Cold War exhibition – subtly inclusive

I wasn’t going to see it, but being a member of The National Archives’ User Advisory Group, we had a special tour of the Cold War exhibition.

The exhibition focuses on the British home front – perfect for a nation’s archive, but how in this day and age of everything having to be diverse, did they manage it?

With subtlety and taste.

You enter into a mock government bunker giving an overview of the Cold war – it just can’t ignore the superpowers of the day. Spies and MI5/6 with Dame Stella Rimington dispelling the myths of James Bond and emphasising how ‘boring’ intelligence work really is in comparison.

Next, into a typical middle-class British home to see how the Cold War impacted daily life. Civil defence measures and protective spaces in the home in case of a nuclear attack give a good idea of how life changed as politicians grappled with how to deal with something out of their control – should an attack take place. TV, music, film and books make an appearance, the mock-up under the stair refuge speaking to many in the UK and others who have read about, or seen pictures of, a typical terrace house.

But the inclusive part comes at the end when visitors are invited to share their experiences, type them up on old ‘tick tick’ typewriters and post them on the info board. Stimulated by our whistelstop tour, we verbally shared our experiences: Some spoke of their parents having been involved as scientists, others their experience of being in another European country while some had no idea of preventative measures at the time. By all accounts, some schools made a point of not scaremongering. Our 1980s experiences in South Africa, although not directly nuclear attack oriented, were similar during the Cold War years. My last years of school were peppered with ‘bomb evacuations’ as students or their friends phoned in to have a test or exam deferred. Even if a crank call was suspected, we had to take it seriously and became adept at packing things up and filing out to the playing fields at least twice a week. Thank goodness it doesn’t rain as frequently in South Africa as Britain…

At primary school, in the early 1980s, we quickly learned to discern between the ‘fire alarm’ or ‘get out alarm’ and the ‘baracade alert’. The latter being where doors were closed to stop attackers getting in, but windows were opened to reduce the impact of shattering glass, desks were pushed together and chairs and schoolbags packed around to create the walls to our makeshift ‘caves’. On the occasions we had to evacuate, I could never understand why we had to line up beautifully in rows along the perimeter of the school grounds near open fields – and one specially trained Civil Defence teacher was allowed to carry a hand-gun: to protect 1000 of us! Thankfully, children were not the target in South Africa’s ‘Cold War’.

And our literature? I recall Neville Shute’s On the beach being the best read. We were split: move to Australia where you could possibly miss the fall out of a northern hemisphere attack or move to the north anticipating where the bomb would explode so you’d be killed and not have to suffer the consequences. Incredible how the power of suggestion worked/still works.

Intriguingly, it was only discussing the exhibition with someone who hadn’t been with us at the time that I realised how subtly inclusive the exhibition had been and how conditioned we’ve become to having inclusivity thrust in out faces and blatently obvious. True inclusivity is not always obvious at a glance.

For a topic as broad as the Cold War, a point of departure was needed. Something compact. And this was achieved though the home front approach – all based on documents in the archive, but there is so much more hidden in the files as I discovered some time ago [May 2009] before narrowing my focus to WW1 and Africa.

If you’re in the neighbourhood and the exhibition is still on, it’s definitely worth a visit – you can even see how nuclear weapons have grown in impact – and for those with children, there are appropriate activities for them to do.

And for anyone wondering, the song Duck and Cover which I remember watching when we did a module on Propaganda in my MA in History was 1950s USA. In the UK, there was Protect and Survive in the 1970s.

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