India 1944: Three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS SUTLEJ. IWM IB 1558
Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a member of the Swadhinata Trust, is one of three external specialist researchers on the Whose remembrance? project. Ansar writes here about his research into the experiences of South Asian seamen in the two world wars.
For my study I chose to look at South Asian seamen of Bengali origin because it was a natural progression from my last project Bengalis in London’s East End.
We know that the Bengali seamen formed the first sizable South Asian community in Britain. They settled in London’s East End, close to the Docks, and were commonly referred to as ‘lascars’. The word was once used to describe any sailor from the Indian sub-continent or any other part of Asia, but came to refer to people from West Bengal and modern-day Bangladesh.
South Asian seamen received less pay, less food and had smaller living quarters than white sailors, and their death rate was higher. Most worked in the engine room as ‘donkeywallahs’ (after the ‘donkey engines’) while those who oiled the machinery were known as ‘telwallahs’. Others worked supplying the furnace with coal and disposing of the ashes. You can imagine my delight at discovering an image of three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS Sutlej in 1944. The working conditions were harsh and hot, and many seamen died of heat stroke and exhaustion. Lascars trapped in the engine rooms suffered a particularly high casualty rate.
The remains of Surrey Lodge, an apartment building destroyed by a V2 rocket on 4 January 1945. The photograph was apparently taken on the following day and graphically shows how a 5 storey building was reduced to rubble. Courtesy of Lambeth Archives.
Barely 150 metres from Imperial War Museum London is the site of the most destructive explosion in Lambeth during the Second World War, which killed 43 people. Just before 8.30pm on the night of Thursday 4 January 1945 a huge explosion destroyed an apartment building, Surrey Lodge, on the corner of Kennington Road and Lambeth Road. The old Lambeth Baths and a chapel on the opposite side of Lambeth Road were also severely damaged. The blast also extensively damaged the northern and western sides of the Imperial War Museum as well as many surrounding buildings.
There was no warning – no air raid sirens or sounds of approaching aircraft – just the explosion. However the initial detonation was followed by a distinctive roaring noise and a sonic boom, because the disaster was caused by a German V2 rocket – the world’s first ballistic missile – diving into the building faster than the speed of sound.
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.
- Ori Gersht, Still from Evaders, HD Film, Dual Channel Projection, 2009 © Ori Gersht, courtesy of Mummery + Schnelle
For a large part of the last year I worked on the exhibition Ori Gersht: This Storm is What We Call Progress which has now been on display at IWM London for three months. One of the most interesting things about the process of putting the exhibition together was how my own understanding of the work developed throughout our logistical, and significantly less poetic, planning discussions. Before working on this show I knew many of Ori’s works well: the cityscapes from Sarajevo which are part of IWM’s collections; his intriguing 2005 film, The Forest, where trees fall without explanation in a Ukrainian forest, and his best-known work, Big Bang, in which a Dutch still life shatters in spectacular slow-motion across the screen. I had also seen some of his Evaders photographs at his gallery show in 2009. This is the work that explores the fated flight of writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin from Vichy France, following a path through the Pyrenees. I hadn’t seen the film of the same name until a much later studio visit, but this was one of the works that became part of the show.
Ori works in a curious way, often employing both film and photographs to explore an idea, a subject or place. The two elements complement each other, but are not to be considered part of the same work. Most importantly, the photographs are very specifically not film stills. They are images produced and crafted in their own right. The Evaders photographs are very empty; the beautiful but harsh landscape of the Pyrenees becomes a dominant protagonist in the images. Intriguingly many of these places don’t actually exist, but are composite images of several sites. The landscape here becomes a construct, an artificial memory. Benjamin’s physical presence is barely registered. It is only through his abandoned suitcase, shown left amongst some jagged rocks, which indicates his absence. In reality, Benjamin’s suitcase was noted as being found at the scene of his suicide, but later mysteriously disappeared. It was said to contain his final piece of writing and has since become a potent symbol of loss and the mythology surrounding his death.