Telling Poland’s turbulent history

Faces
Three faces of Polish fighters during the Warsaw Rising of 1944 on display in the Warsaw Rising Museum.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to take a trip to Poland, and to visit two of its flagship museums.  Both located in the country’s capital city, they address some of the major themes in Poland’s traumatic and turbulent history.

The first was POLIN:Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Its subject matter is exactly what one would expect from its title and the scope and scale of its content is vast. It was awarded European Museum of the Year 2016 and it is easy to understand why.  It follows the story of Poland’s Jewish population and explains how Jews have been an integral part of the country for a thousand years.

The challenge facing the designers of this museum was to create a meaningful and engaging place with very few original artefacts.  The harsh reality of Poland’s history is that successive invasions and occupations have taken a toll on its physical history.  It is conservatively estimated that a quarter of a million works of art, a huge proportion of Poland’s cultural heritage, were looted by the occupying forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during the Second World War and few have ever been recovered. However, once inside POLIN it is very clear that this challenge has been met and overcome very effectively,with clever and innovative interpretation filling the gap.

The museum’s core exhibitions are succinctly described on the museum’s website as follows:

The exhibition is made up of eight galleries, spread over an area of 4000 sq.m., presenting the heritage and culture of Polish Jews, which still remains a source of inspiration for Poland and for the world. The galleries portray successive phases of history, beginning with legends of arrival, the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Poland and the development of Jewish culture. We show the social, religious and political diversity of Polish Jews, highlighting dramatic events from the past, the Holocaust, and concluding with contemporary times.

Synagoge Roof
The amazing recreation of the painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue at Gwoździec in one of the galleries at POLIN.

Each of these eight galleries has its own style and method of storytelling, and a wide range of techniques are used. From a beautifully animated 3D map of Krakow and Kazimierz in the 16th Century, through a stunning recreation of the painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue from Gwoździec, the galleries are a feast for the eyes.  But of course the Jewish story has a much more traumatic side to it, as indeed does that of Poland.  The fourth of the eight galleries reflects on how at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned Poland and how during the next century Poland’s Jews, and for that matter the rest of the Polish population,  were divided to live dispersed under each of the three powers.

Jewish Street
A representation of a Jewish street from the 1920/30s inside POLIN.

This is followed by ‘the Jewish Street’ a reconstruction of a scene from the Jewish district of Warsaw in the 1920/30s and tells the story of the brief post-First World War resurgence of Jewish nationalism in Poland during this period, before the savage repression of the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War.  The museum itself stands in the centre of what was Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, opposite the memorial to the Ghetto Heroes of the 1943 Ghetto Uprising which was erected in 1948.  The museum therefore unsurprisingly covers in detail the impact of the Holocaust.  It chronicles its cruel consequences for Poland’s Jewish population and is told with no ‘punches pulled’. The visual impression of the Holocaust gallery is dark and oppressive as one would expect given that more than three million Polish Jews were eventually murdered during this period. The galleries finish with the opportunity to reflect on the thousand years of Poland’s Jewish history and what that memory means for Polish Jews today.

Ghetto Memorial
The memorial to the Ghetto Heroes of Warsaw is situated opposite the POLIN museum in the centre of what was the Jewish ghetto.  In was raised in 1948 in memory of those who died in the abortive 1943 Ghetto Uprising.

POLIN is a monumental museum in more than one way.  As a pure museum it is enormous in its scope, making it the sort of place one would need to visit time and again to really appreciate the depth of content.  But it is also a memorial to the human spirit and its ability to survive through adversity and emerge, battered and brutalised, despite the most awful of conditions. And it is this human spirit that is also celebrated in the second of the museums I wish to consider.

Uniforms
Uniforms worn by Polish fighters during the Warsaw Rising on display in the Warsaw Rising Museum.

The Warsaw Rising Museum, in contrast to POLIN, tells the story of a much shorter, but equally emotive, period of Polish history, the Warsaw Rising of 1 August to 2 October 1944. Housed in a building that formerly served as the power station for the Warsaw tram system, its exterior is imposing, and topped with a modern observation tower affording views over the city.

Rising Museum
The former power station for the Warsaw tram system which now houses the Warsaw Rising Museum.

The Museum was opened on 31 July 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the fighting in the city that marked the start of the Rising. The exhibitions within chart the hardships of everyday life before and during the Rising, and the appalling conditions the people of Warsaw lived under during the occupation.  It is also a tribute and memorial to those who fought and died for a free Poland.  The interpretation is excellent with great use of images and sound, as well as film that was amazingly recorded during the Rising.  At the very heart of the Museum is a steel monument which stretches from bottom to top linking all floors of the building. Inside the memorial one can hear the sound of a heartbeat which symbolises the beating heart of fighting Warsaw in 1944 and is a rather eerie presence throughout the museum.

