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Collaborative Doctoral Award student, Rebecca Coll, writes about the IWM’s historic commitment to progressive methods of research and collecting.

“…a remarkable thing about the war museum is that, despite the nineteenth century type name…right from the beginnings, which were at the end of the First World War, they collected material relating to say women and empire people and so on. Not just the male white generals that you might expect that, that kind of place might do, they, they always wanted to show how the war affected everybody.”

Margaret Brooks, Research Assistant 1973-1983, IWM and Keeper of the Department of Sound Records 1983-2010, IWM (Interview with Margaret Brooks by Robert Wilkinson, February-September 2013, Oral history of oral history in the UK, track 01, Sound & Moving Image catalogue (http://sami.bl.uk/uhtbin/cgisirsi/x/x/0/49/) reference C1149/30, © The British Library). 

With the recent opening of the new First World War galleries at IWM London, it is important to recognise the museum’s past and present commitment to new and progressive forms of research. The 1960s and 1970s are considered to have been a period of reinvention for the IWM, and the development of the Department of Sound Records was a prime example of this.

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Queues outside the Imperial War Museum, July 2014. Photo: © Imperial War Museum

When IWM London’s First World War Galleries re-opened on 19th July 2014, the queues extended past the big naval guns and out of the gates to the north of the building. On the first day, over 8,000 people came to visit the museum and 60,134 people had come to visit within the first week. Timed entry was also allocated to visitors to prevent overcrowding within the new exhibition.

Photographs from 40 years ago show almost identical queues. However, these were for the Radio Times Colditz Escape Exhibition.

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IWM’s Parveen Sodhi investigates the reports of the Indian Soldiers’ Fund to find a new point of access for the history of Indian troops during the First World War. 

‘Very many thanks for the many comforts you have sent for this Company… the men were very pleased at being remembered by anyone connected with India…’ From an Indian Labour Company, France, 18th January 1918.

Lord Roberts initiated the supply of home comforts and gifts in kind by the Indian Soldiers’ Fund as early as 1914. Roberts – who served in India for over forty years and who was the last Commander in Chief of the Forces – took the greatest personal interest for the provision of the Indian soldiers ‘whom he loved so well’, who had been hospitalised in France during the course of the First World War.

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UEA graduates in World Art Studies and Museology

University of East Anglia Graduation Ceremony for World Art Studies and Museology Masters Students. Courtesy of Emily Peirson-Webber.

A triumphant flinging of mortar boards as the 2014 graduates of the University of East Anglia’s School of World Art Studies and Museology received their degrees recently. Among them was IWM Research Manager Emily Peirson-Webber, who graduated with a Master of Arts with Distinction in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies. Emily’s dissertation focused on the uses of Great War memory in the construction of modern British identity. Congratulations Emily!

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To mark the publication of IWM’s guide to Researching the British Empire in the First World War, Anna Maguire reflects on the challenges of remembering war and empire. 

On 12 June 2014, I attended a workshop on war, citizenship and public memory. Convened by Vron Ware and hosted by Autograph, the arts organisation based in Rivington Place, Hoxton, a number of historians, curators, campaigners and educators took part in discussions about the process of remembering war, public memory and commemoration. The discussions centred around the contribution of soldiers from empires in both world wars, and during other twentieth and twenty first century conflicts.

The session began with everyone sharing an image to represent their area of interest. These were fantastically stimulating, ranging from Ministry of Information photographs of colonial troops during the First World War, to book covers such as that researched by Stephen Bourne for his new book Black Poppies to images of current recruits from the Commonwealth in the British Army chosen by Les Back. These were then displayed on the wall as a visible reminder of our own individual perspectives and stories, but also of the collective desire to learn and teach and share more about colonial and postcolonial experiences.

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IWM London - Side View New Atrium © Foster+Partners

Side view of the atrium at IWM London © Foster+Partners

‘The description ‘permanent exhibitions’ is perhaps misleading for our main displays, since it is not the exhibitions which we regard as permanent but rather their themes and content’

Initial Brief for Redevelopment of Main Building of Imperial War Museum, November 1980 (IWM EN4/41/CF/1/1/4/8)

Making an exhibition about the First World War at IWM (Imperial War Museums) is no mean feat. Although IWM has been doing this for 97 years (and 78 years at the museum’s Lambeth Road site) as part of its remit, various factors during this period have influenced what is said, and how and even why it is said. My Collaborative Doctoral Award research focuses on these factors, through examining some of the permanent and temporary IWM First World War exhibitions between 1964 and 2014.

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Marking stone on the Piskaryov cemetery.

‘No-one is forgotten and nothing is forgotten’ (Olga Berggolz): marking stone on the Piskaryov cemetery. Courtesy of author.

 

Visiting researcher, Dr Yvonne Pörzgen, writes about uncovering stories of the Siege of Leningrad in IWM’s collections.

