Field trip reflection: Imperial War Museum North.
By Caleb Pain.
I am a second-year History student. I grew up in Japan and India and moved to England for university. I love cycling and all things sports related. I also spend my time helping with the Christian Union and hanging out with friends.
The trip to the Imperial War Museum North (IWMN) in Manchester was part of “Making of Modern Britain,” a core first-year module in Loughborough’s BA in History.
Apart from looking at the industrial revolution, cultural and political change, the First World War, and imperialism, the Second World War took up much of the research I did in connection with this module. Our assessment task was to evaluate how the exhibitions in the museums we visited communicated the complexities of historical debate of the general topic. I chose to write about the debate on the ‘myth of the blitz’.
I’d been taught the same narrative about the Second World War at primary school, middle school, and during my GCSE. To have a different viewpoint presented brought forth an extra dimension to a topic I thought I knew so well. I now found myself thinking about the tensions between popular knowledge of the war and the nuances of academic research. Much of how I perceive British national identity has been filtered through an understanding of a united wartime Britain, where everyone came together during the war to overcome hardships, and that this should be looked back on nostalgically. What I had thought was a conventional narrative – that the British were a people who were united under the wartime hero Churchill to beat the Nazis, set on “doing your bit” and emblazed with the “Dunkirk spirit”. Was this actually the case? The use of the word ‘myth’ in the ‘myth of the blitz’ debate suggests maybe people were not as ‘all in it together’ as I had originally thought.
Part of the research for this topic included a day trip to the Imperial War Museum North [IWMN]. While the IWMN overall is very informative, not only on the Second World War, but on many other major twentieth-century conflicts, what grabbed my attention most was the audio-visual display on the Home Front during World War II. Those who have been to this museum will know that it has one main exhibition space with various internal walls put in that reach all the way to the ceiling, some 7 meters up. The museum is arranged chronologically, but silos provide themed stop off points. This leaves a lot of white space. The Imperial War Museum North exploits this space by having regular audio-visual displays on different topics called the ‘Big Picture Show’. The short film on the Home Front – ‘The War at Home’ (https://www.iwm.org.uk/events/big-picture-show) – through use of photos, moving pictures, and interview snippets, could be seen to reinforce the heroic narrative of collective sacrifice and ‘all in it together’. For instance, the film included footage of people coping in the aftermath of bombing which reinforced the idea of people struggling collectively to overcome adversity.
I did not think the revisionist position – that it might be possible, like Angus Calder and Jose Harris say, to think about wartime propaganda as influencing the memory of the war as much as the opinions of those who lived through it – was given anywhere near as much coverage as the conventional view.
While this installation and other exhibits established the hardship of the war on a profound level, much like the audio-visual displays, they lacked the explicit mention of the revisionist position. However, it was possible to see allusions to the scholarly debate in certain aspects of this, and some of the other displays. But it was very much left to the visitor to reach their own conclusions. An interactive touch screen that walked the visitor through the hardships facing evacuees was something made more memorable because the visitor was tasked with choosing which items (from a very limited range of objects) they would take with them if they were in the position of the evacuee. Should the visitor be aware of the myth of the blitz debate, then certain facts and stories could count towards substantiating some of the revisionist analysis. One such example was a mention of children moving back to London during the period of regular air raids despite having been evacuated to the countryside. This would be evidence of children and parents resisting evacuation.
What is also noteworthy about this visit, and something that made it all the more beneficial and enjoyable, was in another module from that semester, What is History, I had covered what museums were, what their purposes were, their benefits, their shortcomings, and things to consider when at a museum. This module not only helped me gain a deeper appreciation for the delicate act of putting on displays in museums, but it also gave me the opportunity to think more carefully about the public communication of history.
Photograph of the IWMN taken by Peter Yeandle, May 2023.
Recommended readings for those who wish to find out more:
- Bell, Amy. “Landscapes of Fear: Wartime London, 1939-1945.” Journal of British Studies 48, no. 1 (2009): 153–75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25482966.
- Calder, Angus. Myth of the Blitz (1991)
- Edgerton, David. “The Nationalisation of British History: Historians, Nationalism and the Myths of 1940”, The English Historical Review, 136, Issue 581 (2021): 950–985, https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/ceab166
- Harris, Jose. “War and Social History: Britain and the Home Front during the Second World War,” Contemporary European History 1, no. 1 (1992): 17–35, https://doi.org/10.1017/S096077730000504X. Robert Mackay, Half the Battle: Civilian Morale in Britain during the Second World War (2002).
- J. McArthur, “Addressing the Myth of the Blitz”, IWMN Research Blogs online: https://www.iwm.org.uk/blog/research/2017/08/addressing-the-myth-of-the-blitz accessed September 2023.
- Peniston-Bird, Corinna. “‘All in It Together’ and ‘Backs to the Wall’: Relating Patriotism and the People’s War in the 21st Century,” Oral History 40, no. 2 (2012): 69–80, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41806358.
- Smith, Malcolm, Britain and 1940: history, myth, and popular memory (2000)
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