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From left to right: Paul Cornish, Jamie Carlin, Kasia Tomasiewicz, Vikki Hawkins and Anna Ravenscroft of the IWM Second World War Galleries team

From left to right: Paul Cornish, Jamie Carlin, Kasia Tomasiewicz, Vikki Hawkins and Anna Ravenscroft of the IWM Second World War Galleries team

‘The test has now begun.’

These five words, which have struck fear into the hearts of many, seem oddly out of place in the Wellcome Collection’s impressive Reading Room. It’s not just the location, rather that all participants including five from the IWM’s Second World War Galleries team, are wearing false moustaches. How better to get into the mind-set of a would-be British Army officer in 1942?

To celebrate the opening of the Tavistock Institute Archive papers on the War Office Selection Boards or WOSBs (pronounced wos-bees) at the Wellcome Library, a series of innovative workshops have been created to allow visitors to undergo the same military psychology tests that were used over 70 years ago. Although never kept a secret during the war, it has only been through the doctoral research of Alice White, and the meticulous cataloguing of the Tavistock Institute Archives by Elena Carter, that a wealth of information about the creation and development of the WOSBs testing programme has been uncovered. Co-created with Matt Gieve of the Tavistock Institute, these workshops will no doubt run for more than the initial four sessions planned.

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EVA16_TomFlanagan and Megs Morley_A History of Stone ,Origin and Myth_2016_HD Video, Colour ,Sound Image courtesy of Tom Flanagan & Megs Morley_Photo courtesy of Tom Flanagan & Megs Morley_2 edit 2

A History of Stone, Origin and Myth (2016), Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley, Photo courtesy of Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley

‘I grew up with that border and I wouldn’t want it back again…’ intones the septuagenarian taxi driver taking me from Shannon Airport to Limerick. He is speaking of the boundary separating British-governed Ulster in the north from the Republic of Ireland, which since 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, abolished border controls, symbolically softening an 800 year-long conflict. Now, in the aftermath of June’s referendum, the border’s return seems inevitable:  a clear indicator of the disruption to the Irish peace process resulting from Brexit.

I am visiting EVA Interantional, Ireland’s biennale of contemporary art, coinciding this year with the centenary of 1916 Easter Rising, a calamitous event, which definitively swung popular opinion against the British Administration leading to the War of Independence and the constitutional division of the country.

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 Over the weekend of 18-20 March an international conference took place in Leeds, focusing on resistance to the First World War. The conference, which I helped to organise, brought together academics, community groups, poets and storytellers from across the globe, including delegates who had travelled from Australia and the USA. The conference was envisaged following the suggestion that the prominent narratives during the First World War Centenary were limited to stories of those who had actively participated in the war effort. Stories of resistance to the war were missing from dominant narratives of remembrance and the conference sought to question what war resistance was, how acts of resistance were undertaken, and the significance of war resistance today. The presence of both academic and community focused research on resistance worked particularly well in addressing the many different facets of resistance; including the theoretical underpinnings of pacifism, international and transnational movements for peace, individual acts of conscious and unconscious resistance as well as national and local networks of resistance.

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Image of British Army Personnel in Sierra Leone

Since 2009 IWM has been running a project to collect the experiences of British military personnel serving in contemporary conflicts. Until last year, the dominant experience was the war in Afghanistan. But as this conflict began to draw down, British forces were deployed to help with other pressing concerns.

The latest IWM display, the fourth in the Contemporary Conflicts Programme, focuses on two different, concurrent deployments. Operation Gritrock was the British military’s contribution to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. Operation Shader is the British element of the fight against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), the Islamic extremist group, in the Middle East.

As with the previous displays, Fighting Extremes utilises material gathered directly from personnel who have served on these operations. The IWM team has conducted interviews and gathered film footage, photographs and other artefacts at locations ranging from Cyprus to Belfast. A selection of this material forms the basis of the new display.

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‘It took an army to make this exhibition’, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told her audience and ‘having scholars in charge of each section had been the key to the Museum’s success’.  In May I attended a conference seven months after the opening of the core exhibition of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. At the conclusion of the eight- year project, those involved in the Museum’s creation were keen to open debate on what had worked well and what less so, and to identify the gaps in Polish Jewish history requiring further historical effort.  The core exhibition offered a starting point for that discussion.

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Simon Black, ‘The Martyr’, oil on canvas, © The Estate of Simon Black, Art.IWM ART 17558.

Visions of War Above and Below’ curated by Claire Brenard at IWM London explores how artists have used both the aerial perspective and that ‘from below’ to explore how these different, at times dramatic perspectives, can convey both power and vulnerability in the face of modern warfare. 

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One of IWM’s recently-acquired garments, displayed for the first time in Fashion on the Ration. This mustard wool Utility coat made by Alexon is an example of wartime design at its best, featuring simple lines and minimal trimmings. © IWM UNI 14387.

IWM London’s headline exhibition for the spring and summer, Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style, explores how the war impacted upon an intensely personal aspect of life on the home front during the Second World War.  What did people wear and how did this shape their sense of identity? How was fashion constrained by war? How did men, women and children cope with the demands and deprivations of shortages and austerity?

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The Official War Artist, John Keane, using a video camera to film British self-propelled artillery in training prior to the Ground Assault. © Ken Lennox/Mirrorpix (IWM GLF 1321).

A little known piece of the museum’s history is that the art collection was the principal reason cited in the House of Lords to acquire the Bethlem Hospital building in Lambeth, which is now the IWM London site.

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CRW Nevinson’s, Making Aircraft; Acetylene Welding, 1917. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 693).

Kathryn Butler, a CDP student at the IWM and Open University, discusses her reactions to the ‘Sensory War 1914-2014’ exhibition.

During a recent trip to the Manchester City Art Gallery, I was intrigued to see the results of several great individuals and institutions working together as part of this year’s First World War Centenary commemorations. Sensory War 1914-2014 was co-curated by Dr Ana Carden Coyne, a director at the Centre of the Cultural History of War at the University of Manchester, where I studied for my MA. The centre works closely with IWM North in Salford, and many works on display were from the IWM collections. 

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1st Cameronians tea in trenches.

The 1st Cameronians at a frosty dawn in the trenches, making early morning tea. 18th November 1914. Houplines Sector, France. (c) IWM Q51531

On the first Remembrance Day of the Centenary, Isaac Rosenberg’s acclaimed poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is set alongside images of troops at dawn during the First World War. A moment of quiet and reflection, before the business of the day began, for troops from the fields of France to the deserts of Egypt and Palestine.

Isaac Rosenberg, from the impoverished East-End of London and of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, had gone to war as a private soldier primarily to provide his mother with the separation allowance – a payment given to soldiers’ families due to the loss of income of them going to war. Determined to continue with his poetry, with mentors and patrons including traditionalist Edward Marsh and modernist Ezra Pound, he wrote to Laurence Binyon in Autumn 1916,

‘I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; that is, if I am lucky enough to come through all right. . .’

Rosenberg was killed on patrol in the early hours of 1 April 1918. He was featured in IWM London’s exhibition In Memoriam, that ran for a year from September 2008. Information from the exhibition and much of Rosenberg’s poetry is held in the Museum’s collections.     

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