From August 1941 until May 1945, Allied Forces undertook perilous 2,000-mile journeys from Britain through freezing Arctic waters to the Soviet Union ports of Murmansk and Archangel. The convoys were under constant threat of U-Boat and air attack, violent storms, extreme cold and ice as they provided urgently needed supplies including tanks, vehicles, weapons and raw materials.
Until relatively recently little attention had been given to the men of the Arctic convoys and so it is hoped this exhibition, along with the recently awarded Arctic Star medal to the veterans/families, will help to inform younger generations of this vital part of World War Two.
The lead-in time was rather short for this exhibition, however once approval was given from the Exhibition Strategy Group I could focus (not exclusively, which curator has that luxury?!) on the research. This was both secondary and primary, including interviewing veterans (oral history is one of my favourite aspects of museum work), selecting objects both from our own museum collection and sourced from private lenders and other institutions, sourcing images and film footage.
I had been fortunate to visit the Arctic Convoys temporary exhibition at the National Maritime Museum last year and speaking to the curator of this exhibition, Andrew Choong Han Lin, was both enjoyable and extremely informative in helping me shape this exhibition at the National War Museum.
Since resources were fairly tight I only entered into one institutional loan, though this turned out to be less than straight forward! The object was a beautiful ship model of the SS Rathlin that was displayed in the newly refurbished Glasgow Transport Museum, which in turn was on loan to them from the Ballast Trust. I was delighted to secure the model since it makes up a central part of the story of the convoys and is a real feature in the exhibition.
Indeed, the Rathlin was a rescue ship and was the most successful one of WWII, saving hundreds of men. It also played a significant role in the most famous convoy- PQ17. This convoy was ordered to scatter by the Admiralty after false intelligence was received, leaving the merchant ships extremely vulnerable. It lead to huge loss of life, vessels and equipment.
Other objects on display include a diary that was kept on the convoys (which of course was absolutely forbidden) that refers to the Admiralty order to scatter, a convoy code book, items of uniform, medals, telegrams reporting losses and a small collection of objects loaned via the Russian attaché whose grandfather Admiral Lapushin was also a convoy veteran. This loan includes navigational instruments and clothing.
Audio recordings of five veterans; three Scotsmen, one American and two Russians, help to bring the exhibition text to life as they tell of their experiences in the most appalling of conditions. All of the interviews have been transcribed and the printed versions are readily available for visitors to read.
The exhibition design was created by the National Museums Scotland in-house design team, one specialising in 2D design, the other 3D. The images sourced, both still and moving, provided the designers with wonderful material to work with. Many of the images came from the veterans themselves and from our own collections.
My aim in curating this exhibition subject was to bring the human experience of being in the convoys to the fore. I hope they will really start to empathise with these men and their families as they take just a tiny glimpse into their harsh world during WWII.Back to top