In museums, Cold War history is often hidden in plain sight. Objects are silently relevant. Timelines skip across well-known dates of the postwar period. Maps steer visitors’ eyes towards ‘hotspots’. Thematic exhibitions shake up narrative. Omission is the natural by-product of curatorial focus. Coupled with the false but detrimental view by visitors themselves that they know very little about the Cold War, the camouflaged character of this historical topic is both a museological challenge and an opportunity.

An important project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council is unpicking this conundrum - Materialising the Cold War (AHRC Project Reference: AH/V001078/1). Our three-year research project, undertaken by scholars and museum practitioners at National Museums Scotland (NMS) and the University of Stirling, is investigating how the Cold War has been and continues to be collected, curated, exhibited and how various audiences expect to encounter it in museums. With partners at the Imperial War Museum, RAF Museum, Norwegian Museum of Flight, Bodø, and Allied Museum, Berlin we are analysing displays, interviewing museum professionals, comparing data and recording findings. Materialising the Cold War will ultimately contribute to improved collections strategies, innovative resources and institutional change.

In this post I discuss some of the questions underpinning our project and introduce examples from my own work as one of the researchers on the team.

The role of a museum object depends on the circumstances in which it is situated. No object has only one history to tell but its perspectives are muted or emphasised depending on the context of its display. Take, for example, aircraft. The lifetime service of an aircraft could span several wartime and civil operations; it could have been built for one purpose but served another; it might have been stationed for decades in one place but seen its most intense action for just one week elsewhere. Looking beyond the big names of Cold War aviation (the Avro Vulcan, B-52 etc.) this is a distinct challenge for curators of contemporary conflict. In conventional terms, aircraft are relevant by dint of the action they have encountered, rather than the circumstances in which they originated.

the Sepecat Jaguar GR-1 hanging to the far left in Hangar 6, RAF Museum Hendon
Courtesy of Jessica Douthwaite
The Sepecat Jaguar GR-1 hanging to the far left in Hangar 6, RAF Museum Hendon

The Sepecat Jaguar GR-1 is an excellent example of this: it is best known for its role in the Gulf War and in United Nations operations over the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s. Some might argue that this aircraft model came to life in post-1989 conflicts and this is why it was chosen as an object for the RAF Museum’s contemporary Age of Uncertainty gallery in Hendon. Yet, this model is also a crucial example of Anglo-French cooperation in a Cold War security context and its projected and lived experience in Northern NATO countries, especially RAF Germany, is testament to political and military efforts to defend against war with the USSR. As RAF Museum curator Andrew Dennis explains in a blog post that details the Sepecat Jaguar’s Cold War origins, ‘while writing captions for exhibitions we aim to keep them short and snappy as there is so much for visitors to see, read and do, but sometimes 75 words don’t seem enough.’ What would happen if mute objects of the Cold War period were given a more prominent platform? What would happen if we under-emphasised action and amplified intention and invention? The Cold War could be re-told from an eye-opening position of possibilities.

Interpretation panel in Hangar 6, RAF Museum Hendon
Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the RAF Museum
Interpretation panel in Hangar 6, RAF Museum Hendon

Even the most captivating object can be lost on us without historical context. A sense of time and place allows audiences to recognise and compute the significance of the material displayed in museums. When it comes to the Cold War, from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the fall of the Berlin Wall, some events are go-to markers on museum timelines. The difficulty for anyone creating a display timeline is that without building in relevance to non-experts and general audiences it will be abstract and illegible. Chronology is crucial for visitor comprehension but how can it be humanised?

In a conversation with me on 21 September 2022, Natalia, Exhibitions & Displays Officer at NMS, wondered how to insert our audiences – often so distant from these infamous events – into the Cold War chronology. She used the example of a very different exhibition, Fossil Hunters, to suggest that when it comes to the Cold War, ‘we need to situate people in time, in place, so they can then understand the rest of the exhibition… it’s really important to tie events that people don’t know about, especially complex events, to something they understand.’ Natalia’s favourite example from her own experience is an animated 12-hour clock designed in 2015 to greet visitors at the entrance of an exhibition telling the story of the ground-breaking discovery of fossils that explained Romer’s Gap. Natalia emphasised that the installation gave visitors a different way of conceiving and comprehending theirs’ and the fossils’ place in world time. I can’t help but wonder how a Cold War timeline could place visitors at the centre of Cold War action without relying on events like the Berlin Airlift or Cuban Missile Crisis.

Maps complement timelines for much the same reasons – visually locating events so that visitors can perceive global connections.  However, the standard global map, labelled with ‘hotspots’, boundaries, and zones, does little to convey the complexity, flexibility and globality of a four decades’ long conflict. De-centring gallery maps might go some way towards re-focusing visitor’s attention. What would Cold War geography look like if we centred its map on the arctic? What would a granular map of London convey if we marked it with 40 years of Cold War history? What if we avoided the standard world map of events and viewed the Cold War from space, could an atmospheric map visualise something new about this history? Minimising or maximising the lens on Cold War maps could reconfigure the perspective from which we understand events. Moreover, using digital maps might enhance this narrative of complex and interlinked events.

A map of divided postwar Germany depicting the position of Berlin within the Easter zone, displayed at IWM, London in the Peace & Security gallery
Courtesy of Jessica Douthwaite
A map of divided postwar Germany depicting the position of Berlin within the Easter zone, displayed at IWM London in the Peace & Security gallery

Ultimately, there is room to broaden and deepen the chance to learn about the Cold War in museums. This requires an honest, transparent appraisal of what is interesting, representative, and valuable to different audiences. It also means communicating what visitors might not know through the various media available to us. If Cuba, the 1980s, aircraft and missiles are the stalwart places, times and material of the popular Cold War, how can we profile their counterpoints and rectify the knowledge deficit?