The IBCC exhibition

Since we began work creating the IBCC Digital Archive in 2015, we have recorded over 700 oral histories and digitised approximately 100,000 pages, letters, diaries and photographs. The team at the Digital Archive have used this wealth of material to create the exhibition for the International Bomber Command Centre. The centre will open in 2018 as a world-class facility in Lincoln, and will serve as a focus for recognition, remembrance and reconciliation for RAF Bomber Command. None of this would have been possible if our core team of six staff had not been assisted by scores of volunteers.

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Much of the content for the exhibition, around 10,000 words of text and 100 images for the graphic panels, has already gone through the process of drafting, proof reading, testing with focus groups and will shortly be set in acrylic. Writing content for the graphic panels has been like writing a chapter or an article, but in 150 word bite sized pieces. Like academic writing, we’ve had the usual issues clearing copyright for externally sourced images, but sometimes we’ve also struggled to find content from our own archive as our collections are only now becoming fully searchable as transcriptions are being written and metadata prepared. It has also been hard to convey some of the subject’s complexity in so few words and to keep our target audience, an intelligent 15 year old, in mind as we write. The final digital elements of the exhibition will be delivered over the next few weeks before the construction company moves into the centre to fit it out.

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The content and tone of the exhibition follows the interpretation plan we first drafted in May 2015. It sets out how we deal with the ‘difficult heritage’ of the history of Bomber Command. Aerial bombing does not fit easily within the narrative of the Second World War as a ‘good war’. Often, when the bombing war is remembered it is in the context of either the Dam Busters or the firestorm of Dresden. RAF veterans can be regarded as either heroes or villains. They themselves perceive that their contribution to the war has been neglected, and the last seventy years has been a struggle for recognition culminating in the dedication of the Bomber Command memorial in Green Park and the awarding of the Bomber Command Clasp in 2012.

The IBCC aims to tell the stories of all those who served in, supported the efforts of, and/or suffered as a result of the activities of Bomber Command. These narratives will be told using material from our archive, the personal everyday experiences of those who were caught up in the bombing war, civilian and military, in the air or on the ground, on both sides of the conflict. Their voices will be complemented by non-judgemental and inclusive interpretation in the IBCC’s official voice. We hope that the exhibition will encourage visitors to engage with the content of the Digital Archive hosted by the University of Lincoln.

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The exhibition will have three galleries. In the manner of Len Deighton’s novel Bomber, our first space will tell the story of the bombing war from a military perspective using a 24 hour timeline of a typical bombing operation, the second will tell stories from the home fronts, while the third space, ‘Remembering Bomber Command’ discusses the lives of those affected by Bomber Command and its legacy over the 70 years since the end of the war. The first two spaces are ‘black boxes’ much favoured by museum designers, but the last gallery is flooded with ambient light and has a view of the memorial in an attempt to encourage visitors to reflect on the war.

There is little wartime history to the site, and it was decided early in the project not to display ‘bits of bent and twisted metal.’ Rather than focus on aircraft, politics, strategy or technical advances, we aim to tell stories about the people involved. Our exhibition will contain only a handful of physical objects, each chosen to illustrate shared experiences. One of these will be a board game produced in Italy to educate children about air-raid precautions. Our galleries will also contain both physical and digital interactive exhibits and interpretation. An ‘orchestra of voices’ taken from our oral history interviews with veterans and survivors will be key to the visitor experience. Visitors will access these through several 1940s style Bakelite telephones and digital screens.

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Such audio visual interactives make up a large part of our exhibition, and students and staff from the university have played a large part in creating them. University students are about the same age as many bomber aircrew; over the summer members of the university’s performing arts and media production departments helped in the creation of filmed performances based on our oral histories. These will be shown on high definition screens in two of our galleries. Students are currently putting the finishing touches to an interactive for the Home Fronts gallery based on photographs and letters from the archive, and a system that will enable visitors to leave feedback and help add to the archive.

The exhibition has required many separate research projects, small and large, carried out by the archive staff and the project’s volunteers. One of the largest research projects has fed into another of the exhibition’s audio visual displays. Based on almost 380,000 fields of data, an animated map of Europe will be projected on a seven metre screen. It will show every bombing operation carried out by the RAF, the USAAF, Luftwaffe, and Nazi vengeance weapons for six years of war.

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We have been working closely with Redman, our exhibition designers and Centre Screen, our audio visual contractors, to develop the exhibition content they are responsible for. We will be meeting soon to finalise their designs and hopefully approve them. In the meantime, our work continues, choosing clips from the archive for the telephone handsets and writing extra content and interpretation to be delivered on the centre’s handheld tablets or the visitor’s own mobile devices. We are on track to meet the deadline to deliver the final content to the fit-out company towards the end of October so the centre can open in January 2018.

