As a second year Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) PhD student at Imperial War Museums and the University of Bristol, I now have extensive experience using the museum’s Research Room and accessing its expansive archive. I am fortunate that my supervisor Sarah Paterson works in the Library, and the staff there are both knowledgeable about the archive’s content and very helpful. Indeed, I consider the Library to be at the museum’s very heart! The CDP studentship gives me the insight into both university academia and the museum/heritage sector, and I strongly value the connections I have built with staff at the museum and other CDP students there. The museum facilitates frequent catch-ups for its CDPs, while the CDP consortium itself organises training and engagement events for the broader CDP student body, opportunities I take whenever available.

The Research Room is located on the second floor of the museum, and I always enjoy the opportunity to walk through the Atrium and the broad range of displays contained therein. I am incredibly fortunate to have such a connection to the museum, being so intimately connected to the development of my interests in military history as a child, and it remains evocative for that reason. The Research Room itself has a number of important rules to follow. As most of the collection is now stored at the IWM site in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, material must be ordered at least five working days before you wish to view it, in order for it to be sent to the museum in London. You can search the collection, which includes private papers, journals, books, photographs, art, interviews, ephemera and much more, in our online collections database. Some sources are digitised and can be analysed at leisure – particularly handy in light of the present global restrictions. For a full breakdown of library rules, see our research facilities.

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The Research Room at IWM London
The Research Room at IWM London

My research focuses on the British Sector of Berlin during the period 1945-1971. Britain maintained a military force in the city between 1945 and 1994 – throughout the entire Cold War period – with its western sector encompassing four of the city’s twenty districts. British military personnel thus came face to face with the starkest reminder of Cold War divisions in the form of the Berlin Wall, splitting the city of Berlin in two for almost three decades, and were isolated on what is often termed an island in a sea of red. In particular, I am appraising the various roles British soldiers and airmen fulfilled in the city as ‘cultural diplomats’ representing a British ‘way of life’. My most current research focus relates to the spaces in which such cultural diplomacy could take place, be that on the parade ground, when out in the street off-duty, or when on the sporting field. Britons came into close contact with a variety of groups, from American and French allies, to East German border guards and Soviet soldiers, and the German population of West Berlin. British personnel’s behaviour was constantly under international scrutiny, affecting the ways in which military identity was shaped and negotiated in the city.

British military identity was shaped in many respects through military journals and periodicals. The British Garrison in Berlin was well served throughout its stay in the city by print journals such as the Berlin Air Line (1945-7) and Berlin Bulletin (1952-1994), amongst smaller, regiment-specific journals, and service-wide publications for the entire British presence in Germany such as the British Zone Review and Soldier. The IWM holds these titles in its Library, and the majority of my visits involve analysing the many volumes throughout the years. They are a most excellent source for illustrating exactly how the British community in the city lived, in terms of both official on-duty actions, alongside the many opportunities for extra-curricular activities in the city. They were also an important vehicle through which military authorities could communicate the ways in which they hoped soldiers and airmen would interact with the city, a major focus of my research. So too were the various guidebooks and information pamphlets produced by the British Military Government, several of which I have also analysed in the Research Room. I make sure to take as many photographs as I can; a Photography Permit for the day can be purchased for £10. The Research Room is well equipped with handling materials too, so we can make sure any material is appraised in a safe way, thus preserving them for future generations.

Another of my important source bases are oral interview recordings. The Research Room contains a number of computers and tape recorders for listening to those interviews that are not digitised.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed the nature of my research. I was incredibly fortunate to have coincided four research trips to the museum in the weeks before Britain entered lockdown in March, and thus had plenty of material to analyse in the following weeks and months. I also made the most of the time to further scope the library online for potential other sources to appraise, which I have since viewed after visiting the IWM in late August. When the Research Room is able to reopen, I am sure it will be very popular – testament to the library’s world class collection!

Ellis Keeber

Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student