Digital Futures: How to preserve our most vulnerable digital media

This image shows the process required to produce high quality reproductions that appear as intended when the original photographs were taken. Images have been corrected and optimised at IWM's Visual Resources department to bring back colour accuracy and detail, removing colour casts, as negatives degrade over time and become faded.
© IWM (TR 018330A)

In 2020, IWM initiated Digital Futures, a five year project to digitise 1.8 million films, photographs and sound recordings and slow down the degradation of 6.8 million items by freezing, isolating or refrigerating them. This mass preservation project is digitising some of our most vulnerable media from the Cold War era.  

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Ministerial Mayhem: The Control of Photography Order, 1939

(D 1199) A Mobile Film Unit car leaving MoI headquarters at Senate House London; 1940
(D 1199) A Mobile Film Unit car leaving MoI headquarters at Senate House London; 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205195723

Sir Philip Hesketh-Smithers went to the folk-dancing department; Mr Pauling went to woodcuts and weaving; Mr Digby-Smith was given the Arctic circle; Mr Bentley himself, after a dizzy period in which, for a day, he directed a film about postmen, for another day filed press-cuttings from Istanbul, and for the rest of the week supervised the staff catering, found himself at length back beside his busts in charge of the men of letters.

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An Army of Opera Lovers: The Resurrection of the Teatro di San Carlo during the Allied occupation of Naples

Teatro

On 4 November 1943, just over a month after the first Allied troops entered war-torn Naples, Lt. Peter Francis of the Royal Artillery made his first acquaintance with the ruins of the Real Teatro di San Carlo, one of the oldest and most prestigious opera houses in the world. The theatre had been closed in 1942 and it was now in a terrible state: bomb damage had blasted the foyer, debris and layers of dust covered the internal surfaces, there was no electricity or water and a German machine gun nest was still installed on its roof. The British requisitioned the building and, under Peter Francis’s authority, on 15 November 1943, with the frontline just 30 miles away, the theatre officially re-opened its doors to soldiers and civilians. The news that the theatre was about to reopen and in need of workers quickly spread around the city causing excitement among the Neapolitans. The first production of the theatre’s new course was an improvised Italian revue significantly titled So this is Naples.

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A Nice Cup of Tea

A woman in a grubby coat sorting items salvaged from her home stops to drink a cup of tea given to her by a member of the Salvation Army. Lytcott Grove / Playfield Crescent, Dulwich, London, 18 January 1943. © IWM HU 136931.

George Orwell calculated that the tea ration - 2oz per week during the Second World War - could be eked out to twenty cups a week. So important was tea considered to be for the welfare of the nation that pensioners were allocated a slightly larger ration. Orwell’s ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, published in 1946, illustrates its importance in British culture. He described the eleven stages required for making the perfect cup of tea, the etiquette surrounding tea-drinking and the varied uses for tea leaves from fortune-telling to cleaning carpets. Whether it was Lyons Green Label, Typo, Brooke Bond or Twinings, tea - along with cocoa for children - is referred to in numerous accounts about London during the Second World War as the favoured drink after bombing raids. Its importance is reflected in a significant number of photographs in the 'London bomb damage’ section of the Ministry of Information Press & Censorship Bureau Photograph Library at IWM London, which show both the realities for bombed Londoners as well as carefully staged propaganda shots. Londoners gathered together in groups drinking tea is a favoured trope in this archive.  

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The occupation of northern France in the First World War

German troops marching through the main square in Lille for the ceremony of Changing the Guard. © IWM (Q 55207)

In works on French history, the word ‘Occupation’ (often capitalised) is heavily associated with the Occupation of the Second World War, France’s ‘Dark Years’ of 1940–44. However, whilst this was and remains the defining experience of military occupation for the French, there were other instances of this phenomenon in the country’s modern history. In the case of the First World War, when the war of movement subsided in September – October 1914 around 2.1 million French people found themselves cut off from the rest of the country by the trench networks running from the coast to the Swiss border.

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Ben Shephard (1948-2017)

Visiting Egyptian Psychiatrists, 78 Neuropathic Hospital, Egypt

In October of last year, staff and students at IWM heard the sad news that the historian and writer Ben Shephard had died. His contributions ranged over a number of subjects but perhaps the most groundbreaking was his study of soldiers and psychiatrists, A War of Nerves (2000). In this, he tracked the progression of military psychiatry, from the Shellshock of the First World War through to the advent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the aftermath of America’s involvement in Vietnam and onto the emergence of Gulf War Syndrome.

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Inscribing Memory: The ‘Spanish’ flu at North Head Quarantine Station, Australia.

North Head Quarantine Station © Hannah Mawdsley

North Head Quarantine Station has been a place of quarantine for those wishing to enter Australia since the 1830s. Situated on a headland to the North East of Sydney Harbour, it is ideally sited to monitor maritime and naval traffic. During the deadly ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 it was particularly heavily used, to quarantine both military and civilian vessels and personnel. While held here, many passengers engaged in an activity that had been happening at this site for decades; they marked their time and presence there by inscribing on the sandstone cliffs.

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From Desk to Trench

Recruits file into a recruiting office. Treaty Lodge, Hounslow, the HQ of the 8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, September 1917

In 1917 George Elliott Dodds, a writer and editor at the Department of Information, suggested publishing a series of photographically illustrated booklets showing various war activities on the Home Front. After three years of war, the potential propaganda value of such publications for combating war weariness and maintaining domestic morale was recognised.

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Addressing the ‘Myth of the Blitz’

Aldwych, London, 30 June 1944.

Much has been published about the ‘Myth of the Blitz’ in London, and how the official representation of how Londoners ‘carried on’ was often at odds with the truth of nightly looting from bombed houses, crimes committed during the blackout, homelessness and the mass burials of bomb victims.

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