When the centre opens we hope that its visitors will leave the exhibition with an understanding of shared experiences of the bombing war, some knowledge of the complexities of the history of Bomber Command, and perhaps new questions about the contemporary use of Air Power. Above all we hope that our exhibition will assist with the remembrance and recognition of the human cost of Bomber Command’s war.

Johnny Johnson: Honorary Doctor of the University of Lincoln

Johnny Johnson  take 2This photograph was taken by Alessandro Pesaro of the IBCC Digital Archive

On the 7 September 2017, the University of Lincoln awarded Johnny Johnson an honorary doctorate, in recognition of his achievements both in RAF Bomber Command and in the sphere of special needs education. It is especially fitting that the University should have awarded this honour, since it is a partner in the delivery of the new International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln.  Johnny has also been a tireless supporter of the initiative.

Staff from the IBBC Digital Archive travelled to Johnny’s home in Bristol to interview him in August 2017.  He spoke for two hours about his experiences in RAF Bomber Command and after; this interview will be available when the Archive goes live next year.

The Head of the IBCC Digital Archive, Prof. Heather Hughes, delivered the oration at the graduation ceremony. Here is the text in full:

Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor, honoured guests, graduates, family and friends.  I am pleased to present to you George Leonard ‘Johnny’ Johnson, on whom the Governing Body has agreed to confer an Honorary Doctor of the University.

Johnny was born on a Lincolnshire farm in 1921, the youngest of six children. His mother died when he was three and his father and most of his older siblings were out working, so his childhood was lonely and difficult. His sister Lena cared for him until he left to attend the Lord Wandsworth Agricultural College in Hampshire.

At the College, Johnny acquired life skills and a good education. He trained as a horticulturalist and left with the intention of becoming a park attendant. The declaration of war in 1939 changed that.

Johnny volunteered for the Royal Air Force. After lengthy training, he joined 97 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command, as a bomb aimer in the crew of the highly-respected Joe McCarthy.  They flew many dangerous operations to bomb targets in Nazi-occupied Europe.

On 16 May 1943, McCarthy’s crew, by now part of 617 Squadron, participated in Operation Chastise, otherwise known as the Dambusters Raid, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson.  The targets were three dams in the Ruhr valley. Crews were expected to fly in very low and drop their so-called ‘bouncing bombs’ over the water.  Each bomb would skip towards the dam wall and explode, thus breaching the wall and causing severe disruption to German war industries and infrastructure.

Johnny was in the group briefed to bomb the Sorpe Dam.  His crew completed their task successfully and damaged the wall but it did not collapse. Only later did they learn that the other aircraft meant to bomb the Sorpe had failed to reach the target. Overall, however, the operation was judged a success – the other two dam walls had been breached. Johnny was one of the recipients of the Distinguished Flying Medal for his contribution that night. He was 21 years old.

In all, he completed fifty bombing operations, way higher than the average, the towers of this very Cathedral guiding him outward and homeward each time. He then served as an instructor to new aircrew.  He remained in the RAF after the war in a variety of roles in the UK and the Far East, reaching the rank of Squadron Leader.

Then came a turning point. He and his wife Gwyn had married in 1943 and by now had three children. He decided that a stable family life was more important than the continued disruption of moving to new postings, which promotion would inevitably entail.

In 1962 he left the RAF, after 22 years’ service.  There followed another 22 years in a different but no less challenging career: as an educationist working with adults with special needs.  First, he went back to college and trained as a primary school teacher. He taught young children for a few years but then took a position as education officer at Rampton Secure Hospital in Nottinghamshire.  Rampton housed – and houses – those with severe mental disorders who are deemed a serious risk to the public.

Johnny set about devising a curriculum and mode of tuition that would meet their needs.  This was no small achievement, since all had learning difficulties and some might turn violent at any stage. His horticultural skills at last came in handy – he made his greatest gains through teaching inmates to garden. He was even able to take a group of them on a study visit to the outside world, a nearby garden centre.

From Rampton, Johnny joined the staff of Balderton Hospital, another facility treating those with mental illness. Here again, he contributed to an approach to learning and rehabilitation far ahead of its time.  He worked with those deemed able to return to the community, preparing them for an independent life; but he also worked with the communities among whom they would settle, preparing them for life with a special needs neighbour.

In retirement, Johnny and Gwyn busied themselves in local politics and community life, always at the service of others.  He suffered the blow of losing Gwyn in 2005; since then, he has been incredibly active in the public sphere, inspiring others and continuing to make his family very proud of him.

Chancellor, in the context of these outstanding achievements, I would like to call on you to confer on Johnny Johnson, the award of Honorary Doctor of the University of Lincoln.

The graduation ceremony can be viewed here,

The section including the citation starts here,

Finally Johnny Johnson actually receiving his degree begins here.