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Experts discuss how to commemorate marginalised histories of the Second World War

Experts from academia, the media, publishing, education, heritage, and museums discussed how marginalised aspects of Second World War history could be made visible during the forthcoming anniversaries of the conflict at an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded research event led by University of Exeter historian, Professor Catriona Pennell.

The event, Marginalised Histories of the Second World War, held at Kings College London on 11 April 2018, was part of the AHRC-funded Teaching and Learning War Research Network. Together with Co-Investigator Dr Mark Sheehan (Victoria, University of Wellington) the network brings together EU and international researchers and stakeholders, from a range of academic disciplines and professional backgrounds, to explore young people’s engagement with and receptivity to the cultural memory messages of the two world wars from an international comparative perspective. As part of the project, network members are considering what aspects of the histories of the two conflicts are made dominant to young people via their educational experiences, what histories are left on the periphery, and with what consequences.  

The daytime workshop brought together researchers to discuss lesser-known aspects of the Second World War, including the Holocaust, that are usually relegated to the side notes or chapters of broader histories, or are not currently central to commemoration in the UK and the Commonwealth. The keynote speakers were Dr Yasmin Khan, Associate Professor in 18th to early 20th century British History, University of Oxford, and Professor Lucy Noakes, Rab Butler Chair in Modern History at the University of Essex who spoke, respectively about the marginalised experiences of colonised women in the Second World War, and civilian death, burial and bereavement. Themes of marginalisation were then examined across four panels that showcased cutting edge research into the British Army in the Second World War, the war beyond Britain, the Holocaust, and memory of the conflict in Britain, China and Canada. Panellists and Chairs from Canada, Israel, the United States, France and New Zealand joined their colleagues from the UK for a day of discussion and reflection on core questions such as why and how aspects of Second World War and Holocaust history are marginalised, and what caused this marginalisation in the first place.

In the evening, another panel of experts convened in front of a public audience to discuss what lessons had been learned from the centenary of the First World War regarding integrating ‘hidden histories’ into public engagement activity. Chaired by Helen Weinstein, Creative Director of History Works, panellists included Suzanne Bardgett (Head of Research, Imperial War Museum), Rob Attar (Editor, BBC History magazine), Paul Kiem (Professional Officer, History Teachers’ Association of Australia), and Simon Young (Commissioning Editor for History, BBC TV). They were joined by historians Lucy Noakes and Santanu Das (King’s College, London).

Reflecting on their own experiences during the centenary of the First World War, alongside their observations of commemorative activity more generally, the experts considered the opportunities and challenges presented by the spotlight of commemoration being shined on a ‘well known’ area of British history. The centenary of the First World War had, in many ways, pushed public understanding beyond what Helen Weinstein described as ‘trenches, poppies, and war poets’ exposing lesser known narratives such as the role of soldiers from other nations, including India, during the war. Paul Kiem noted the particular success in Australia’s centenary commemorations to acknowledge the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. However, the panellists also noted the shortcomings of the centenary commemorations and a number of missed opportunities to, according to Santanu Das, ‘change the colour of memory’. They discussed, amongst many other provocative issues, how it is necessary, but difficult, to avoid using war centenaries for modern political purposes and the constraints placed on media organisations, such as the BBC, to provide their audiences with an expected narrative of the two world wars.

Professor Pennell said: ‘As a historian of the First World War, it was a real honour to be able to bring together so many Second World War and Holocaust Studies historical ‘heavy-weights’ for this one-day workshop. But perhaps what was most exciting was the way these scholars discussed their work in the light of the cutting edge research being undertaken by British and international early career researchers who were also able to join us thanks to the generous travel bursary scheme provided by the AHRC. The evening roundtable was a fantastic end to the day’s rich discussion highlighting that while many important steps have been taken to diversify the British public’s understanding of the history of the First World War during the centenary commemorations, there is also no room for complacency as we approach the major anniversaries of the Second World War. As we leave the European Union we need to think, more urgently than ever, about how we can compilcate British underdstanding of the Second World War rather than relying on ‘imagined histories’ of the conflict.’

For more information about the event, and the Teaching and Learning War Research Network more generally, please visit the project website: Podcasts from the two keynotes and the evening roundtable are available via this link to freely download.

More information can also be found by following the project’s twitter handle @teachlearnwar

Date: 19 April 2018

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