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Popular History, Publicity and Film at IWM

In a frame from the film THE TRUE GLORY, a British Army Film and Photographic Unit cameraman and photographer, Sgt Mike Lewis, is caught on camera as he films the burial of the dead following the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. (c) IWM FLM 1232

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, staff at IWM engaged with popular forms of history in order to publicise its collections, exhibitions and research facilities. In particular, the use of film in understanding history was increasingly significant in attracting public audiences, and as a subject for debate in universities.

IWM was involved in two principal ways. The museum’s film and photograph archives were used by researchers from the BBC and Thames Television to produce the series The Great War (1964), The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten (1968) and The World at War (1973-1974). Staff at the museum were also engaged in the wider academic development to promote film as a source for historical research.

The Great War, the first of three series made in collaboration with IWM, was a major success. The episode format, which mixed oral history and archive film, was innovative, entertaining and accessible. The oral histories conducted by the BBC ensured that experiences were shared by ordinary people who spoke directly to the viewer, rather than the distant generals and politicians the television audience was familiar with.

After the interviews were recorded, they were donated to IWM. The audio and transcripts formed the first collection in the archives of the Department of Sound Records (now part of Documents and Sound), which was the earliest department of its kind to exist in a British national museum.

However, from IWM’s point of view, The Great War was a failure in accurate history programming. The staff was angered by the use of reconstructed material, without the necessary clarification that it was so, when the series was aired. The episodes mixed real First World War film with training exercises, footage from the inter-war period, feature films and docudramas, and some of the moving images were even flipped round so as not to confuse an audience who would expect the allies to advance left to right, and the Germans from right to left. As a result, The Great War features an unusually high proportion of left-handed soldiers.

The Battle of the Somme, July-November 1916. This was the background image for the title still of ‘The Great War’. (c) IWM Q 2041

Historians have subsequently discounted the Museum’s criticism of The Great War in light of the lasting popularity of the series and its contribution to television history. The programmes drew attention to film as a method through which to explore new perspectives on the understanding of the First World War. Ten years later, the production team behind The World at War capitalised on the growing interest in television history, and endeavoured to use only authentic Second World War film.

As a result of the series’ success, IWM participated in the organisation of 3 national conferences that promoted film as an historical source throughout the 1970s. The conference, ‘Film Propaganda and the Historian: An Assessment of the British Official Film for the Study and Teaching of the Second World War,’ initiated historical work on Official British films of the Second World War and aimed to create guidelines for their teaching. IWM thus also publicised its collections and research facilities by setting educational policy.

IWM archives have not only provided broadcasters with invaluable material to create compelling history documentaries, but have played a role in identifying the historical worth of film. In turn, these contributions have advertised the museum’s collections to an even wider public and scholarly audience.

Follow this link to see how film-makers have used IWM collections more recently in the Museum’s Short Film Festival: https://vimeo.com/channels/iwmfilmfestival. For more information on this year’s festival, click here: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections-research/iwm-short-film-festival.

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