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King Georve VI letter Far East Prisoners of War

Letter from King George VI welcoming returning prisoners of war from the Far East. © IWM (MH 27887)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 IWM holds a vast collection of documents telling the stories of the men who were held captive by the Japanese during the Second World War. The collection includes diaries, memoirs, photographs, artworks and oral history interviews, and all of these resources are invaluable in helping historians, researchers, families and members of the public to learn about the day-to-day experiences of the men who were prisoners of war.

Alongside my research at IWM, I have written catalogue entries for documents that have been donated to the museum by men who were imprisoned on the island of Sumatra from February 1942 until August 1945. This has been a fascinating task.  The materials from Sumatra are exciting sources because there are very few first-hand accounts available from this theatre of captivity. Yet these documents tell the stories of the prison camps from the perspective of the men who were there at the time, and who continued to remember it after their liberation.

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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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Image of German Historical Museum

The German Historical Museum in Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Angelika Schoder.

Our guest blogger, Angelika Schoder, conducted her recent PhD research into the representation of National Socialist crimes at IWM London, and the German Historical Museum, Berlin. Here she outlines the findings of her thesis, which will be published in Germany in spring 2014.

It’s not easy to explain the meaning of the term “Erinnerungskultur” – the German “culture of remembrance”. The struggle to come to terms with the National Socialist past has been a pervasive issue in German society since the 1950s. In Great Britain, on the other hand, a “commemorative culture” of the National Socialist period and its victims has developed slowly since the early 1990s – and has only gained prominence in national consciousness in recent years. Yet today, in Great Britain as well as in Germany, the Holocaust takes a central position in the national commemorative cultures.

The history museums of both countries put great store by showing the historical background of the National Socialist era and its crimes. In my PhD, I compared the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London and the German Historical Museum (GHM) in Berlin, with the goal of showing which museum-specific, pedagogical methods were used to accurately represent the National Socialist crimes in British and German exhibitions. My PhD analysed in detail the “Holocaust Exhibition” which opened in June 2000 at the IWM, and the exhibition “Holocaust. The National Socialist Genocide and the Motives of its Remembrance” (Holocaust. Der nationalsozialistische Völkermord und die Motive seiner Erinnerung), which was on display from January to April 2002 at the GHM.

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