My MA course has its final seminar this week. Normally, we’d visit the Imperial War Museum as a group and I would walk students round, before we had the second half of the seminar in the café. This year, I have personal commitments which mean I’ll have to arrive at the Museum later than planned. But I thought I’d try to turn a problem into an advantage, by putting the emphasis more firmly than usual on the Museum itself, and by asking the students to interrogate the exhibits themselves. This also has the advantage of preventing me becoming a glorified guide. This is still the test version, so thank you to my students for being willing guinea pigs!
Victors to Victims: Remembering the Two World Wars in Britain, 1950-2000.
Visit to Imperial War Museum, Friday 16th December 2006
This seminar is based around the representation of the Home Front in the Second World War. It also aims to draw together the thematic threads of the course by making you think about the structural, cultural, financial and historical influences on the representation of Britain’s experience of total war.
Preparatory reading and viewing:
Primary sources – either
* M. Magorian, Goodnight Mr Tom, (1983) or
* J. Boorman (dir.), Hope and Glory, (1987)
Secondary sources from:
* S. Fielding, ‘The Good War 1939-1945’ in N. Tiratsoo, ed, From Blitz to Blair, (1997)
* L. Noakes, ‘Making Histories: Experiencing the Blitz in London’s Museums in the 1990s’ in M. Evans and K. Luin, eds, War and Memory in the Twentieth Century, (1997),
* A. Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, (1991),
* G. Kavanagh, ‘Museum as Memorial: The Origins of the Imperial War Museum’, Journal of Contemporary History, 23, 1. (Jan., 1988), 77-97, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00220094%28198801%2923%3A1%3C77%3AMAMTOO%3E2.0.CO%3B2-O
* K. Walsh, The Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Post-Modern World, (1992),
* G. Kavanagh, Museums and the First World War: A Social History, (1994).
Walking the museum
Meet at the front of the museum at 2.00 pm. Walk straight ahead through the glass doors and into the first hall of the museum. This room – ‘the biggest boy’s bedroom in London’ as one reviewer described it when it opened after refitting in the 1980s – aims to show the technological development of warfare in the twentieth century, moving from the first weapons of modern war (the First World War guns, tank and planes) through those of the Second World War, to the more modern (the rockets and missiles of the post-war period).
What else is here? Why are these exhibits at the forefront of the museum? What is it that they represent about modern war?
Continue straight ahead through the hall, and descend the stairs in front of you to the lower level of the museum. Take note of the variety of permanent galleries on this level, and again consider their function. Observe how visitors, including school parties, overseas tourists and families interact with these exhibits.
Now enter the Second World War galleries (Check the times for The Blitz Experience – you may want to organise your visit so as to fit in with the ‘performances’). Wander the Second World War galleries, paying particular attention to the Home Front exhibit. Consider the functions of these galleries, including the need to construct a chronological narrative. How is the Home Front exhibition situated in relation to others? Which artefacts does it contain? Which stories is it possible to construct around these? How do visitors use them – is the route we have followed inevitable, or do visitors take a more random approach, which exhibits are placed where, how is the space organised?
Now visit The Blitz Experience. What narrative is constructed here? What is left out and what in? Are there moral ambiguities to ‘experiencing’ the past (if you have time, compare The Blitz Experience with The Trench Experience, on the other side of the First World War galleries)?
Now select the theme which has come out to you most strongly through your studies this semester. Moving through the museum, choose one artefact or display case which bears out this theme, considering not just the physical evidence of the past but its presentation and use within the museum. Be ready to briefly explain your selection to the group.
We will meet back at the front of the museum (underneath the dog on the parachute) at 3.30 pm. Coffees, and subsequently beers, are on me: thank you for your tolerance this week.