Memory in the Museum
: Representing the Second World War in the Imperial War Museum, London 1960 – 2020

  • Kasia Tomasiewicz

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis explores representations of the Second World War in the Imperial War Museum,
London (IWM) from 1960 until 2020. It maps a developing history of the cultural memory of
the Second World War in Britain alongside a critical analysis of the institutional history of the
Imperial War Museum, both historically and in the present. It argues that in order to understand
the complex and contradictory ways in which representations of the war developed, we must
be mindful of the interrelations between three broad, and often overlapping, histories. The first
is an institutional history that situates IWM, both in terms of museum practice and internal
dynamics, within the field of museum studies. The second broad history is the development of
a particular British cultural memory of the Second World War, that has evolved over time due
to a range of changing temporal, cultural, social, economic and political contexts. These changes,
as well as being positioned in dialogue with each other, must be mapped alongside a third
history; a socio-political history that charts key changes in both Britain and elsewhere, as despite
public misconceptions, museums always operate ‘within-the-world’.

In order to critically interrogate these three histories, this thesis has been split into chapters on
the ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’. The first three quarters of the analytical content of this thesis
are concentrated within four decade-based historical chapters that explore the intersections
between a key theme and the cultural memory of the Second World War. The 1960s chapter
explores empire, the 1970s explores gender, the 1980s explores national identity, and the 1990s
explores the Holocaust. The final quarter of the analytical content of this thesis explores
these historical themes within their contemporary context through an ‘embedded’
investigation of the curating process of the IWM’s upcoming 2021 permanent Second World
War galleries. In doing so, this thesis puts forward a rare case for positioning contemporary
galleries and museum practice within much longer historical trajectories of exhibition and
institutional histories. Ultimately, this thesis argues that only through an appreciation of
historical changes in the Museum, the cultural memory of the Second World War, and broader
socio-political histories can we begin to understand the complex ways in which the Second
World War has been and is remembered, curated and represented within the IWM and Britain
more generally.

Date of Award2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorGraham Dawson (Supervisor), Lucy Noakes (Supervisor) & James Taylor (Supervisor)


  • Imperial War Museum
  • Second World War
  • Cultural Memory
  • museum studies

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