Interview: IWM North

Home‘Once Upon a Wartime’ is an exhibition at IWM North, which will run until September 2nd. It explores five children’s novels about war, looking at the events and experiences that inspired War HorseCarrie’s WarThe Machine GunnersThe Silver Sword and Little Soldier. 

Throughout the summer holidays, there will be numerous events taking place at the museum, ranging from a chance to meet a real Second World War evacuee to listening to first-hand accounts of children’s lives on the home front.

Book Events for Children caught up with the team at IWM North to find out more about the behind-the-scenes work that went into creating the exhibition.

What was the inspiration for creating the ‘Once Upon a Wartime’ exhibition?

We were very aware that there was a wealth of children’s literature relating to war available and this had been a popular topic dating right back to the First World War and earlier.  There seemed to be a growing trend in the popularity of this genre especially with authors like Michael Morpurgo whose works are so successful today.  IWM had never looked at this topic in detail and were keen to develop a family exhibition around this theme which would have broad appeal and use our collections in an accessible way to show the real stories behind the fiction.

How far in advance did you start planning for the exhibition? What was involved in the early stages of planning?

We started work on the exhibition around 18 months before it opened.  In the early stages we made the decision that we would just look at books that were written from the twentieth century onwards, were currently in print and were readily available in the UK.  We wanted to ensure that any books we featured would be available for our visitor to read as we aimed to introduce them to books that they may have known or read and others that they were inspired to read after seeing the exhibition.

The ‘Once Upon a Wartime’ exhibition explores the events and inspirations behind five children’s novels about war. How did you choose which books to include in the exhibition?

We aimed to choose a range of books that covered the First World War, Second World War and a more contemporary conflict.  We wanted to strike a balance with authors that had first-hand experience of war, for example, Nina Bawden (Carrie’s War) who was an evacuee, and others that were inspired by certain events or accounts of war that were passed on to them, such as Michael Morpurgo (War Horse).   It was also important to us to include stories that were not just based in the UK and to feature experiences that children today could relate to, such as having to leave their home country because of war.  We had chosen five themes and so whittled down a long list to a final five books – one for each theme. We also looked at what material we had in the IWM collection that was available to display in the exhibition in order to support the stories.

Could you tell us a little bit about how you sourced exhibits for the exhibition?

The exhibits on display in the exhibition fell into two main groups: those relating to the story and those relating to the authors.  As a first step our researcher went through all our selected books in detail and then looked in the IWM collection to see which objects we had that were either mentioned in the book or would represent the events that the book covered, from an evacuee label to a machine gun.  We drew on all of the IWM collections and used sound, film, art, documents and 3D objects.  We were fortunate that we had a large amount of material in our own collection so didn’t have to borrow many items from other institutions.  For the author related exhibits we contacted either the authors or their families and asked for anything that they had that either provided inspiration for the story, for example the silver sword, or was something that was important to them when they were writing the books, such as Nina Bawden’s teddy bear from her childhood.

As part of promoting the exhibition, did IWM North collaborate with local schools, community groups etc. What did this involve?

We worked with Oldham Theatre Workshop to create atmospheric sound recordings taken from the books to feature in the exhibition. We also worked with local school Willow Tree Primary situated in Salford and the Peoplescape Theatre. Using the books featured in the exhibition Year 3 pupils explored the themes of identity and safety and Year 6 pupils explored the theme of loyalty. The pupils created a diary about the project that features in the exhibition, and also took part in a reading relay on 3 July as part of the Manchester Children’s Book Festival.  We have also been building an eNews list since last year made up of local community groups and have contacted them to let them know about the exhibition, plus what we offer for groups including themed tours, storytelling and object handling sessions.

Numerous events are planned at IWM North during the summer holidays to tie in with the exhibition. What are some of the must-see events?

We have so many events taking place everyday throughout the summer holidays but particular highlights are the Meet the Author event with Bernard Ashley on 18 August, our Illustration Workshop with Karin Littlewood (author of The Colour of Home) on 24 August and storytelling with Katrice Horsley (the National Storytelling Laureate) which was very popular during the February Half Term. We also have themed creative sessions everyday at 1-4pm looking at each of the books featured in the exhibition over the six weeks, starting in week one with War Horse.

How many visitors are you hoping will attend the exhibition (which runs until Sep 2nd)? What do you hope they’ll take with them from their visit?

We are hoping for 150,000 visitors to the exhibition. We hope that they will discover the inspiration behind these much-loved war stories for children and how war has shaped the authors’ lives and work. We want them to learn more about the experiences of war through a child’s eyes and explore how war shapes lives and encourages creative responses. We also want them to be inspired to read these books or revisit them and discover new titles.

 What is your own personal highlight of the exhibition?

The Oldham Youth Workshop sound recordings in the exhibition are really atmospheric and really help bring the stories to life. I also really like the interactive sets including the kitchen out of Carrie’s War and the fortress from The Machine Gunners.