In a couple of weeks I will be presenting a paper at a conference organised between the Centre for Metropolitan History and the Imperial War Museum on the theme of ‘London and Curating the First World War in the Air’. The conference itself is on ‘London and the First World War‘ and more details can be found here. This paper is a bit of a departure for me as it museum museology with my normal focus of air power history. Rather than provide an analysis of some aspect of the First World War in the Air, what I will actually be doing is looking at items from the RAF Museum’s new First World War in the Air exhibition as they relate to London. I will then be exploring what they mean and some of the decision making behind their inclusion in the exhibition. In this respect, I will be drawing on colleagues knowledge as they were far more intimately involved in selecting items than I. Given this, the paper will, in some respects, be collegiate in character. Here is the proposal:
In April 2014, the Royal Air Force Museum received a £898,558 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a new, ‘The First World War in the Air’ exhibition. This major new exhibition will allow museum audiences to discover and explore the unique and often overlooked role of air power during the First World War through the incredible stories of those who took part. While the exhibition naturally covers the development of the British air services (the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force) across the whole of the First World War’s chronology, the role and place of the capital takes a vital role in the exhibition’s narrative. Indeed, London played a key role in the RAF’s formation and experienced total war from the air of which the emergence of military aviation was clearly representative.
This paper will explore London’s role in the air war through some of the objects on display in this new exhibition. In doing so it will consider some of the curatorial decisions that led to selection of certain objects and what they tell the audience about the capital’s experience during the First World War. These objects range from the Hendon site itself and the Grahame White Factory and Watchtower through to the diary of Nell Tyrell. The Hendon site itself tells us much about the role of the expanding aviation industry in the capital while Tyrell’s diary allows the audience to explore the idea of resilience in the civilian population in response to the rigours of modern war. Overall, recognising the importance of the selection process and relevance of these objects allows for an understanding of the role museums play in depicting history to the public.