detroit, Mi. In 1930 he started a manufacturing company that is still in business today. He lived the American dream.

    I’ve been trying to find information on some of the soldiers that my grandfather served with. It is difficult trying to do this from across the pond. I believe my grandfather’s story is worth telling and I would love to find relatives of some of the soldiers in the journal so that they could learn about their family heritage.

    Currently my contact in the IWM is Anthony Richards – I sent him a copy of my book so he’ll understand more about my grandfather’s journal.

  4. Emily Fuggle says: October 16, 201210:33 am

    Hi Frederick,

    Thanks for sharing your grandfather’s story with us, and for sending in a copy of his journal. If you would like some more advice on tracing your grandfather’s military service or that of other specific individuals, then please contact our collections enquiry team who should be able to offer some guidance.

    Good luck with your research.

    Best wishes,

  5. John Frame says: November 14, 20126:29 pm

    Corps 3rd. Lolwland Bde R TA (T). I do not understand any of this. I am interested because my grandfather enlisted from 1914 to 1920 and served in France. Where in France? What battles? His name was John Ross number 1429 and lived at 78 Muslin Road before enlisting. On the Army form E 501. TERRITORIAL FORCE there is a large M stamped on the form.

    Can anyone help with this?

    Thank you

    John Frame
    Toronto Canada

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