Collaborative Doctoral Award student, Rebecca Coll, writes about the IWM's historic commitment to progressive methods of research and collecting.

“…a remarkable thing about the war museum is that, despite the nineteenth century type name…right from the beginnings, which were at the end of the First World War, they collected material relating to say women and empire people and so on. Not just the male white generals that you might expect that, that kind of place might do, they, they always wanted to show how the war affected everybody.”

Margaret Brooks, Research Assistant 1973-1983, IWM and Keeper of the Department of Sound Records 1983-2010, IWM (Interview with Margaret Brooks by Robert Wilkinson, February-September 2013, Oral history of oral history in the UK, track 01, Sound & Moving Image catalogue ( reference C1149/30, © The British Library). 

With the recent opening of the new First World War galleries at IWM London, it is important to recognise the museum’s past and present commitment to new and progressive forms of research. The 1960s and 1970s are considered to have been a period of reinvention for the IWM, and the development of the Department of Sound Records was a prime example of this.

The Department of Sound Records was established in 1972. Two years later, the head of the new department, David Lance, wrote in an edition of The Oral History Review that he “knew very little about sound records and was barely aware of the existence of oral history,” when he first took up the position. Another ten years later, the IWM’s Department of Sound Records was internationally recognised as a centre of expertise.

Initially, the collection consisted of 1,100 reels of sound effects and 300 cans of interviews produced by the BBC on The Great War television series of 1964. This expanded to include Home Front war work during the First World War; British involvement in the Spanish Civil War during the inter-war period; and the internment of “enemy aliens” in the UK and of British civilians held abroad during the Second World War. More than focusing on social history, the topics were broad, and staff members recognised this as a deliberately inclusive interpretation of the museum’s terms of reference; there were as many projects concerning the civilian war effort as there were on the military.

Although the department’s creation coincided with the emergence of oral history as an academic subject, the IWM was the only national museum in the UK to have founded a sound records department and an oral history programme as early as 1972.

Not everything in the department ran smoothly of course. One early frustration was that the First World War projects felt like a race against time, due to the depleting numbers of surviving veterans, where the themes had been too general and the amount of self education in oral history techniques too large to produce effective interviews.

However, the sound archives the department catalogued were used for exhibitions, school visits, radio broadcasts, cassette teaching aids, and by independent researchers. The value of the recordings was in their atmosphere, immediacy and the sense of personal involvement conveyed by the testimonies.

The first use of oral history recording in an IWM exhibition was in the recreation of a First World War recruitment office with life-size model figures. The tape recorder, which was operated by the museum’s warders, played brief extracts of interviews with First World War veterans describing the experience of signing up to war.As for radio broadcasts, IWM staff compiled two programmes for BBC Radio 4: “Icarus with an Oilcan” in 1975, which recalled the early days of flying; and “The Loneliest Men” in 1976, which featured conscientious objectors from the First World War.

In 2003 and 2013, David Lance and Margaret Brooks, both former Heads of the Department of Sound Records, were interviewed for the British Library’s “Oral history of oral history in the UK” project. Their inclusion, 30 and 40 years after the creation of the department, demonstrates the significant role the department played in the emergence of oral history as an academic discipline, and the repercussions the work of the staff had beyond the museum.

Today, the IWM’s Sound Archive holds over 34,000 recordings, including material on wars and conflicts post-1945. These projects include the operations of the Fleet Air Arm in Korea, Borneo and the Falklands, and British involvement in Afghanistan.