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The Imperial War Museum Sound Collection

As we look forward to the New Year and begin to plan the various projects which will keep us busy over 2016, it is always useful to take a step back and consider the progress already made.  For over forty years, IWM has preserved one of the most important sound archives of its kind in the world.  Established in 1972, the Department of Sound Records, as it was then called, was an offspring of the museum’s Library which at that point included a handful of gramophone records.  The following decades saw the collection grow in size until, following a major restructuring in 2010, it was merged with the Department of Documents to form the Documents and Sound Section, with myself appointed as the new Section Head.

Image of file recordings in storage at the IWM Sound Archive

The Imperial War Museum Sound Archive contains well over 60,000 hours of professionally recorded, documented and preserved material.

From the beginning, the Sound Archive has conducted its own oral history programme, usually involving visits to private homes to interview veterans, while we also continue to acquire relevant recordings from external sources, such as the BBC and other media companies.  We have produced a rich and varied collection in a relatively short space of time: well over 60,000 hours of professionally recorded, documented and preserved material.  Not only are the recordings almost exclusively unique, but the majority of them are now irreplaceable, following the deaths of many of the interviewees.

Our interviewing programme was initially run with a preference for specifically-defined questions.  This resulted in the somewhat bizarre situation of stopping Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’s reminiscences before the outbreak of the Second World War because the interviewer was only pursuing the 1920s and 1930s.  Today we prefer a much longer, career-spanning view.  There remains, however, scope for both sorts of interviews – covering either a particular incident/campaign or the person’s whole career/life story – depending on particular circumstances.

The Sound Archive also includes examples of speeches, sound effects, poetry and music in addition to oral history but, as with the Documents collection, most of the material consists of evocative eyewitness accounts and personal stories of men and women, civilians and military personnel from all walks of life.  Our recordings remain the cornerstone of many important projects, both within IWM and externally, with some of the more recent examples including the highly popular BBC Radio 4 series Voices of the First World War, the IWM First World War Centenary podcasts, and the best-selling book series Forgotten Voices.

Looking forward, we are now concentrating our resources on creating and acquiring material from the post-Second World War period, with current interview topics as diverse as naval aviators who flew in Korea, Malaya and Indonesia; Royal Marines who participated in the Suez landings; and BRIXMIS (British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany) – personnel who served behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

Sound curators have also been playing a leading role in interviewing currently-serving Army personnel.  The building of relationships with soldiers, particularly through the IWM’s Contemporary Conflicts Programme, often leads to further acquisitions such as letters sent home to families and items of military kit.  The existence of a sound recording in which the participant can be heard describing his or her personal story provides the crucial context for other material obtained from the same source.

We have begun to take steps towards establishing ourselves as a purely digital collection, which will not only benefit the archival preservation of the recordings, but ensure that they remain as widely accessible as possible.  If you have the opportunity, do investigate the collection yourself, as much of it can be heard via the IWM website.

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