Last week saw the launch of Gateways to the First World War, one of five AHRC-funded centres designed to mark the centenary of the conflict, and to enhance public engagement with it. Gateways is based at the University of Kent and brings together a team of researchers from the Universities of Portsmouth, Brighton, Greenwich, Leeds and Queen Mary, London. The launch was part of a First World War Study day organised by the University of Kent’s German Department. The event was opened by Professor John Baldock, the University of Kent’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research, who expressed the university’s pleasure in hosting the Centre and introduced an afternoon of debate and discussion on the First World War and its commemoration.
One of the highlights of the event was a panel discussion on the commemoration of the First World War chaired by the event’s organiser, Dr Deborah Holmes of the German Department, and featuring Dr Emil Brix, Austria’s Ambassador to the UK, Dr Suzanne Bardgett, the Imperial War Museum’s Director of Research, and Dominiek Dendooven of In Flanders Fields Museum, Belgium. The panel led a fascinating discussion of both the problems and benefits of commemorating an event often complicated by ‘contested memories’. Dr Brix expressed his belief in the importance of European collaboration in the commemoration of the war, and Mr Dendooven discussed the ways in which the Flanders Field Museum is attempting to overcome national boundaries through exhibitions focused on individual war experiences. Dr Bardgett outlined some of the exciting centenary projects supported by the Imperial War Museum, including Lives of the First World War, the First World War Partnership, and Whose Remembrance?, the IWM’s project to investigate the role of colonial troops in the conflict. The discussion reinforced one of the key aims of the Gateways project: to encourage academics and the wider public to work together to discover connections between the local and the global during the First World War. As Gateways’ Director Professor Mark Connelly stated, the conflict was, for Kent and the South East in particular, a ‘global event with global repercussions’ which took place ‘on the doorstep’.
The panel discussion was followed by an illustrated lecture by Professor Connelly and Dr Heide Kunzelmann of the German Department, presenting photographs taken of troop mobilisation and prisoners of war in 1914 by Dr Kunzelmann’s great-grandfather, a medical officer in the Habsburg Army. Comparing these newly discovered sources to photographs taken by British officers in 1914, the pair talked about the connections between the personal and the public, and the similarities between artefacts of the First World War from different sides of the conflict. Through their discussion of the photographs – which focused on the themes of mobilization, violence, vulnerability and reconstruction – they emphasised the importance of revisiting accepted and established approaches to the conflict.
The event ended with a drinks reception and official launch of the Gateways to the First World War centre. Professor Connelly and Dr Will Butler outlined some of the centenary projects already underway, including a collaboration with Step Short of Folkestone on an app tour highlighting the town’s connections to the conflict, and guests were shown the newly-launched Gateways website. After a successful opening event, the Gateways team is now looking forward to developing its work with local groups and organisations on a range of First World War projects across the UK. The Centre aims to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support. Forthcoming events include:
19th July 2014 – 25th January 2015 – ‘Lest We Forget’, an exhibition in conjunction with Portsmouth City Council
13th September 2014 – A Family History Day at Brighton Museum in conjunction with Brighton Museums and Pavilion
28th September 2014 – Gateways to the First World War Public Open Day, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
12th December 2014 – ‘Representations of the Christmas Truce’, a one day symposium at the University of Kent