In November 2021, I began working at Imperial War Museums, as a museum assistant to the Second World War and Holocaust Partnerships Programme (SWWHPP). This remarkable opportunity became available to me through the Kickstart scheme, a government programme with the aim of providing 16 to 24-year-olds with promising job opportunities and long-term career prospects. My fellow Kickstarter Jonnie also started at the same time, and has also written a blog post.
As someone with a profound love of history, and a longstanding fascination with the Second World War, I knew straight away that this was a golden opportunity to work in an area of deep personal interest, while enriching my CV and increasing future employment prospects. Having achieved my degree in Philosophy in summer 2021 before moving to Manchester, it was with the help of my scrupulous job coach, Saima, that I was able to access this six-month role working with one of the preeminent global authorities on war and conflict.
IWM’s Second World War and Holocaust Partnerships Programme unites eight cultural heritage organisations around the United Kingdom, supporting them to challenge aspects of the traditional surrounding the Second World War and the Holocaust, through the telling of lesser-known stories and placing an emphasis on encouraging multiple historical perspectives.
A few weeks after I started working at Imperial War Museum North, I was fortunate enough to visit the recently opened Second World War and The Holocaust Galleries on display at IWM London. These phenomenal Galleries covering two of the most cataclysmic global events of the Twentieth Century have already been the source of enormous praise and received royal attention earlier in November, when the Duchess of Cambridge visited IWM London.
Alongside the launch of the Second World War and The Holocaust Galleries, the SWWHPP has opened a new sound installation called One Story Many Voices which contain eight stories written for each SWWHPP organisation by the celebrated writers Amina Atiq, Nicola Baldwin, Mercedes Kemp, Glenn Patterson and Michael Rosen. The sound installation, which will tour to each of the Partnership sites, will give members of the public the opportunity to listen to a wide range of rich stories from multiple perspectives relating to this episode in history.
During my own visit to the new Galleries, I found each one to possess a level of comprehensive depth which simply transcended anything I had previously seen concerning the Second World War and the Holocaust. I was astonished at the degree of painstaking detail that had been implemented in assembling the Galleries. For me, it offered an insight into the sheer magnitude of the programme and the new ways of thinking it hoped to instil in those who visited.
When I first visited The Holocaust Galleries, myself and SWWHPP Project Officer, Pamela Aveyard, were gifted a fascinating and deeply moving personal tour by one of its curators, Lauren Willmott. Again, I must emphasise that the attention to detail was utterly stunning. As the three of us moved through the Galleries, I noticed that when standing in one section the next was always obscured from sight - and was informed that this had been done deliberately in order to reflect the sobering fact that, far from having the benefit of eighty years’ worth of hindsight, the victims of the Holocaust had been tragically unaware of what was to come.
A subtle yet effective feature of the Galleries was its bright lighting, which conveyed the clear impression that these horrific events had not taken place behind closed doors or out of sight as some might believe, but rather in plain view, out in the open.
As the Galleries progressed, so too did the levels of brutality and inhumanity being depicted, drawing a clear parallel between your procession and the progression of what would eventually become known as the Holocaust. The final room of the Galleries was perhaps the most poignant, featuring many hours of meticulously curated footage including oral histories of those affected by the events. I left the Galleries feeling tangibly affected by what I had seen.
While the atmosphere inside the Second World War Galleries was certainly different from that of The Holocaust Galleries, the quality was undoubtedly of the same standard. Notably, these Galleries had endeavoured to bring into sharper focus aspects of the conflict that had perhaps taken a back seat in more traditional narratives.
For instance, a significant portion of space had been dedicated to representing the monumental role played by the Commonwealth nations in the European campaigns, the Far East and North Africa. Certain lesser known but crucial events such as the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact) were addressed in detail, providing new perspective on the origins of the war. Detailed displays provided immersive mediums through which visitors could discover the realities of life during war and conflict. These included an Anderson Shelter, and even a mock-up accessible home interior, typical of late-thirties Britain.
A thematic and spatial overlap between the exhibits analysing the war at home and those analysing the war on the frontline, served to illustrate the inseparability of the two and the inescapability of a truly global war – while dummy soldiers dressed in full Nazi uniforms, pointing their weapons at invasive angles, helped to instil a sense of genuine discomfort and unease as you progressed through the Galleries.
Both Galleries did an exceptional job of providing a rich plethora of historical information, making the experience immensely rewarding on an intellectual level. However, I also found that the visit spurred my desire to investigate further, with the aim of uncovering the lesser-known chapters within each respective event. After visiting The Holocaust Galleries, I was keen to familiarise myself with the retrospective feelings of survivors – partially towards the events themselves but also to see how these experiences might have shaped their perspectives in a broader sense: regarding ideas of society, community and human nature.
As someone who has studied the Second World War extensively in my own time, the Galleries served to remind me that no matter how much you know about something, you can always know a little bit more! More generally and on a personal level, my time at the galleries provided me with a more of an idea about how I might like to move forward during and after my time with Imperial War Museums.
Although I have never been quite sure about the career I’d like to pursue, museum work has always been present in the back of my mind, somewhere in the realm of dream jobs. Furthermore, I feel more and more fortunate each day to be a part of this prestigious, landmark programme, which has played a fundamental role in the establishment of these monumental Galleries. If a future in museum work is what is in store for me, then I certainly won’t be complaining!
Find out more about the Second World War and Holocaust Partnership.