The collection of artefacts dispersed within the museum includes uniforms worn by the combatants, the weapons they were armed with and, very evocatively, the original named red and white armbands worn by some of the fighters. There are also sections that look at many different and more unusual aspects of the occupation and Rising.  These include the cultural activities that continued despite the fighting and the role of young boys and girls who carried out the very dangerous role of postmen and women for the Field Postal Service by carrying messages around the city.

Armband
This wall displays original armbands worn by the Polish fighters during the Rising. Each is signed with the individual’s name. The letters WP denote Wojsko Polskie – Polish Armed Forces.

Like POLIN the execution of this museum is excellent.  The story is told using a wide range of interpretation methods, the scope of the content is huge, and again a single visit does not do the content justice.  It is also very clear how important to the story of modern Poland the Rising is, and how revered its veterans are held within the country.

Before I visited Warsaw I had a rudimentary understanding of Polish history and its place, by virtue of its geography, as a ‘buffer nation’ between two much more powerful, and at times aggressive, neighbours.  I knew of its Jewish past and the appalling atrocities inflicted on its Jewish citizens during the Holocaust, and I was aware of the wartime Rising.  What I was not aware of was the detail, in particular the myriad personal stories and tragedies therein. Both these museums help the visitor to access and understand these stories and I came away from my visits much better informed.  I am now also much better able to understand the huge national pride that Poland as a nation and its people display, and the important role these museums are playing in immortalising its turbulent history.

Rising Museum memorial
The towering monument at the centre of the Warsaw Rising museum which records each day of the fighting and within which can be heard, as well as a heartbeat, the sounds of the Rising such as gunfire, radio announcements, prayers and falling bombs.
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In the footsteps of the Blue and Gray at Gettysburg

Blue and Gray Title
The Wheatfield at Gettysburg

June was a busy month with a great deal of travel that kept me from my computer.  The highlight of this travelling was attending the Civil War Trust Annual Conference held in the evocative surroundings of Gettysburg.  For three and a half days I was able to immerse myself, alongside five hundred like-minded enthusiasts, in the fascinating and inspiring history of America’s greatest battle.  Superbly organised and executed, the conference also brought together a veritable ‘Whose Who’ of American Civil War historians and authors who delivered talks and conducted a whole range of very illuminating battlefield tours.

I participated in two tours both of which proved fascinating and educational. The first was led by lawyer and author Eric J. Wittenberg and followed the route of JEB Stuart’s ill-fated ride round the Union Army in the lead up to the Battle of Gettysburg.  Picking up the ride in Westminster, Maryland, we followed Stuart’s ride northwards via Union Mills, Hanover, Carlisle and Hunterstown during which Eric’s understanding of this oft misunderstood part of the Gettysburg Campaign became very clear. The debate about Stuart’s conduct during that period quickly developed.  Did Stuart neglect, or exceed his orders,  and deprive Lee of his ‘yes and ears’? Or did he interpret his orders correctly and take the initiative to cause disruption in the Union rear and gather important supplies?  These questions and many more will undoubtedly continue to be discussed for years to come, but Eric Wittenberg’s tour shed light and insight on the whole affair and certainly provided participants with plenty of food for thought.

Statue Hannover
Author and historian Eric J. Wittenberg presents the story of the Battle of Hanover (30 June 1863) in front of Cyrus E Dallin’s statute ‘The Picket’ depicting a Union Cavalryman which was erected in 1905.

The second tour was, for me, the highlight of the conference.  Entitled ‘Walking the Union Fishhook’, it took the form of an eight-mile hike right around the Union defensive position that had developed by the morning of 2 July 1863.  The map below show this position very well and how it fitted into the overall narrative and flow of the battle.

battle-of-gettysburg-official-history-map
The Battle of Gettysburg showing the Union ‘fishhook’ position and the action over the three days of the battle. ©Thomaslegion.net

Guided by two qualified Gettysburg Licensed Guides – the Civil War Trust’s own Director of History and Education, Gary Adelman, and serving US Marine Corps Colonel, Doug Douds – we started the tour on the summit of Little Round Top at the southern tip of the Union line.  It was immediately clear that we were in for an informative and entertaining day as both guides launched into their delivery with gusto.  Readers may recall that I sung the praises of the Gettysburg Licenced Guides programme in a previous blog post, and these two gentlemen certainly lived up to my previous billing.  This programme produces guides with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg, its terrain, its history and its participants, as a result their ability to engage an audience is without exception outstanding.

Gettysburg Guides
Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides ‘in the zone’.  The Civil War Trust’s Gary Adelman (left) at the National Cemetery, and Colonel Doug Douds (right) on Culp’s Hill.

