About Me

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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Friday, February 21, 2014

Collections distractions #4: A schoolboy describes a burning zeppelin to his father

Here's a letter I stumbled across a while back, not a surprise as such but startlingly real. It's a letter in which a boy tells his father, in quite a considered, illustrated account, about the burning of a zeppelin right by the house to which he had, I suppose, been evacuated. All four pages can be read in these high-res scans: sheet 1; sheet 2.

Zeppelins were terrifying new technology and were responsible (amongst other things) for many civilian deaths in WW1. They must also have been quite terrifying to be on, being so slow, visible and ludicrously flammable. I was reminded of all of this, and particularly this letter, today whilst talking to some of the people I met at Who Do You Think You Are Live. A gentleman from the RAF Museum told me how it had taken until the middle of the war to realise that, by combining some technologies that had been around for a decade or more, it was possible to set light to enemy balloons (not actually in the way that happened in this account, though, with an incendiary bomb dropped from an aircraft above).

And it all brought back my very first week at IWM, 4 years back, when we new recruits did an object handling session. The mystery object that my group was given turned out to be a felt overboot, worn outside the leather boots of a zeppelin airman (it gets damn cold up there). It was recovered from a Suffolk field after its owner jumped to escape a conflagration of the sort that Patrick Blundstone described. The felt was still blackened from the burning hydrogen.
This is not the boot, but it's not dissimilar:

Boot (felt), Imperial German
Boot (felt), Imperial German © IWM (UNI 12723)

As always, remember that I'm not a historian and many or all of the statements in this post may be incorrect!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

One for Roger

I'm determined to write at least a quick one tonight. Today I heard that Roger Tolson had died. Roger was until recently the Head of Collections at IWM, and prior to that the heart of the Art Department. I didn't see him much over the last couple of years but worked with him quite a lot before that. He was a lovely guy, warm and insightful and patient, passionate about art and our collections more widely. On more that one occasion he went out to bat for me, notably in order to enable us to put our treasured oral history collection online.
I didn't know Roger well enough to be able to claim that I know what he loved best in our collections, but I'm just going to pick a couple of things from our First World War artworks with him in mind, a small sample of its variety.
Wire © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2705)

Indian Army Wounded In Hospital in the Dome, Brighton
Indian Army Wounded In Hospital in the Dome, Brighton © IWM (Art.IWM ART 323)

Royal Irish Fusiliers: 'Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux: 21st May 1917'
Royal Irish Fusiliers: 'Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux: 21st May 1917' © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3013)

A Daylight Raid On London, 7th July 1917: Seen from the roof of the Royal College of Science with the Brompton Oratory in the
A Daylight Raid On London, 7th July 1917: Seen from the roof of the Royal College of Science with the Brompton Oratory in the foreground © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1070)
Monitor at Anchor in Bay, Imbros, 1.45pm, June 22nd 1915
Monitor at Anchor in Bay, Imbros, 1.45pm, June 22nd 1915 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 4360)

Roger, I'm so sorry that we won't see you any more.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Collection distractions #3: West African Troops in India During the Second World War

At least here in the UK, we tend to think about the British Empire in terms of the relationships between Britain and its dominions, and the British and the people of those countries. Of course that's very blinkered, but probably true nevertheless. Seeing the picture below suddenly reminded me that the people in those many and varied parts of the world had their own relationships too - they weren't only connected through the personage of whoever was on the throne in London at the time. Of course, when these West African and Indian soldiers met was an extraordinary situation - these people and their homelands having been drawn into a second gigantic war that started so far away but turned the world upside down. And I have no idea how they felt about Britain, the British, the Empire, or one another, but seeing these faces mixed together was like turning on a light for me.


Within five years of this picture being taken India gained independence, which reached Ghana, the last of the West African territories, in 1965. Shortly after that the British Empire was pretty much history, but like the two world wars themselves its legacy is easily detected.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Collection distractions #2: Stereoscopic photos at the IWM

Well today's collection distraction* is a number of stereoscopic photographs, mainly from the First World War**. These are pairs of images shot with a single camera and intended to be viewed with something akin to binoculars to get a 3D effect, and we have a few hundred (I reckon), around 150 digitised. I was prompted by seeing one and the very next day seeing a tweet about the New York Public Library's brilliant Stereogranimator, which takes the images and merges them into either an animated GIF or an anaglyph - those pictures where you need an old-fashioned pair of 3D glasses with one red and one blue lens. You get to make them with a tool they offer, and you can either use one of NYPL's own (pairs of) images, or upload from Flickr. Nice app, even if the results can be variable.
So here is one of our images and its "stereogranimated" version:


