The Cold War in museums to be explored in new £1M research project


10 June 2021
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Seven-inch gramophone record of the first manned space-orbit flight by Yuri Gagarin called Conquest of Space. Copyright National Museums Scotland
National Museums Scotland has been awarded a grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) with the University of Stirling to conduct a £1 million research project exploring how the Cold War features in museums in the UK and Europe. This is the largest research grant ever awarded to National Museums Scotland.

The three-year project, Materialising the Cold War, will culminate in a major exhibition about Scotland and the Cold War.

The exhibition will be accompanied by schools programming, publications and activity to support the museum sector in engaging new audiences with this period of history. 

Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a climate of international tension, the Cold War is more relevant than ever. Despite its significance however, it is a difficult story to tell in museums because it didn’t escalate to the point of direct confrontation. It was a nuclear standoff, a war that did not turn ‘hot’ in Europe. 

Materialising the Cold War

As a so-called ‘imaginary war’ it is not represented in museums as comprehensively as other conflicts. Materialising the Cold War will analyse museum collections and displays across the UK and Europe - covering everything from military and social history to technology, art and design - to understand how the Cold War materialised in a specific national context and ask exactly how it features in museums today. 

In addition to weapons technology, the project will examine:

  • peace and protest material
  • civil defence collections
  • Cold War culture, exploring the material legacies of the relationship between society, technology, and the military

Dr Chris Breward, Director of National Museums Scotland said:  “The Cold War casts a significant shadow over the second half of the 20th century, yet the intangible nature of this period of geopolitical tension makes it difficult to convey in museums. This generous grant from the AHRC will allow us to work with partners across the UK and Europe to conduct in-depth research into the representation of the Cold War in museum collections. Among a number of exciting outputs will be the first exhibition to tell the full story of Scotland’s place in this extraordinary conflict.” 

Professor Judith Phillips, Deputy Principal for Research at the University of Stirling, said: “This is a significant grant and as such recognises the leading expertise of our academics in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. It marks the start of an important partnership and will explore a fascinating time in world history which has helped shape lives today.” 

Materialising the Cold War will begin on 1 October. The Principal Investigator is Dr Sam Alberti, Director of Collections at National Museums Scotland and Honorary Professor of Heritage Studies at the University of Stirling. His Co-Investigator is Holger Nehring, Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Stirling. 

UK partner organisations for the project are RAF Museums, Imperial War Museums and V&A. International collaborators are the Norsk Luftfartsmuseum in Bodø, Norway and the Allied Museum in Berlin. Representatives from these organisations and other stakeholders will form a specialist Advisory Board.