The actions of Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren in highlighting the Union’s exposed flank on 2 July 1863, and the actions of Colonel Strong Vincent’s Brigade to hold Little Round Top were explained by Gary and Doug, and with these fresh in our minds we started on the hike. Moving off the top of the hill and we transversed the close country of the Western slopes of Little Round Top, passing through a little known, nor visited, rocky feature know as the ‘Devil’s Kitchen’ before arriving in the better known ‘Devil’s Den’.  Here the complementary skills and interests of our two guides came to the fore.  Doug regaled us with the story of the battlefield actions in this part of the field, whilst Gary talked about the photography that was conducted shortly after the battle to record the event and the rise of the battlefield as a tourist attraction, including the facilities, such as a railway, put in place during the nineteenth century to facilitate this trade.

The next stage of the tour took us to the infamous Wheatfield the site of some of the bloodiest fighting on the battlefield and a location that changed hands six times during the course of 2 July 1863.  As we moved through the terrain from Little Round Top to Devil’s Den and on to the Wheatfield our guides flagged up a truism that can be easily missed on this battlefield, and many others, if one explores them in the traditional manner.  All too often tours will take one, in a car or a coach, from location to location and each stop or stand is treated as an isolated action on the battlefield.  What is often missing is the narrative or interpretation of how that action fitted with action happening in adjacent locations geographically or with that happening at the same time elsewhere on the field.  Walking the whole Union position quickly highlighted how all the actIons and activities were inextricably interrelated and how something happening in one location often had a knock on effect elsewhere.

Devil's Den to Little Round Top
The view from Devil’s Den to Little Round Top on an overcast morning.

This cause and effect inter-relationship was nowhere clearer that when we reached the Trostle Farm and discussed the actions of Major General Dan Sickles and the Union Third Corps.  As Sickles moved his corps forward to occupy what he felt was better ground, he created a gap in the Union position that then require others, in particular Winfield Scott Hancock and his Second Corps, to fill. Walking from the Trostle Farm to the heart of Cemetery Ridge it became very clear just how big a gap was created and problems it produced elsewhere in the Union lines.

Penn Memorial
The Pennsylvania State Memorial at Gettysburg.

The tour continued along the centre of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge where we stopped to discuss the awesome Pennsylvania State Memorial and the action at the famous  Angle which has become known as the ‘High Watermark of the Confederacy‘. From there we moved on through the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the resting place for more than 3,500 Union dead and where at the cemetery’s dedication Abraham Lincoln delivered ‘…a few appropriate remarks…’ which turned out to be one of the greatest speeches of all time, and is now referred to as the Gettysburg Address. The tour concluded with the eastern most portions of the Union line and took us over the wooded Culp’s Hill finishing at Spangler’s Spring. Again throughout we were able to appreciate the terrain from less well-visited viewpoints and to continue to build our understanding of the inter-relationship between the various parts of the battle.

At the conclusion of this walk I, and many of my fellow participants, commented and reflected on the new and different perspective we all had gained.  Whilst most of us had been to the battlefield, many on numerous occasions, and had toured in many different ways, be it by coach, by car or even walking parts of it, few if any had completed such a complete and in-depth study of the Union position.   The insights gained and understanding enhanced by doing so was marked.  The lesson learned here, and that I for one took away was relatively simple.  It is dangerous to attempt to understand history, particularly of such a complex event as a battle, by picking a few salient points in isolation and it is crucial tolook at new perspectives and appreciate the often complex interplay of activities  in order to build a full and accurate picture.  And that is my excuse when my wife enquires as to why I need to need to spend yet more time on a particular battlefield!

East Cemetery Hill from SE
A view not often seen by the average visitor to Gettysburg.  East Cemetery Hill from the South East with Winfield Scott Hancock’s Statue in the centre and the entrance to the Evergreen Cemetery on the left.

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War

Tin Hat
Jacob Epstein’s ‘The Tin Hat’.

The First World War, like many wars, inspired a plethora of artistic creativity. Books such as Robert Graves ‘Goodbye to All That’ and Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ are well-known, indeed often studied in schools. Likewise Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and other war poets have, even today, a disproportionate influence in shaping our collective thinking about the First World War. To my mind the ‘Cinderella’ in these artistic influences is the field of painting and sculpture.  A whole raft of work of this genre of visual arts did appear during and after the War, some privately and some produced by official war artists, yet I suspect many people would struggle to name even one artist, although they would probably recognise their work.

A couple of weekends ago I visited an exhibition at the York Art Gallery which is playing its part in redressing this situation. Entitled ‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’ it brings together a collection of more than sixty works of art, both paintings and sculptures, in order to celebrate and reflect on the artistic output the War produced. It includes works by Paul Nash, John Nash, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts, CRW Nevinson, William Orpen, Anna Airy, Dorothy Coke and sculptors Jacob Epstein and Charles Sargeant Jagger.  The exhibition is summarised in the accompanying blurb as follows:

‘Working either privately or as official war artists, they wanted to give a true sense of the horror, human sacrifice and tragic consequences of ‘total war’.

