In a year when the pandemic has limited our contact with others, it’s been stimulating to connect with new partners and think creatively about engaging people with the Second World War. Northern Ireland and conflict make most people think of the Troubles – local stories of the Second World War are often untold or unheard. 

We welcomed our SWWHPP digital intern, Shona Mackay, in February and are working with her to explore how we get more people to connect with our collections digitally. Shona is setting up a Second World War website to help us create compelling narratives using personal stories and objects from our collections. She’s been hunting through our collections and working with volunteers to research our NI Sound Archive.

The NI War Memorial set up after the Second World War is in fact a museum, and a key partner for us in this project. We’ve been sharing resources and expertise, and together creating a digital version of their successful Belfast Blitz tour. It’s been a challenge to translate a real life tour into one that will work digitally, and for an audience that includes local people and tourists. There’s been a lot of editing, walking the ground, and checking the facts and the sightlines. We’ve produced a booklet of archive photographs that allows participants to compare what you can see now with how the area looked 80 years ago during the Blitz (between 7/8 April and 5/6 May 1941) and the audio tour peoples those same streets with the stories of those who lived through the four nights of bombing, and those who did not.  

Belfast Blitz tour
Shona has been exploring how we can use social media to interest people in the Belfast Blitz tour and with this imaginative photo created one of our most liked posts!

To help launch the tour we’ve also created a display in the Ulster Museum. Reproductions of paintings by local war artist Doris Blair and the archive film ‘Ulster at Arms’ show why Belfast became a target. Northern Ireland’s contribution to the war effort ranged from milk and eggs to ships and aircraft. William Conor’s drawings record some of the – woefully inadequate – preparations for an attack, and contemporary photographs show the devastation that resulted from the raids.  

Sharing these stories with ‘the widest possible audience’ has been complicated by lockdown. We’ve taken on a part-time outreach officer, Susan Kelly, to work with communities less likely to visit museums or to have an interest in the Second World War. Recruiting groups when so many are not meeting, and many are not digitally connected, has been a real challenge. We’ve borne in mind the practical advice from our SWWHPP partners and started with ‘warm contacts’.

Susan, who helped create the oral history archive held by the NI War Memorial, has successfully delivered a series of four online sessions with digital images and audio clips to a range of community groups. With the assistance of a volunteer she’s managed to stimulate the kind of active engagement that is such an important part of these sessions. This month she’s happy to have started working with groups who aren’t digitally connected, taking out 3D objects to 3D people and getting back to ‘real’ social interaction. Participants have been sharing their stories and experiences and some of these will be included in our new website.

It’s not just our participants and digital intern who are learning from being part of SWWHPP. In National Museums NI we aim to reach ‘the widest possible audience’ and this project gives us an opportunity to explore how to use digital channels to connect collections, stories and audiences more effectively and creatively.