Horrible Histories: Blitzed Brits at the Imperial War Museum Manchester.

History Petra's statue.  Today being the first occasion for alighting at the Media City tram stop in Salford Quays and being generally oblivious to, well, everything most of the time, I had absolutely no idea that the most direct route after stepping from the platform in straight into a recreation of the original Blue Peter garden.  Signposted by large Blue Peter badges it's exactly as I remember it, with the pond and patio and worm house and the hands and pawprints of various teams from the television series and in the corner the statue of one of its famous pets Petra.  She was a bit before my time, Shep being from my era, but as a permanent fixture of the garden, I well remember seeing in the background during Percy Thrower's slots.  Even if the rest of the trip to Salford had been a wash, I could at least say I'd come away having seen, entirely unexpectedly, one of the icons of my childhood.

But my trip to Salford was not a wash.  Far from it.  I was invited by the Imperial War Museum to preview their new exhibition, Horrible Histories: Blitzed Brits, a highly successful attempt to marry their collection with the popular educational franchise.  I was greeted by the person who invited me from the marketing department who was kind enough to give me brief explanation of what the museum and is and what it does.  Being something of a pacifist if asked, I had assumed that like Leeds Armouries, I'd be slightly repelled by the militiristicness of the whole thing, but as he describes the remit of the museum, which began in 1917 during the "great" war, is to document the human consequences of conflict.  Although they have large objects, tanks, planes and such, the focus is on the people who controlled those tanks, flew those planes and also the lives of the public who were acted upon.  The organisation has the second largest collection of British art in the country.

Horrible Histories: Blitzed Brits is at the apogee of that, explaining to children and it has to be underscored us adults, what it was like to live in those dreadful times through objects and testimonial from the period as well as interactive spaces (which I don't want to spoil too much) based around the style of the books, one of which, with the same title has also been turned into a successful stage play.  Being just too old when they began publication and not having children, my impression of the franchise is through the television series, and I had expected that a proportion of the display would simply be screens showing relevant excerpts and songs which would have been fine, but the museum and HH have very careful thought through the tone of the exhibition relying instead on appearances on the walls from the tv character Rattus Rattus to guide the visitor through the exhibition, otherwise keeping the tone relatively calm.

All of which is a pretty sombre description of a really excellent and exciting show.  Entering at about 11:30 this morning, I didn't leave for two hours, there being so much to see and do, to read and experience.  The sections cover various aspects of the blitz, from the blackout to Christmas to the grow your own campaign and clear-ups after bombing raids and throughout there's loads of trivia and history which I've previously simply been ignorant of, demonstrated through objects.  There's the macabre, toy soldiers made in 1930s Germany of Hitler and Goering watching a parade of the Hitler youth.  There's the legendary, a flag which was attached to the plane which flew Chamberlain to Germany for his ill fated meeting with the Fuhrer.  There's the innovative, black out light bulbs where the glass is almost completely black so that there's only just enough light to go about your business lest the Germans use a street lamp as a target.

There are plenty of clever ways of making the material accessible.  For the youngest visitors there's also a "survival guide", a workbook to guide us through the exhibition which of course I followed and filled in and during which I was reminded that I can't draw, especially my own portrait, but I am quite good at counting.  Most of the stories about Blitz experiences are from adults recalling their childhoods amid the bombs but it's usually the stuff ignored by television documentaries such as toilet arrangements in shelters or how children were chosen by potential homes during evacuation, a grim process related to assessing behaviour.  Stories of bravery, in which children put their safety aside to aid the effort and save others.  Little things, like the dolly that was given to a little girl who'd lost her home and her family at Christmas by a friend in the street who then kept it on her sideboard for the rest of her life.  Statistics, that 38,000 children were unclaimed at the end of the war due to their parents losing track of them, abandonment, or simply no longer having a family or home to return to.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the Blitz which is what prompted the exhibition.  Later on, this evening, I realised that I was born just thirty years after the end of the second world war.  There was actually less time between those dates and my birth (during the dying moments of the Vietnam war) and now.  My Dad was born in 1942, Mum in 1947 so although they were just on the fringes of the conflict, they grew up in its aftermath, through the continued rationing.  Talking about my day's "discoveries" with them earlier, they already knew about much of it because they were there.  Presumably the experience of children visiting the exhibition with their grandparents will be even richer, assuming they're of the attention span to enjoy their company.  But even without, knowing how strong my reaction was, I hope and I guess kids really will respond to what they see and in a way which offers some perspective on the way they and we live now.

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