They reflected this in their fragmented depictions of soldiers, trenches, artillery, and in images of a torn and violated landscape. Modern artistic movements stressed the mechanised nature of the war and the new destruction this brought.

These artists searched for reason and meaning in the conflict, finding ways to capture and commemorate the events of the First World War both at home and on the front lines and helped form a collective memory that remains with us a century later.’

Advertised as the largest exhibition of First World War art for almost one hundred years, it was first shown in the Imperial War Museum in London, but is now on display in York in a revised form which includes pieces from York’s own collections to give it a unique flavour.

John Nash Over the Top
‘Over The Top’ by John Nash (the left hand of these two paintings.)

Arranged over three rooms on the ground floor of the gallery, the exhibition is beautifully presented and very engaging.  The mix of paintings and sculpture is well-balanced and is a superb showcase of the art of the period. There are some items with which even those with only a passing knowledge of the art of the period will be familiar, such as John Nash’s ‘Over The Top’ (seen above). Others will, I expect, be unknown to most visitors but the mix of familiar and new makes for a fascinating visit.

There are three pieces that I would highlight and which to me capture the spirit of this collection.  First, shown at the top of this blog post, is a bronze bust by Jacob Epstein entitled ‘The Tin Hat’ (1916).  It is a simple piece crafted in Epstein’s recognisable style. It depicts a British soldier of the First World War his face an encapsulation of the stoic determination displayed by those who served on the Western Front. His steel helmet is worn at a jaunty angle and to me he is the epitome of the British First World War ‘Tommy’, although in many respects he could represent the British soldier of almost any era. Displayed alone on a plinth in the centre of the central room of this exhibition, it is a powerful and evocative piece.

Nash Menin Road
‘The Menin Road’ by Paul Nash in situ at York Art Gallery.

The second item I would highlight is ‘The Menin Road’ (1919) by Paul Nash (older brother of John Nash mentioned above.) Paul Nash was an official war artist and in April 1918 was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to paint a picture for a proposed National Hall of Remembrance. He chose as his subject the Ypres Salient, and between June 1918 and February 1919 completed this large 60 foot square picture. He used striking imagery to create a vivid picture of the battlefield.  Water-filled shell holes, tree stumps and battlefield debris set against a dark brooding sky, capture for me the appalling conditions the soldiers on the Western Front had to endure.  The image is iconic and to see it ‘in the flesh’ is very moving.

Airy Pics
Two pictures by Anna Airy, an official war artist. The left hand picture is ‘A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London’ (1918).

The final work that I would highlight is one of a set by the artist Anna Airy and is entitled ‘A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London’ (1918).  Airy was an established painter before the War and was one of the first women to be officially commissioned as a war artist. She was given a number of commissions to capture the conditions in, and work of, the factories making war machinery and munitions.  The exhibition includes a number of her works but this one stood out. It very effectively pictures the working conditions inside a factory forging shell cases.  Her depiction of the red hot shells being forged is so lifelike one can almost feel the heat radiating from them as you stand before the painting.

In summary this is a tremendous exhibition. To get such a rich collection of First World War art together outside London is a great coup for York Art Gallery, for which they are to be commended, and has probably contributed to the gallery being shortlisted in the annual Art Fund Museum of the Year competition. As a collection it provides a fascinating and engaging insight, and as I alluded to at the start of this blog post, an interesting contrast to the books and poetry that we perhaps more commonly associate with the First World War.  The exhibition is currently running in the York Art Gallery until 4 September 2016, and I urge everyone to pay a visit. You will not be disappointed!

York Gallery General View
A general view of one of the three rooms housing ‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’ exhibition at the York Art Gallery.

Stow Maries: An evocative tribute to First World War aviation.

Aircraft Stow Maries
Aircraft on the ground and in the air at Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome.

One hundred years ago a new threat to the United Kingdom was forcing the Government to introduce new measures to defend the country.  From early 1915 German airships had been attacking and, whilst the casualties were very low compared to those that would be experienced in the ‘Blitz’ of the Second World War, this new form of warfare was causing alarm and fear amongst the population.  In response to this unrest, in late 1915, a number of new Home Defence Squadrons began to be formed with the aim of providing a dedicated force of aircraft to defend the country’s eastern approaches.  These squadrons, eleven in all, began to come into operation from January 1916.  One of these squadrons, 37 (Home Defence) Squadron Royal Flying Corps, was formed in September 1916 with its headquarters at Woodham Mortimer and its three flights located at three separate, and newly built, aerodromes in Essex: Rochford, Stow Maries and Goldhanger.   Its mission was to provide air defence on the eastern approaches to London.

