Materialising the Cold War

Lead Research Organisation: National Museums of Scotland
Department Name: Science & Technology


Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a climate of international tension, the Cold War is more relevant than ever. And yet a generation now has no experience of it, and its public history is uneven. The Cold War's character as an 'imaginary war' in the global north poses special challenges for public engagement, especially for exhibiting material objects in museums. Synthesising approaches from material culture studies and Cold War history, critical heritage studies and museum practice, our project analyses these challenges and proposes a new framework for a Cold War museology. We focus on the process we call 'materialising the Cold War': the transformation of artefacts from the immaterial context of the Cold War to material objects in museums.

National Museums Scotland and the University of Stirling will apply these multi-disciplinary methods to co-produce a major exhibition and schools programming, and we will generate innovative resources and outputs for museum users, heritage professionals and academics. In addition, our project partners - Royal Air Force Museums, Imperial War Museums, the Norwegian Luftfartmuseum in Bodo, and the Allied Museum in Berlin - will benefit significantly from our findings and collaboration as they each develop major new galleries within the next decade (one motive in their participation); a powerful legacy for the project.

Framed by this international context, Materialising the Cold War will ask of UK museum objects: why have they been collected? How are they displayed? How have people responded to this 'fearsome heritage' - those who remember the Cold War and those who don't, whether family museum visitors, school groups, or dedicated enthusiasts? Throughout, we emphasise the fundamentally unstable and contested nature of the ways in which Cold War objects are made to mean something, and the breadth of the emotional register they stimulate.

Our project will therefore:

- be the first critically to take stock of how different institutions in the UK have addressed the fundamental challenge of materialising the Cold War in the context of a museum;

- build on this original knowledge to develop an analytical framework for materialising the Cold War;

- develop new approaches to collecting and display;

- and thus offer a timely conceptual and practical foundation for a developing field.

Our multi-disciplinary research team will comprise Dr Sam Alberti, museologist and senior manager at National Museums Scotland (PI); University of Stirling Cold War historian Professor Holger Nehring (Co-I); two fixed-term researchers, one based at the University of Stirling and the other at National Museums Scotland; and a fractional administrative post at National Museum Scotland to support them. They will work co-productively with curators and learning officers at National Museums Scotland, heritage scholars at the University of Stirling and an existing AHRC CDP doctoral student supervised by the PI and Co-I. An Advisory Board drawn from the project partners and other experts in the heritage and HEI sector will contribute substantively.

Within the museum collections this team will explore, physical traces of the Cold War manifest not only in the devices of destruction that perpetuated the nuclear stalemate, but also in the material culture of readiness and more subtly in the technologies of everyday life. From bombers to radiation detectors to peace badges, pertinent collections are scattered across the sector. As Cold War witnesses decline, there is now a timely opportunity to harness memories associated with these objects, to collect more, and thereby to enhance a broader understanding of the sheer scale of the conflict. This project will develop the first systematic analysis and assessment of Cold War heritage in museums and apply this original knowledge to museum practice.

Planned Impact

The fundamental impact of our project lies in encouraging the co-production of Cold War knowledge between professionals, academics, museum users and other audiences. We seek to enable museum audiences to engage with questions of identity and authenticity, and their own relationship to history through objects. We contend, and our audience research will test, that the experience of Cold War heritage will be different when incorporating the many walks of life that the conflict pervaded. This will change how our users frame their own experience in a world of heightened international tensions that many have characterised as a new Cold War, and contribute to a public history of a period of history of which personal experiences are fading.

We will achieve this impact via four multi-platform routes:

- In our qualitative user evaluation of existing displays at National Museums Scotland, RAF Museums and Imperial War Museums (Work Package 3) we will target mixed family groups to encourage intergenerational dialogue around material culture and engage in knowledge transfer with enthusiast communities, especially around stored collections. We will also involve digitally active online users. Furthermore, by impacting upon other museums' practice, their user communities will also benefit from the findings of the MCW research.

- Taking our lessons learned from this evaluation, we will stage a major multi-disciplinary exhibition on the Cold War at NMS in Year 3 that will engage audiences in a reflective fashion (within WP4). Visitor surveys during the time of the exhibition will not only provide reflective feedback on our own work and previous evaluation, but will also feed into collection development and practice at NMS.

- To raise awareness of the Cold War among school pupils (and their teachers) we will contribute sessions devoted to the Cold War to the National Museums Scotland schools programme for upper primary school and senior secondary pupils, including under-represented groups. The content of these sessions will also be available to schools elsewhere via the learning departments in our partner organisations. (This pathway will also be enabled by WP4.)

- For museum and heritage professionals in the UK and Europe we aim to show how to use a range of collections to engage audiences with the Cold War. In particular we seek to impact upon museum practice by joining up disconnected museum areas, technical, military or social history (WP5). Professional impact in particular will benefit from meaningful two-way skills transfer between the museum and higher education sectors via workshops, a toolkit, and other digital outputs. These skills will include, for example, collections management approaches, ethnographic research methods, and visitor feedback gathering.

We will thereby use material culture to offer new understandings of the Cold War to public, school and professional communities. The legacy of the project will include contributions to major redevelopments at the partner museums and a new permanent display in Scotland at the National Museum of Flight.


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