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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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John Siblon, ‘Between Hierarchy and Memory: Commemoration of African and Caribbean Servicemen after the First World War’. Photo: ©IWM

I was invited to speak at a workshop on 15 October at the Imperial War Museum, London, on black people’s involvement in the First World War. I was honoured to be part of a panel where the work of each speaker complemented one another. I was asked to present my findings on research into the commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen after the war ended. I was also asked to give my thoughts, along with the panellist Anna Maguire, one of IWM’s PhD students, on photos from the IWM’s collection on soldiers from the British West Indies Regiment, the South African Native Labour Corps, and the Nigeria Regiment, and finally a session with questions to the panel. 

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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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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.

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East German construction workers, supervised by border guards, building the Berlin Wall, 1961. © IWM HU 73012.

The official history of the Cold War holds that the military and political divide between Eastern and Western blocs was cemented in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War as allied relationships cooled.

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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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 Tipperary scarf

A song sheet in the form of a scarf: “It’s a long way to Tipperary” © IWM (Q 70101)

Alexander MacGregor, a British officer who served with the Indian army, wrote about an interesting musical performance in his diary:

27 January 1915: Some time ago there was a big sing song at Fort Tanskyne, and one of the men brought down the house completely by getting up and singing in a regular shrill native chant “Tipperary” in Hindustani. But I am afraid “Bwa-kutcha Tipperary ko-hai” will not catch on at home as much as one might wish.

A  humorous aside, but the anecdote reveals the cultural encounters brought about by empire’s mobilisation in the war. Why were colonial troops singing the British standard ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’?

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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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Kanyu Riverside Camp

Stanley Gimson, Kanyu Riverside Camp: Dysentery Ward (1943) © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16893)

Throughout Southeast Asia during the Second World War, tropical diseases ravaged the bodies of those held by Japanese occupying forces:

 As our pocket book gets cleaner

All our frames get leaner and leaner

And the grass grows greener in the graveyard area

Still with spirits unabating

We will wait while flies are mating

For the dysentery cholera and malaria

–        Geoffrey Monument, ‘Rhapsody in Rice’ (circa 1944)

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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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