Air Raid Damage 1917
Firemen hose down the smouldering remains of Cox’s Court off Little Britain in the City of London after a Gotha air raid on 7 July 1917. © IWM (HO 77)

The aerodrome at Stow Maries, the home of 37 Squadron’s B Flight, was initially under the command of Lieutenant Claude Ridley who, at 19 years of age, was already a decorated veteran of the Royal Flying Corps with a Military Cross and a Distinguished Service Order to his name. Under his command the first aircraft (rather inadequate BE12s) arrived at Stow Maries in October 1916 and the station became operational in May 1917. At its height the station was manned by 219 personnel of whom 16 were aircrew, with the rest supporting staff (of whom about 20 were female). During its operational period from May 1917 to May 1918, 81 operational sorties were flown from Stow Maries to intercept airships, Gotha and Giant bombers. By the summer of 1918 the Germans were being driven back on mainland Europe and were no longer able to threaten the United Kingdom from the air.  As a result Stow Maries, now a station belonging to the newly formed Royal Air Force, re-roled to provide a training and support function until 1919 when, as part of post-war rationalisation, the squadron was relocated to RAF Biggin Hill. At that point Stow Maries aerodrome went back to agricultural use, although very importantly the buildings constructed to house 37 Squadron remained.

The site operated as a farm for the next 70 years until one of those fortunate circumstances occurred.  It was put up for sale and by luck spotted by Russell Savory who was looking for somewhere as business premises.  Immediately seeing the potential to return the site to its Great War heyday, in 2009 he and his business partner bought it. He then encouraged the formation of the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Trust (SMGWAT), which in 2013 purchased the site and began the difficult and mammoth job of its restoration and development as a heritage attraction telling the story of its days as a Great War aerodrome.

Stow Maries Museum 1
The museum houses tableaux showing the living and working conditions in wartime Stow Maries.

Last week I had the great pleasure to attend the launch of a new flagship museum at Stow Maries.  Funded by monies given by the Government from the fines imposed on the banking sector, the museum was opened by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (and interestingly the local MP for Maldon and Chelmsford East) John Whittingdale. The museum marks the start of what augers to be a bright future for the site that will see its transformation from a set of derelict, and for years neglected, wartime buildings into a sympathetically restored homage to First World War aviation.

The museum, housed in the old workshop building, has been professionally designed, but has been constructed by some of the SMGWAT’s band of enthusiastic volunteers.  The result is an excellent scene-setter for anyone visiting the site.  On arrival one is met with a small shop and admissions area that are fresh and well-organised. The museum proper starts with an introduction to the air war conducted during the First World War with a particular emphasis on the air defence of London and its eastern approaches.  This sets the scene and explains the reason for Stow Maries existence. It clearly outlines the threat from the various types of airship and aircraft, and culminates in a tableau showing a life-sized section of a German Gotha, complete with crew, flying over London. The latter is supported by a very informative interactive that shows the location of various bombing raids on London and their impact.

Stow Maries Museum 4
Wartime Stow Maries had its own complement of WRAF personnel who are also represented in the museum’s displays.

In parallel to the ‘bigger picture’ story, the role played by Stow Maries is also told – how it was established, its personnel and their roles.  These include the aircrew, the ground crew and the female personnel.  There is also a section on aircraft design and construction that graphically illustrates just how flimsy and dangerous these fighters from the First World War were.  This is reinforced by the wartime casualty figures of 37 Squadron.  Of the ten aircrew killed during the Squadron’s operational period, eight died as a result of flying accidents!  In short the content of the museum tells a wonderful evocative story of Stow Maries and its contribution, set within the context of the air defence of the United Kingdom during the period.

Stow Maries Museum 2
The exhibition covers the problems and challenges of building and maintaining the rudimentary aircraft flown by the Royal Flying Corps and later the newly formed Royal Air Force.

Elsewhere on the site other buildings have, or are being, restored, in order to gradually bring the whole site to life.  The Airmen’s Mess is now resplendent in its wartime glory and serves refreshments for visitors.  The Squadron Offices tell the story of 37 Squadron and other buildings are in the process of being stabilised and restored, as and when finances are available.

The other big draw at Stow Maries are its flying days, when vintage and reproduction aircraft of the period fly over the aerodrome.  To support the opening event we were treated to a display of flying. Standing on the aircraft line with a whole array of period aircraft lined up on the ground, with another in the air, transported the audience back to Stow Maries’ Great War heyday. And it has, like so many heritage sites, that intangible but spine-tingling sense of place.  You can feel that you are standing in the ground where one hundred years ago young men, many still teenagers, got into aircraft that were made of wood and flimsy canvas, and flew them sometimes as high as 10,000 feet in order to engage and shoot down enemy airships and aircraft.  To stand beside reproductions of these aircraft today the prospect of doing so is terrifying, yet these men did this and ultimately contributed to the defence of the nation.

