Image of IWM logo with photographic background IWM Research Blog
Image from the history of IWM: the galleries at Crystal Palace, 1920-24.

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.

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Image of a still from Ori Gersht's film Evaders.
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.

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Image of the BBC monitoring reports in store

The BBC monitoring reports in store.

My PhD involves researching into how the Soviet Union portrayed the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott to the world, via the medium of shortwave radio. In doing this I spend a lot of time examining Radio Moscow broadcasts recorded and transcribed by the BBC Monitoring Service, an archive in iWM Collections, which is stored in the old NAFFI building at Duxford airfield. The archive provides a fascinating insight into the world of 1980, the politics of the cold war, and the uses of media outlets for pushing propaganda lines to different groups of people.

Reading the words  of broadcasts that went directly into the ears of listeners all around the world, the Radio Moscow material shows how the boycott campaign evolved from just weeks after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 all the way through to the end of the Olympic Games themselves. As you might expect with the Olympics, there are many similarities between the promotion of the Games in 1980 and those about to happen, in little under 100 days’ time.  The transcriptions provide an insight into Olympic quizzes, interviews with Olympians, the route the Olympic torch was due to take, and much more. As with the Games and Britain in 2012, in 1980 there was also a lot about how the Olympics can promote the Soviet Union to the world.

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Image of one of the disinterred soldiers from the Pheasant Wood mass grave being carried for burial in the new CWGC Cemetery at Fromelles, 22nd February 2010' - IWM: Damon Cleary

One of the disinterred soldiers from the Pheasant Wood mass grave being carried for burial in the new CWGC Cemetery at Fromelles, 22 February 2010' IWM: Damon Cleary

As a Collaborative Doctoral Award student working on IWM’s depiction of the First World War, I had the opportunity to attend a one-off collaborative research symposium, hosted by the IWM, on 10 February 2012.  Titled ‘Fromelles and Beyond: History, Heritage, Archaeology and Memory of the Great War’, it was organised by Dr Keir Reeves (Monash University, Australia & Kings College, London) and Professor Carl Bridge (Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, KCL).  It brought together some of Australia’s leading First World War historians with leading academics and historians from France and the UK – a thought-provoking  forum for new research on current understanding of the War.

Opening papers from Dr Jenny Macleod (Hull), reappraising the iconic Gallipoli battle from an international perspective, and IWM’s Nigel Steel, who shared the ‘Regeneration’ plans for the new First World War galleries, set up a forward-looking approach to the day.

Professor Bruce Scates (National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash) told everyone about the international project ‘Anzac Day at Home and Abroad – The Centenary History’. This ground-breaking project will investigate the history of Anzac Day, within both Australia and New Zealand, as well as its largely undocumented role within Turkey, France and the UK. Dr Catherine Moriarty (Brighton) expanded on this theme, looking at the Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, and how this ties in with our respective national understandings of the conflict. Peter Francis (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) then explained recent changes in the CWGC’s mission, brought about principally by the Fromelles project.

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Image of the cover image of William Boyd's An Ice Cream War

William Boyd, An Ice Cream War, 1982

How do we ‘get’ history?  If not at first hand, then where do the people we get it from find it themselves?  I have been exploring the ways in which other people’s research into IWM Collections gets shared with a wider public.  Formal works of written history and biography provide some obvious examples, which I will look at in a later post, but works of fiction offer a rather more left-field starting point.

Then there are writers who have included scenes at IWM buildings in their plots – the protagonists of both W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) and Justin Cartwright’s The Song Before It Is Sung (2007) view film at the All Saints Annexe, a First World War veteran gives talks to schoolchildren in the London galleries in Pat Barker’s Another World (2001), a woman commissioned to write the biography of a First World War flying ace turned politician begins her researches here in Isabel Colegate’s Deceits of Time (1988), and the whole final chapter of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) concerns a visit to the Reading Room by the central character.

Many writers of historical novels have acknowledged the help they received when researching here – examples include Len Deighton (Bomber, 1970), William Boyd (An Ice Cream War, 1982), Penelope Lively (Moon Tiger, 1987), Pat Barker (Regeneration, 1991), Elizabeth Buchan (The Light of the Moon, 1991), Leslie Thomas (Other Times, 1999), Jody Shields (The Crimson Portrait, 2006) and Sarah Waters (The Night Watch, 2006).

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Image of the crew of 'Ragin' Red', a United States heavy bomber, sorting out their kit after landing.

The crew of 'Ragin' Red', a United States heavy bomber, sorting out their kit after landing. IWM EA 11269A

 

Last month the American Air Museum (AAM) Research Group sat around a meeting table at IWM Duxford and dreamt of Savannah, Georgia. Well, more specifically the United States Army and Air Force veteran associations based there and the possible help they could offer to the redevelopment project. The AAM is a monument to the 30,000 American airmen who died flying from Britain during the Second World War. The hope for the redevelopment project is to contextualise the aircraft on display with the stories of the American airmen who flew them and the ground crews who maintained them.

