Beyond the glass case

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!

TCHM 007

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)

* The IWM’s own version of its history: and

* 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,

* 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.  




5 Responses to Beyond the glass case

  1. Anne says:

    My daughter is doing a history B.A. in Sheffield, whilst I am one of Dan’s students who will be taking the virtual seminar tomorrow. Given we have a generations perspective on university teaching between us, my daughter and I spend as much time chatting about the technology as we do the history. Our conversations often turn to how JSTOR costs poor students a fortune in printer ink whilst saving the university scarce resources. I guess having a tutor who posts his virtual seminar on his blog site means I win this weeks conversation hands down.

    Having explored some of the links I have just a few questions. Maybe we can sort them over the beers… like where is the review of Jay Winter’s book Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century (Yale UP, 2006) ? I found the line that says you will post the review, but not where it is posted. No rush though. I have all of Christmas to finish that essay…. And does anyone know how to reference a podcast in my essay? The Portillo series might just be useful.
    Perhaps after Friday we can all add our thoughts about the visit to this site. I might even foolishly promise to gather together some outcomes. I did watch ‘Hope and Glory’ last night, and it did remind me that not all experiences of the blitz were ‘East end’. I am learning even at my age!

  2. Dan says:

    Thanks for commenting online Anne, and sorry for upping your printing costs! I have to confess that the review of Jay’s book is as yet unwritten (the journal set me a deadline sometime early next year, and I am busy shooting the crocodiles closest to the canoe. Referencing the podcast – the first time I’ve encountered this, but I would say cite the location as you would a web address, giving date and time of access. A podcast would probably also give you the chance to give a more precise time reference as well – ie minutes and seconds of programme.

    I suppose we should have a washup of the visit online as well, since you’ve set the ball rolling. If Amazon has delivered my new camera by tomorrow, I’ll take some pictures – but perhaps you could bring along yours as insurance.

  3. Jack says:

    On Jay Winter’s book, Dr Dan: before asking if you have a copy I can borrow, I wonder – have you made any excerpts available online somewhere? Or any passages of your own course material which quotes him directly (any course – or are these adapted from your book)? Could I be given access to this, or could you also upload them to your HRD site so I can read them from there?

    No rush, but it could be very helpful for me – and others – to have the analytical field narrowed down just a tad.

    Or if any passing fellow blogger can point me towards work which develops on Winter analysing memory/history/myth I’d be very grateful. (I’m acquiring fairly vast amounts of ‘memory’. It’s the development of an analytical rationale which is proving more elusive….)

  4. Paul says:

    Jack, if you’re looking to stick in the WWI / WWII area I would recommend Adrian Gregory’s The Silence of Memory – although mostly on armistice commemorations it is good on the impact of the Second World War on the memory of the First and has quite a nice analytic framework.

  5. Charles Bowery says:

    First time visitor to your blog- and I will be back! My wife and I visited the IWM in May 2004 while on holiday in London, and what a treat. The D-Day commemorations were in full swing, and we got to listen to a program of reminiscences of D-Day veterans.

    My personal favorites were the wall of trench signs and “Monty: Master of the Battlefield”! So many of my fellow countrymen have a stupid, simplistic understanding of BLM; this exhibit personalized him for me in a great way.

    Charles Bowery
    Major, U.S. Army

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