War and Memory in the Twentieth Century

By Martin Evans; Ken Lunn | Go to book overview

6
Making Histories: Experiencing the Blitz in London's Museums in the 1990s

Lucy Noakes


Presenting the Past

Look around you in this extraordinary country and contemplate the various Shows and Diversions of the People and then say whether their temper or Mind at various periods of our history may not be collected from them? 1

This chapter focuses on the public production of the past. In the drive to make the past 'come alive' which informs so many of today's public histories -- books, films, television programmes, theme parks and museums -- the Blitz is often privileged over other events of the war years. Two recent representations of the Second World War in London museums, the 'Blitz Experience' in the Imperial War Museum, and the Winston Churchill Britain at War Theme Museum near London Bridge, both focus on the Blitz in their histories of the war.

Why is this? Both exhibitions attempt to represent the experience of the people's war rather than information about diplomatic or political manoeuvnng or military tactics in wartime, yet the Blitz was by no means an experience common to all British people in the way, for example, that rationing was. Air raids were concentrated on the large towns and cities, particularly sites of strategic importance such as Portsmouth, Southampton, Coventry and London. The smaller 'tip-and-run' attacks only occurred over the easily accessible coasts of southern and eastern England. 2 Furthermore, the London Blitz was an experience peculiar to those living in London in 1940-1, and the bulk of the bombing was concentrated on a few boroughs, most notably those in the east of the city such as Stepney. 3 The Blitz, it would appear, is being moved from its position during the war as an important but by no means universal experience to the centre of public memories of the war.

There are several possible reasons for this. In part, it is because the Blitz is both exciting and easily accessible. One does not need a detailed

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