Aircraft Line
An impressive aircraft line up by the airfield at Stow Maries

The work being done at Stow Maries, like so many other projects of this nature, began as a mission to save decaying and unloved heritage from disappearing forever.  With that initial threat now removed the task for the SMGWAT is to restore and make this fascinating site even more accessible.  But also to continue to tell how Stow Maries played its small but important part in the bigger story of the development of the air defence of the United Kingdom, and ultimately the formation of the Royal Air Force.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An uncertain future for the home of the ‘Secret Listeners’

Trent Park Camp, gefangene deutsche Offiziere
German Senior Officers at Trent Park, November 1944 ©Bundesarchiv

Wars produce innovation and ingenuity in all sorts of shapes and guises. During the Second World War this was particularly so, and as a result we have probably all heard of radar, bouncing bombs and swimming tanks.  Most people these days will also have heard, despite many years of secrecy, of the innovative approaches adopted at Bletchley Park to gather vital signals intelligence from Germany and its allies.  However, I suspect fewer people will be aware of another piece of unusual and innovative intelligence gathering that went on during the War.

Right at the start of the Second World War an organisation was set up that would become known as the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC).  Its purpose was to interrogate enemy prisoners of war.  It was run by an organisation called MI19 and led by a man with extensive experience in intelligence operations, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kendrick.  The organisation was initially located in the Tower of London, but soon moved to Trent Park in Cockfosters in the north-west London suburbs. Initially any prisoner, regardless of rank, who the authorities thought might have useful intelligence was sent to Trent Park.  Whilst incarcerated, unbeknownst to them, they were being listened to via microphones ingeniously concealed about the property.  Encouraged by ruses such as manufactured magazines and newspapers with leading articles, the prisoners were induced to talk to each other whilst all the time being overheard by ‘secret listeners’ based in the cellars of the house.  These listeners were mostly German exiles (many Jewish) who then translated and relayed the content of the conversations.  These conversations in turn provided interesting and useful intelligence.

Trent_Park_House,_London_N14_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1671443
Trent Park today ©Christine Matthews

In 1942 the success of this operation meant that two further facilities were created, one at Wilton Park in Beaconsfield, the other at Latimer in Chesham.  This also brought a refined focus for Trent Park where the population became very high powered with the main inmates being senior officers and generals.  The activities undertaken in all three houses were of great value.  Lulled into a false sense of security by their comfortable surroundings, the prisoners revealed all sorts of intelligence.  But it was probably Trent Park, with its population of senior German officers, that revealed the most.  When they let their guard slip the conversations amongst themselves revealed secrets of invaluable use to the Allies.

secret listener 001
A wartime picture of a ‘secret listener’ at work in Trent Park. ©Helen Fry

They overheard conversations as early as May 1943, that confirmed that Germany was developing the V-2 rocket at Peenemünde and which led to the bombing of this site in August of the same year.  Other conversations gave clear evidence of the atrocities that were being committed against the Jews.  In short these facilities, and especially Trent Park, were a key elements in the complex and highly successful Allied intelligence gathering machinery developed in the Second World War.  And like most of its counterparts, such as Bletchley Park, the full story of what happened at Trent Park was not known until fairly recently. As a result, and again like Bletchley Park, those who occupied the buildings after the War had no idea of the historical importance of the places they were in.

Post-war Trent Park was taken over by the Ministry of Education and initially became a teacher training college, before becoming part of Middlesex Polytechnic (later Middlesex University).  It was then sold to a Malaysia education institution in 2013 which, shortly afterwards, went into liquidation.  Finally it was acquired by a property development company who are working on plans for the site.  These plans currently include an intent to turn over part of the site to a museum telling the story of the Second World War activities conducted at Trent Park, although there is concern that this museum will not do justice to the fascinating story.

This week I had the opportunity to meet with a couple of people, Dr Helen Fry and Councillor Jason Charalambous, who are spearheading the campaign to try to make sure that any museum at Trent Park does indeed fully represent and commemorate the work undertaken there during the Second World War.  Helen is an author and historian who has written about Trent Park (her book The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis in WW2 was published in 2012), whilst Jason is a local resident and councillor.

Trent Park Team
Councillor Jason Charalambous and Dr Helen Fry, standing outside the recently restored Hut 3, on their visit to Bletchley Park.