Where do you go to research the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944)? As it turns out, IWM London and the University of Bristol are excellent places for such a project. The Goethe Institut’s programme “Scholars in Residence” brings young scholars from different countries in touch with each other to work on related projects. I was happy to support Alys Cundy in conducting her project on the representation of twentieth-century conflict in museums in Germany in 2013. In spring 2014, Alys introduced me to the scholars at the Research Department of IWM and at the History and Russian Departments at the University of Bristol who supported me with my research.

It was just the right time. On January 27 2014, St. Petersburg celebrated the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the Siege that  killed over a million inhabitants of the city. How do you commemorate such an event that  changed the city forever and whose traces are still to be found all over Saint Petersburg?

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The Military History Museum, Dresden. Visible is architect Daniel Libeskind’s shard-like ‘intervention’. Image courtesy of Alys Cundy.

From October to November last year I took time out from my research at IWM to undertake a residency in the German town of Bremen. I was selected to take part in the Goethe Institut ‘Scholars in Residence’ programme, which pairs German scholars with international early career researchers to work jointly on a project. My project explored the ways in which a number of German museums represent twentieth-century conflict. I was paired with Dr Yvonne Pörzgen of the University of Bremen, whose own research looks at the way in which Germany is represented within Russian museums of the Second World War in St Petersburg.

The residency was a fantastic opportunity to meet German scholars and to look at my own research in a different light. My CDA focuses on the history of display at IWM since 1917 and explores themes of cultural memory and conflict and the way museums and memorials represent difficult pasts. In light of my interest in these subjects, Germany was a fascinating place to be. German museums of conflict face the balancing act of representing traumatic past events without sensationalizing or offending. At the same time their displays must acknowledge both German responsibility for wartime actions and the suffering of German soldiers and civilians. During the six weeks of my stay I was able to visit Dresden, Berlin, Munster and Munich and see how museums in these very different German cities meet these challenges.

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Leanne Green, James Wallis and Alys Cundy at the Memory, Conflict and Space Conference at Liverpool Hope University. Photograph courtesy of The Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies.

Sunny Liverpool played host to the Memory, Conflict and Space conference that gave three of the Collaborative Doctoral Award students at IWM the chance to present together as part of a panel on aspects of representation and memory in the museum’s  collections.The conference addressed the real, virtual, imaginary and lived spaces in which conflict unfolds and the role memorialisation has played in interpreting conflict. Papers were diverse, with subjects that ranged from Lee Miller’s haunting photographs of concentration camp inmates in Dachau, to sites of memory in post-conflict Belfast, to the varied ways in which football fans remember disasters such as Heysel and Hillsborough.

On the IWM panel, Alys Cundy was up first with a paper on the memorial spaces that existed in the museum between 1920 and 1960. From bays laden with symbolism at Crystal Palace, to a ‘Hall of Honour’ at South Kensington, to enclaves of remembrance at Lambeth Road, in three different London buildings the IWM created commemorative spaces.  In these spaces the display of exhibits such as the top section of the original Cenotaph and wild flowers picked from the battlefields of the First World War meant that as well as collecting the historical records of conflict the museum also represented the urge to remember. The spaces chosen for these memorial exhibits were significant. Entrances, corridors and stairways were used as these areas framed the principal galleries, ensuring that visitors would have to pass through spaces of memory in order to learn more about the historical narrative of the war.

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Rod Suddaby

Rod Suddaby at a FEPOW round table meeting hosted by Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine on 15 February 2010 (detail from a photograph by Nick Parkes). Photograph by permission of Meg Parkes.

‘Never stray too far from your sources’.

This was the invaluable guidance of Rod Suddaby whom I had the privilege to have as my PhD co-supervisor for the last two years of his life – focusing on the stories of Far Eastern prisoners of war (POWs).

At first it was daunting to be Rod’s student. His knowledge was immense, and being an English graduate I had not studied history for at least a decade.  But Rod could not have been a more generous, patient, or thorough advisor, and my trepidation turned into delight. Rod put himself through the task of reading everything I churned out at least twice. First he did his ‘ring true’ test, to check whether what I had written was convincing historically. Only when he was sure of that did the pencil come out, and he would go through every sentence again, every footnote, and every reference with the utmost precision.

We would arrange to go to the museum café where an argument about him insisting on buying me a cake became customary, and as I nibbled my way through the cake he would make his way through each page – explaining his annotated comments, and the reasons for the suggestions he made. During a particularly tricky draft in which I tangled myself in theory, he cheerfully offered one concise comment: ‘I skipped all that’. Rod never strayed from his sources.

I laughed and learned a lesson he was keen that I understood – to keep my words grounded in the history of what POWs lived, to be sure of what we know by double checking everything against available records, and to let the stories of POWs speak for themselves.

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