Britain is so saturated with the memory of the second World War, which remains the first point of reference for discussing everything from Brexit to coronavirus, that it is remarkable how little many in the country know about the period. Researchers from University College London reported in September that most teachers in England did not know when or where the Holocaust began and that there were "significant gaps and common confusions" in teaching it.
The Imperial War Museum’s new second World War and Holocaust galleries, which opened last month, could help to change that. They have been six years in the making at a cost of more than £30.7 million, and cover 3,000sq m over two floors showing more than 3,500 items including long-term loans from all over the world as well as from the museum’s own collection.
Although the galleries are on different floors, they reference one another throughout, and a V-1 flying bomb hangs in a space between the two levels, visible from each gallery.
'For people who would still have their granny or grandad who remember their Anderson shelter or something like that, or it's a memory jog'
“We always knew it would be the second World War and Holocaust galleries together contextualising one another because that’s the big thing that the museum feels is a real gap in people’s understanding – how one affects the other. That was a really big principle for us,” says Nóra Ní Dhomhnaill, exhibition manager for collections and installations at the museum.
Ní Dhomhnaill, from Buncrana, Co Donegal, studied history at NUIG and museum studies at the University of Leicester, and she has been working on the new galleries since planning began six years ago. She worked with curators to survey objects, photographs and other items for the galleries, whittling down the number for display in the second World War galleries from 10,000 to less than a fifth of that number.
The second World War galleries include a large installation based on a 1940s house, including full-scale Anderson and Morrison air-raid shelters and contemporary household objects as well as interactive elements such as a tuneable radio.
“It’s kind of a touchstone, particularly for our more domestic visitors. If you throw things at them consistently that they don’t have a huge amount of understanding of, whether it be the Eastern Front, the war in Manchuria, island hopping in the Pacific, we find it’s best to intersperse that with things that people are more familiar with,” says Ní Dhomhnaill.
“We really focus a lot on memory making – it’s a visitor experience as well as an educational thing. So for people who would still have their granny or grandad who remember their Anderson shelter or something like that, or it’s a memory jog for people who remember their mother, who is no longer with us, talking about doing that and to tell their kids.”
The galleries debunk common beliefs about the war, including the myth that Britain stood alone, showing how supplies and people came from all over the world and how the US helped unofficially before it entered the war. And the role of the British empire is considered in depth, including the exploitation of its people. Ní Dhomhnaill describes the war as a delicate subject to handle with a British audience.
“You want to debunk things, but you don’t want to make people feel stupid or just spoil memories,” she said.
“Nobody engages with an exhibition if they feel disregarded or stupid. And so you have to hold the hand of the visitor, not in a patronising way, but just to put enough in front of them in different engaging ways that they will come away with the feeling that they have gained more than they went in with.”
The first thing that strikes the visitor about the Holocaust galleries is how bright they are, and Ní Dhomhnaill said it was a key design decision to avoid the darkness of most such exhibitions. A room showing the sites of mass shootings features giant screens showing footage of those places today with trees and flowers blooming and birds singing.
“The team visited a lot of Holocaust-related sites and museums and they felt that the approach, very understandably, was to keep almost a reverential shadowiness or darkness around these objects to put them in a kind of singular focus. But that also suggests inadvertently that these events happened behind closed doors in some form of concealed way, under the shadow of darkness,” she says.
“The shadowiness suggests some otherness in terms of this being a different reality, a different time, where we are very much bringing it into the present, our current world. These places still exist.”