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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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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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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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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‘V’ for Victory?

© IWM (K 1254), December 1941

This photograph of an Indian soldier on board a troop ship to Singapore in 1941 confronts us with a familiar gesture from the Imperial War Museums archives. The soldier thrusts his head and arm through the ship’s porthole, and appropriates Churchill’s well-recognised ‘V for Victory’ symbol with the fore and middle fingers of his right hand. Incidentally, he isn’t attempting to be rude! Churchill himself didn’t realise that the ‘V for Victory’ symbol made with the palm inwards could be an insult until his aides briefed him.

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Second Lieutenant George Arthur Nicholls: 'He always played the Game'.

© Horace Nicholls Estate. Reproduced with kind permission of the Horace Nicholls Estate.

As the first official photographer on the Home Front, Horace Nicholls documented the impact of total war on the British people during the First World War. After the war, Nicholls photographed the unveiling of the Cenotaph and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. However, underlying these records of national mourning and collective remembrance there is also a story of personal loss. One hundred years ago, on 9 April, Easter Monday, 1917, Nicholls’ eldest son, George, was killed on the opening day of the Battle of Arras. He was just 22.

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