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The Indian Army in the First World War: an Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire perspective

  • “It has given me a clearer understanding of the fact that it was a world war rather than just the British vs. Germany” – exhibition visitor.
  • Between June and December 2017, Wycombe Museum played host to a collaborative research and exhibition design project led by Oxford University’s History Faculty and the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum (SOFO).   Together with   three   local   Asian   community   partners –   the   Oxford   Muslim Community Initiative, the Oxford  Hindu  Temple  Project,  and  Oxford  University’s student Sikh Society –  the project was funded by the ‘Voices of War and Peace’ engagement hub at the University of Birmingham. The aims of the project  were  to  carry  out  new  research  into  the  role  played  by  the  Indian  Army during the First World War (by conducting an investigation into SOFO’s archives, as well as crowdsourcing Asian family stories) and to turn these research findings into an engaging new mini-exhibition, aimed at attracting a primary audience of British Asian and local white British families across Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

 

  • The research and exhibition design work was carried out by a group of volunteers from SOFO and the community partners, trained and led by project coordinators Stephen Barker (SOFO) and Priya Atwal (Oxford University). The idea was to enable the volunteers to have the opportunity to explore their interest in this period, alongside helping them to enhance their research abilities and to learn new skills, including interpretation, communication and exhibition design. Fifteen volunteers attended the preliminary training and meetings, with nine continuing on to the project’s end.

 

  • The first two team meetings were designed as ‘immersive learning experiences’ for the volunteers, to enable them to quickly absorb key debates and ideas from the overlapping themes of local, military and imperial history, and for them to familiarise themselves with handling museum artefacts and original archival material. Academics from Oxford University and specialist independent researchers gave a series of short talks about Sikh, Hindu and Muslim participation in the First World War (one volunteer noted how they had been “much more detailed and in depth than what had been touched upon in University”). The second and third meetings focused on skills training in research work and exhibition design, and volunteers were given time to carry out their own primary and secondary research into aspects of the subject that they were most interested in, and about which they had agreed to produce content for an exhibition panel.

 

  • Volunteer meeting during the immersive learning day at SOFO
    Volunteer meeting during the immersive learning day at SOFO
  • Over the course of the first and second meetings, the volunteers decided what they wished the aims and key messages of the exhibition to be, and it was on that basis that their research and writing efforts were organised. An independent filmmaker, Sharon Woodward, was commissioned to produce a short documentary film about the making of the exhibition and to capture the experiences of the volunteers, which then formed part of the display at the museums. A survey of the volunteers showed that they were initially motivated by an interest in history and being part of the work of designing an exhibition, and later found they enjoyed being part of the group discussions and sharing different perspectives about the subject.

 

  • The result was an exciting new interpretation of the connected history of local and South Asian participation in the  war, intended  to  promote  greater  understanding amongst the volunteer group and the public at large about the shared history of the war’s impact on Britons and Asians alike from a century ago. This interpretation and  the  project’s  core  findings  were  to  be  publicly  shared  through  the  mini-exhibition, opened at Wycombe Museum on 6th November 2017 and which is touring museums in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire during 2018.
  • Visitors enjoying the exhibition at Wycombe Museum
    Visitors enjoying the exhibition at Wycombe Museum
  • The exhibition consisted of  12  pull-up  panels relating  to  the history of the Indian Army and the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in the First World War – telling the story of the war and its impact on ordinary British and Asian people, as well as exploring the conflict’s legacy from the perspectives of socio-cultural, military, political and gender history. These insights were drawn from the  volunteers’  research  efforts,  as  well as  from  the  media  appeal  coordinated  as part  of  the  project,  to  crowdsource  British  Asian  family  stories  about  ancestral involvement in the war, which added further original (and often poignant) material to the exhibition’s narrative. Together with the panels are the documentary film and an  array  of  original  Indian  artefacts  and  wartime  photographs,  which  were  loaned from  private  individuals  and  collectors,  as  well  as  from  SOFO.  An  information  and activity table also carried a range of free carry-out sheets (written by the volunteers) providing additional information about the history of the war, as well as children’s activities and reference material, which visitors of all ages could use to engage further with the subject of the exhibition.

 

  • Living historians in WW1 Indian Army uniform, SOFO
    Living historians in WW1 Indian Army uniform, SOFO
  • Staff estimated that at least 200 visitors had sight of it during the month that it was open at Wycombe museum. Several visitors noted that the work of the project had changed or added to their understanding of the history of the First World War: particularly frequent being the comments about changed perceptions of the “contribution of Indians” or “awareness of contributions of different religions and people from different regions”.

 

  • The project received greater-­‐than-­‐expected positive media coverage, demonstrating that there is a significant interest in new interpretations of the history of the First World War and of the legacy of the British Empire in India. A media appeal launched at the outset of the project to  crowdsource  ancestral  stories  and  objects was covered by local newspapers (Bucks Free Press and Oxford Mail) as well as by BBC Oxford and Wycombe Sound radio stations, and the BBC South TV news channel (which aired a news piece about the first immersive learning  day  with  the  volunteers).  The  project  also  enjoyed  publicity  from  Asian national media, including a feature article in the Eastern Eye magazine, and coverage on the BBC Asian Network. This media coverage, amplified by social media activity, helped us to source several fascinating family stories about WW1 experiences (which were added to the exhibition content), as well as enabling widespread publicizing of the exhibition itself.
  • The personal/family stories uncovered as part of the project proved particularly of interest to media outlets, and appear to have struck a chord with audiences touched by tales of the impact of the war on ordinary people. The overall project will also hopefully enable more local young people of diverse backgrounds to benefit from the educational outputs of the collaborative initiative, beyond the closing of the exhibition. 

    This blog post is an edited version of a project evaluation report written by Priya Atwal (Oxford University), with thanks to the Voices of War & Peace WW1 Engagement Centre.

     

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