I met Helen and Jason at Bletchley Park in order to share with them the journey Bletchley Park had gone on in its transformation from a set of largely derelict buildings to the successful heritage attraction it is today.  It was clear that there are parallels between the process that Bletchley Park has gone through and that which they are on at Trent Park.  They updated me on their campaign to Save Trent Park, and they have made an impressive start.  There is a petition organised, a Facebook page and an active Twitter presence @SaveTrentPark.  There is also an ongoing dialogue with the developer to try to shape the plans to meet everyone’s needs.

But I wanted to understand what could be saved and how it could be made accessible and engaging to the public.  The campaign’s online petition states as its first aim:

 ‘…the establishment of a museum across the entire ground floor and relevant rooms of the basement of the mansion house highlighting the crucial role it played in WWII…’

Whilst the developer has indicated that they are prepared to accommodate some form of museum in the main Grade II listed building the current conflict is over how much of the building should be made available to the general public. The campaigners are arguing that the cellars (pictured below) where the ‘secret listeners’ operated should be preserved and interpreted for visitors.  This seems a relatively easy and non-contentious step, and it is not difficult to envisage how some imaginative and engaging audio-visual interpretation and set dressing could turn this area into an atmospheric experience.

Trent Park basement cellars
The cellars at Trent Park, where the ‘secret listeners’ worked in the Second World War, as they are today. ©Helen Fry

The more controversial element of the campaign is over control of the whole of the ground floor of the mansion house, as I suspect that will also be prime real estate for the developer.  As Helen and Jason very clearly articulated, the ground floor of the Trent Park mansion building also has great historic significance.  In one room Thomas Kendrick had his office, in others the German inmates lived and interacted, and in doing so revealed their secrets.  There are also other elements in the ground floor rooms that would merit saving such as some rare Rex Whistler murals. In short much more of the main building is of historic value than the developers currently appear to be willing to make available for use as a museum.

The passion of the campaigners is clear and the story they wish to tell is one that is well worth telling.  Like other Second World War sites such as the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, Bletchley Park or the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool, what Trent Park has is that sense of place.  That sense that you can stand somewhere and feel the history, and that you can walk in the footprints of the people who made it.  Thus whilst developers need to get a return on their investment, and as a nation we need more housing, it would be nice to think that an accommodation could be brokered at Trent Park. This might then allow important parts of the site to be preserved and interpreted so that generations to come can marvel at the innovation and ingenuity that this nation showed in gathering intelligence during some of its darkest days.

Signs, guides and videotape…

Gettysburg Sign
One of the many interpretive signs that adorn American Civil War battlefields.

One of the challenges facing anyone running a heritage site is how to interpret, or explain, the site to visitors. The aim is alway to impart information in a manner that engages, educates and entertains them. I deliberatly use the term heritage site here, as I am primarily envisaging large spaces, usually outdoors, rather than the more controlled environment of an indoor museum, where technology, immersive audio-visual techniques, and traditional graphic panels can be used in large quantities. On such heritage sites the interpretation may have to bring to life a building, some ruins, archaeological remnants or an empty field that was once a bloody battlefield. In this blog post I want to explore some of the methods that can be, and are being, used to do this.

The key to any such interpretation is to present a balanced blend of accurate historical facts, an understanding of the place being interpreted and engaging storytelling. These days there is a range of ways in which this can be done that go well beyond the humble, but still much loved, guidebook.

For many years the tried and trusted interpretive board has been a good start. The image below shows one of a set located on the English Civil War battlefield of Naseby (14 June 1645) in Northamptonshire. This board has all the essentials. A couple of maps to show the course of the battle, some images to show the sort of troops fighting the battle, a narrative and in this case a very useful panoramic photograph to help the viewer relate to the ground they are observing.   Indeed this board, and its compatriots elsewhere on the site, do an extremely good job in providing the visitor with an understanding of the battlefield.  They are also supplemented by some resources on the Naseby website to help orientate the visitor before they arrive.

Naseby Board Image
A good example of an informative and engaging battlefield interpretation board.

The image below is an interpretive board at Bletchley Park that has to do a little less in the way of interpretation than the Naseby one, as it is sited in an already well-interpreted heritage site. But through the use of wartime pictures and quotes from veterans, an empty space within the site can be brought to life for the visitor.

BP Sign
An interpretive sign at Bletchley Park showing what activities happened on the ground in front of the board during the Second World War, using period photographs and quotes from veterans.

Such interpretive panels of course have their limitations. They are inanimate, they can be damaged and they can’t answer questions posed by the visitor!  Therefore for the many people there is probably nothing that beats a human interaction to bring a place to life. Indeed the less physical interpretation there is on a site the more this will tend to be so. A human guide has some obvious advantages over a static board.  She/he can interact with the audience, understand their needs, answer their questions and provide a more bespoke experience. Today human guides are employed in a raft of heritage sites and by numerous organisations.  These range from stately homes and heritage sites that have their own teams, to peripatetic battlefield guides taking groups of visitors on tours to sites around the world.