Time and again, the names of faraway American places were mentioned: California, with the highest number of AAM Members, Texas with its high number of veterans who could form part of the oral history side of the project, Washington D.C. , a city chock-a-block full of excellent archival material…the list goes on. I had to snap back to reality, though, and present the findings of initial research into collections much closer to home – those of Imperial War Museums (IWM).

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Image of Professor David Cesarani with Professor Paul Shapiro of USHMM

Professor David Cesarani (right) with Professor Paul Shapiro of USHMM at the Beyond camps and forced labour conference held at IWM London, 4-6 January 2012

On 4-6 January 2012, Imperial War Museum London hosted the fourth international conference in the Beyond camps and forced labour series. Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway, University of London, co-organiser of Beyond camps and forced labour guest blogs here about the key themes which emerged from the conference:

‘It is hard to sum up the themes that were explored in the conference, let alone find patterns common to all the papers. But I think that some distinct threads did emerge. One was the discovery of new archival sources or the re-examination of neglected collections.

The largest and most important of these is the vast archive of the International Tracing Service of the International Committee of the Red Cross at Bad Arolsen. Thanks largely to the persistence of Professor Paul Shapiro of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum we now have a good idea of the staggering riches that were kept locked away by the ITS for decades, and the process of making them available to researchers is now well underway. The many sub-collections will offer new insights into the existence of inmates in the concentration camps, the death marches, and the experiences of refugees and survivors after liberation. One of the most extraordinary collections was described by the new ITS historian, Susanne Urban. It comprises 1,200 responses to questionnaires sent out to survivors of death marches – amongst the earliest, most immediate testimony every recorded. The ITS records will help historians to map and analyse population movements after 1945, including the influx of former DPs into the UK. It will take decades and many PhD theses to even scrape the surface of this treasure trove.

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Image of one of photographs showing Roma (Gypsies) in Radom, Poland – torn from a German soldier’s photograph album.

A photograph showing Roma in Radom, Poland – torn from a German soldier’s photograph album. IWM HU 105681

Here in the Department of Research, one of my responsibilities is to oversee the development of new content for The Holocaust Exhibition. My next is to display a collection of recently acquired photographs of Roma and Sinti (‘Gypsies’).

Image of one of the photographs showing Roma (Gypsies) in Radom, Poland – torn from a German soldier’s photograph album.

A photograph showing Roma in Radom, Poland – torn from a German soldier’s photograph album. IWM HU 105682

Roma and Sinti were targeted by the Nazis in their discriminatory laws and policies from 1933. They were later subject to slave labour, internment and mass murder (including at extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau). 25%, or up to 220,000 of Europe’s Roma were killed by the Nazis.

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Image of ‘Trixie’ Inga Joseph's doll which accompanied her when she left Vienna for Britain as one of the Kindertransport refugees in June 1939

‘Trixie’ who accompanied her young owner –Inga Joseph– when she left Vienna for Britain as one of the Kindertransport refugees in June 1939. IWM EPH 3922

The Holocaust Exhibition was ten years old last year, and giving talks about its impact is a rewarding thing to do.  Visitor figures – at 7-800 a day – are still high. The subject has become mainstream after years of being marginalised, and films, tv programmes and books still appear each month with new slants, and new questions.

Today I am talking to the Sheffield branch of the Association of Jewish Refugees.  I know one of the members well – Inga Joseph, who came as a Kindertransport refugee in 1938 and it is through her that I was invited along.  Inga gave the IWM two dolls which she brought with her as a child refugee from Vienna – Trixie and Peter – and has written up her early life in three highly readable books written under the name of Ingrid Jacoby.

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Image of the discovery of a new mass grave at Perucac Lake

Excavations of a new mass grave discovered at Perucac Lake. Muhamed Mujkic.

Back in Sarajevo. I call in on Muhamed Mujkic, who co-directed the Memorial Room film with the British documentary maker Leslie Woodhead, at his office at the Federation for Missing Persons.  His job is to document the excavations of mass graves found in Bosnia – something he has now done for 15 years.   Last year a new mass grave was found–when a damming project at Perucac Lake caused a river bed to yield up its terrible secret – their work is far from over.   

Image of excavations of a mass grave discovered at Perucac Lake

Excavations of a new mass grave discovered at Perucac Lake. Muhamed Mujkic.

The walls of their office are covered with photos of the team at work – including one of their chief wearing a miner’s lamp as he examines human remains discovered in a deep cave.  And there’s one of Bill Clinton – deep in thought during an official visit to Potocari. 

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