4th Australian Brigade Pierrots at the 15th Australian Brigade Sports at Bois de Mai, Cardonnette, near Amiens, 8 June 1918.© IWM (Q 8180)

GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator - view more at http://stereo.nypl.org/gallery/index
GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator

Quite a few of our images seem to have come from this sports-day, but that's not really why stereoscopic images were popular at the time. Here's an illustration of their military use:
German stereoscopic camera fitted with periscope for trench use on the Western Front.
German stereoscopic camera fitted with periscope for trench use on the Western Front. © IWM (Q 23938)

I don't know if such an apparatus was responsible for this view of the devastation at Verdun in 1916, (no animated GIF I'm afraid) but if you take a look at the zoomable version the scale of destruction is horrifying. The third dimension could surely have helped to tease out some understanding of this confusion.
Here's another battlefield use, albeit not more memorial than practical:

Battle of the Soissonnais. Prisoners taken by the 34th Division on the morning of 29th July 1918 when they captured Hill 158. © IWM (Q 8190)

GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator - view more at http://stereo.nypl.org/gallery/index
GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator

Go and take a look at the whole lot.

* yeah of course I had to come up with some sort of tagline for this supposed series of posts. This is subject to change. But it does reflect the fact that I am distracted far too often from what I should probably be doing by something amazing in our collections.
** I'm going to try to be a good boy and use this phrase instead of "World War I" like the rest of the world. I'm on-message, me.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Collection distractions #1: IWM's First World War films

This week at Imperial War Museums we finally made available a newly digitised set of films dating to the First World War (and just before/after). These added hundreds to those we had already digitised, bringing the total to around 1200 hugely varied early films. In fact I think there may be more that listed at that link, because some have not been tagged with their period (feel free to remove the period filters). Digitisation was funded with the generous assistance of the EFG1914 project, part of the European Film Gateway. Take a look at what they have. You are welcome to reuse many of the films you can see on our website - just click the "share and reuse" link to grab the embedding code, where it's available. At the moment I'm afraid it's streaming Flash but I have that in my sights, together with higher quality renditions (those annoying watermarks should go in due course). Today I've picked a couple of aviation-related films that have caught my eye:

British Women's Air Force
Not as glamorous as it sounds...
Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutters taking off from HMS Argus
This one I can't embed, but go and take a look. It's quite cool seeing how they're brought up to the deck on lifts, and they seem to take off at almost walking speed.
Unfolding the wings of a Short bomber and various other shots of aircraft - flying boats etc. I don't know much about these early planes but I'm constantly surprised at how these things could even fly, at the speed of development that took us from the Wright brothers barely getting off the ground a few years earlier to these varied and formidable weird machines.
German fliers and planes on the Western Front, 1916-1918.
Talking of unexpected machines, when I first saw pictures of the Gotha bombers I was taken aback. Here's a whole variety-pack of German aircraft, including Gothas (which first brought the terror of war from the air to London), as well as dog-fights (some of it fake), aerial photography, and (in reel 2) observation balloons on fire, the Red Baron, and Hermann Goering. Ugh. Here's reel 1:

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Pivoting like it's 1999: introducing "Collection Distractions"

So, although I finished serious work on my PhD over a year ago and in theory have more time to blog, and despite the fact that I have plenty of things I want to write about and plenty more I probably should tell you about (things are busy at IWM), the clear fact is that I don't. I've just not got the energy, and I'm using my time to, well, have a life. Part of the problem is that I can't write briefly, but I have a plan. There's something that's a constant source of inspiration and which I frequently want to share, namely the things I stumble across in IWM's collections. I'm no historian and I will not be trying to instruct or talk with any authority; equally I'm not Retronaut, and may be tempted on occasion to dig a little deeper or add some context (within my limited ability). The things that catch my eye do so for all kinds of reasons: sometimes it's that shock of disruption to assumed knowledge, in the way that Retronaut aims to do; sometimes it's a moving story or a comment from a user; sometimes it's simply an engrossing film or an amazing artwork; and all of these are seen from the vantage point of an amateur (though learning every day). In due course I will also try to find a way to promote some of the things that have been done with our collections by other people/organisations and indeed to try some new things myself - it's been a while since I played with collections data and content. So if I'm true to my word you can expect more frequent, quick-and-easy posts showing you things I would hesitate to term "treasures", given the nature of IWM's subject matter, but which can nevertheless be extraordinarily profound, moving, beautiful or sometimes horrifying. Let's see how it goes.