In recent years, there has been a remarkable surge in interest surrounding the preservation and exploration of Cold War heritage in the UK, the US, and Western Europe. This newfound fascination has given birth to a distinctive niche in cultural tourism, attracting travellers eager to relive the intriguing echoes of the Cold War era. However, the allure of Cold War heritage and tourism extends far beyond mere curiosity, particularly in Eastern Europe, where it intertwines with the complex history of communist regimes and their eventual downfall.

Thanks to the support of a Leverhulme British Academy Small Grant, we have secured a unique opportunity to explore the curatorship and memory of Cold War heritage in both Eastern and Western Europe, focusing on visitor engagement and experience. This pioneering project is the first of its kind, approaching Cold War heritage from a tourism perspective, with the ultimate goal of helping to preserve, sustain and promote these sites and to better understand and share their stories. We are optimistic that our research funds, as well as both the AHRC funded ‘Materialising The Cold War' (National Museum Scotland and University of Stirling) and NUSpaces (Joint Programming Initiative for Cultural Heritage and Global Change across the UK, Sweden and Lithuania) point to a new interest Cold War as heritage and signifies a reawakening of interest akin to what was seen for industrial heritage in the 1980s.

USAF Bunker at Alconbury with items from the former runway
USAF Bunker at Alconbury with items from the former runway

Our research at Leeds Beckett University encompasses a diverse array of notable sites, each offering unique insights into the Cold War era and its cultural significance. Some of the prominent sites included in the study are:

  • Scotland's Secret Bunker: A former government facility hidden beneath a Scottish farm, now open to the public, offering a glimpse into Cold War-era preparations for nuclear conflict.
  • RAF Radar Museum (RAF Neatishead): A historical site that played a vital role in Britain's air defence system during the Cold War.
  • The Gorse Industrial Estate: Formerly RAF Barnham, the site includes the reasonably complete remains of the storage facility for nuclear fissile cores, together with workshops and storage for airdropped nuclear bombs.
  • Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker: A well-preserved underground nuclear bunker designed to shelter and protect government officials during nuclear threats.
  • Dover Castle: The medieval castle has a network of underground tunnels that served as the command centre for Operation Dynamo during World War II and a lower level of tunnels that were used as a Cold War bunker.
  • Orford Ness: A remote location on a shingle spit off the Suffolk coast known for its role in nuclear research and testing during the Cold War.
  • IWM Duxford: A historic airfield and museum with a vast collection of military aircraft, reflecting the significance of aviation during the Cold War.
  • Alconbury Weald: The former RAF base at Alconbury Weald has undergone a transformative development and now blends historic structures with modern amenities, creating a unique community.
  • Upper Heyford: Much like Alconbury Weald, this new community development has Section 106 funding to conserve key Cold War era buildings on the site used by the United States Air Force (USAF).
Images from Upper Heyford - left, USAF Bomber Command and right, USAF Hangar
Images from Upper Heyford - left, USAF Bomber Command and right, USAF Hangar

The research has revealed several key findings related to heritage, curatorship, and visitor experiences. These findings provide valuable insights into the challenges and complexities faced in preserving, interpreting, and presenting Cold War sites to the public. We have started to bring together our findings, which are summarised below:

Western European sites predominantly focus on military aspects, espionage, and big tech, showcasing the region's strategic role during the Cold War. Access to these sites has improved over time, and narratives often imply the West's victory in the ideological struggle. Many Western European sites have been repurposed based on pop culture representations, attracting Urbex and bunkerology enthusiasts.

In contrast, Cold War heritage in Eastern Europe centres on social and civilian experiences, highlighting the impact of communist regimes on ordinary lives. Interpretations here revolve around lived experiences, often using guided tours and hyperreal techniques to evoke emotions from that era. While acknowledging the West's victory, the emphasis in Eastern Europe lies on the fall of communist regimes rather than attributing success solely to the West. 

Both regions contribute distinct perspectives on the Cold War's historical significance, providing a deeper understanding of its global impact. These findings also underscore the importance of preserving and presenting Cold War heritage, as well as the challenges faced in maintaining authenticity, addressing conflicting narratives, and navigating evolving visitor interests. Ultimately, the research demonstrates growing appreciation for this critical period in history and its lasting implications on our modern world.

Restoration of Barnton Quarry Bunker in Edinburgh
Restoration of Barnton Quarry Bunker in Edinburgh

The research project has achieved significant milestones including a dissemination event at Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker which facilitated knowledge exchange between researchers and heritage professionals. Two workshops engaged PhD students and academics, encouraging further exploration in the field. A specialized workshop for IWM curators addressed curatorship challenges. Published papers explored curatorship, visitor experiences, and collective memories within Cold War sites, contributing to academic discourse. The project also secured a contract to write a visitor friendly book on Cold War sites in Britain, making history accessible to a broader audience.

In conclusion, the research project has achieved significant milestones in disseminating knowledge, fostering collaboration, and expanding expertise in Cold War heritage. We are now keen to develop a network of Cold War site curators and owners.  The Cold War Network aims to bring together professionals, researchers, curators, site owners, and enthusiasts with a shared interest in preserving and interpreting Cold War heritage. This first meeting will explore how a network will operate, will provide an opportunity to share best practices and will lay the foundations for jointly developing a major research grant. 

The event will take place at Alconbury Weald on 12 October 2023 and will be a day filled with engaging discussions, presentations, workshops and a tour of the site. If you would like to join us, please confirm your attendance by 30 September 2023 by emailing Peter Robinson at [email protected]