Guiding Monocacy
The author in full flow conducting a guided tour of the American Civil War battlefield of Monocacy (9 July 1864).

But is all cases the key to delivering high quality guiding is to have a good and effective training or development programme.  Most sites using guides have their own and organisations such as Britain’s ‘Blue Badge Guides‘ provide training programmes for multi-site guides, whilst the International Guild of Battlefield Guides provides a validation process to set a quality standard for battlefield guides.

One of the best guide training programmes I have come across is the Gettyburg Licensed Battlefield Guides training programme. Why is this? Well first of all it has a very demanding four-stage selection process. A Written Examination is followed by a Panel Interview, then a Mandatory Information and Orientation Programme, and finally an Oral Battlefield Examination. Quite a few hoops to jump through before becoming qualified, and the end result is a high quality cadre of well-respected guides.  But to me the most interesting thing about this programme is the underlying philosophy.  Even before entering its selection process candidates are asked to answer a very important question.  Is guiding for you?  In particular they are asked to consider a set of more detailed questions:

Do you love to teach?  Are you a storyteller?  Are you an extemporaneous speaker?  Are you a simplifier?  Do you love people?  Are you comfortable speaking to groups?  Are you flexible? Are you patient? Are you humble?

A very quick analysis of this list will reveal that, and it should come as no surprise to any high quality guide, the key attribute needed is to place ones audience at the centre of things. Unfortunately this sort of focus is not always evident in some guides.  Standing in front of an audience and interpreting a place or a battlefield requires self-confidence and a strong element of showmanship, traits that can be at odds with the humility and visitor focus outlined above. Sometimes the ego takes over and the guide becomes the end in itself, rather than a vehicle to interpret the place for the visitor.

Another challenge with human guides is quality control.  The guide has to walk a fine line between being an historian and a storyteller. No one is going to stand for a hour on guided tour if the guide is not engaging and entertaining.  But this should not mean that the guide lets the truth get in the way of telling a good story!  I have been to guided tours in more than one location where myths have been more prevalent than reality.  This therefore requires that the training programme must have a validation or quality control element to it.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti human guides – far from it I’m one myself!  But the limitations and issues highlighted above must be considered when they are used. And there is one other significant limitation to a human guide and that is that they are not always available! But these days technology is on hand to help with this particular problem.

Today, with a smartphone in many pockets, there has been a huge growth in app technology to assist the heritage visitor.  These come in a variety of shapes and guises, but all have some overarching benefits to those trying to understand a price of heritage or those trying to interpret it. These benefits are principally the ability to provide consistent, accurate, high-quality and repeatable content.  As a user you can be delivered hours of quality material on a handheld device which can be explored at ones own pace, both at the site being visited, or at leisure in ones hotel room or at home. For the interpreter, visitors can be provided with a whole raft of content, using a range of media and with a consistent standard of delivery to every visitor, so quality control is never an issue.

Battle App Overview
A screenshot from the Civil War Trust’s Bull Run Battle App® Guide

By way of a very good example of this genre, I would highlight the United States’ Civil War Trust’s Battle Apps® Guides series of guides to some of the key battles of the American Civil War. The screenshot above is taken from the app for the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861).  As can be seen the quality of the mapping is excellent and activating buttons marking stops and places additional content is exposed, as cab be seen in the screenshot below.

Battle App Detail
Another screenshot from the Civil War Trust Bull Run Battle App® Guide showing some of the more detailed content.

As mentioned earlier this technology also allows the embedding of a whole range of static and dynamic media, from contemporary photographs and maps, to sound clips and video.  The example below, taken from the Bull Run app and featuring Civil War Trust’s Director of History and Education Garry Adelmen, demonstrates how a visitor can almost have the best of both worlds.  A human guide recorded talking about a location, with the flexibility of having the information to take away on their own portable device!

This technological approach is of course not without its limitations too.  At the moment it can’t answer a question from a visitor in the way a human guide can.  There are also technical issues in the form of battery life and the need to download some content which might be difficult on a remote site without data connectivity.  But as a mass method of providing interpretation there is much benefit in this approach. In the future I suspect that other technologies will emerge to enhance this form of interpretation.  For example the potential to use wearable technology, such as a Google Glass style device, integrated with interpretation.   There are teething problems to resolve in this area, but the possibilities are very exciting.

To conclude I have looked at a number of different methods of interpreting heritage sites. None should be looked at in isolation and there is great value to the visitor of a heritage site in having a layered approach that uses some or all of the methods highlighted. This gives the visitor choice and variety, and a range of opportunities for them to engage with the site, be educated by it, and have an entertaining day out.