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Explore History and the Imperial War Museum, London

by on May 25, 2010

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The Imperial War Museum’s new “Explore History Centre” public collections access facilities for gallery visitors have now opened, making engaging with the collections one of the choices presented to all visitors.  For the first time we offer access at one location to a full range of our collections – film, photographs, oral history recordings, library stock, art, three-dimensional objects and archival documents.

This is achieved in the case of object, sound and image collections largely by delivering digital content at computer screens.  Visitors get access not only to the collections catalogues and to digital files where they exist, but also to the new “Searchlight” online presentation of “stories” from the collections.   Visitors can also access online family history resources, both material compiled by our family history specialists and selected websites from other sources.

In addition to access at traditional keyboard-and-mouse computers, new state of the art touchscreen presentations offer a small selection from the Museum’s Film Archive (this will grow as digitisation accelerates), new collections-rich presentations based on iconic objects from the public galleries but linking to items from the deeper collections that relate thematically to the icons, and on some of the treasures of the Museum’s Art Collection.  The icons and art presentations use i-pod type image expansion to enable closer inspection of the items displayed.

Many facilities in the new Explore History Centre are designed to enable most visitors to use them for themselves without staff help.  Nevertheless, staff will be available to give assistance when necessary and also to answer quick enquiries.  As ever, family history is expected to be a major thread running through enquiry work – hence the specialist online provision mentioned above, which is reinforced by a “common real objects” display showing people how items they may have at home can reveal something of their ancestors’ experience of wartime.  A learning events programme, to be launched over coming months in or near the Explore History Centre, will include family history themes.

The Explore History Centre is located directly adjacent to the public galleries, making it visible and accessible to any gallery visitor and in effect a part of the galleries themselves.  This is a major step for the Museum since collections access facilities have previously been largely orientated towards a research audience and tucked away behind the scenes.   The Centre caters for a much wider range of audiences than this, with lively, informal surroundings in which to explore and enjoy the collections.

The traditional study audience has not been forgotten though.  Alongside the Explore History Centre is a brand new Research Room, accessible by appointment, which is set aside for research.  Users can explore the oral history collection or order up library and archival material for study in a modern, more formal space.

The Explore History Centre and Research Room are staffed and run by the Museums librarians and archivists from the Departments of Printed Books and of Documents respectively.  The development has been a major project demanding close cooperation between the Exhibitions, IT, library, archive, curatorial and New Media and other departments.

A large proportion of the funding for Explore History Centre came from external sources, including the DCMS Wolfson Foundation, The Hobson Charity, The Bernard Sunley Charitable Foundation and the Michael Bishop Foundation.   The Friends of the Imperial War Museum also made a significant grant to the project.

Richard (Imperial War Museum)

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