Last updated: 19 January 2024
The Cold War was about dreams and nightmares: dreams for a better world and nightmares of catastrophic destruction. It was a global conflict that began in the wake of the Second World War and ended with the peaceful revolutions of 1989-90 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Cold War was fought as contest over a way of life as much as it was an armed confrontation. It combined the ideological contest between capitalist liberal democracies and communist dictatorships with unprecedented levels of armaments and military conflicts worldwide. As such, the Cold War had a significant impact on society and culture.
For most, the Cold War was a war in name only – and yet its manifestations are everywhere from nuclear bunkers, weapons installations, radars and airfields, to protest movements like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to folk songs, cartoons and images or the design of telephones and razors.
How can we exhibit the dreams and nightmares of the Cold War through material objects? How can the Cold War be exhibited as a whole without focusing on any one element? How relevant is Cold War history and memory today?
Materialising the Cold War
2021 - 2024
Scotland's Material Heritage
In June 2023, in the National Museum of Scotland, over 60 participants from historical, heritage and memory studies backgrounds explored the challenges of conceptualising the Cold War in a museum context.
Read Dr Jessica Douthwaite's reflections on the conference on the Materialising the Cold War blog.
Dr Sam Alberti is Director of Collections at National Museums Scotland, and an Honorary Professor in Heritage Studies at the University of Stirling. For twenty years he has worked at the intersection of museums and universities, first in Manchester, then as Director of Museums and Archives at the Royal College of Surgeons of England (including the Hunterian Museum), while holding visiting research appointments in London, Philadelphia, and Edinburgh. His recent practice has focussed on the role of museums in the climate emergency and Cold War museology.
Professor Holger Nehring is Chair of Contemporary European History at the University of Stirling. He has worked on the history of social movements (especially peace movements) and the history of the Cold War (especially Cold War military infrastructure) and British and West German foreign policy. Together with Stefan Berger (University of Bochum, Germany) he co-edits the book series Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements. Before coming to Scotland, Holger completed his DPhil at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar before moving to various academic positions at the University of Sheffield.
Dr Jessica Douthwaite is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Stirling working on the collaboration with National Museums Scotland, Materialising the Cold War. Her Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD based at IWM, London and University of Strathclyde was titled Voices of the Cold War in Britain, 1945-1962 and awarded in 2018. She is currently writing a monograph which explores how the national and international landscapes of post-war Britain contextualised and influenced civilian experiences of Cold War security. She specialises in oral history methodology, gender and cultural studies and international politics.
Dr Sarah Harper is Research Fellow at National Museums Scotland and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Stirling working on the Materialising the Cold War project. She completed an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD in 2022. She worked with the University of Stirling and National Museums Scotland (NMS) on her project ‘Bombers, Bunkers and Badges: The Cold War Materialised in National Museums Scotland.’ This research utilised the collections of NMS to examine how ‘Cold War’ meanings have become attached to artefacts in the museum and how influential people and place are in ascribing these meanings. Prior to her PhD, Sarah was Collections and Research Manager at The Devil’s Porridge Museum and has a master's degree in Preventive Conservation.
Dr Jim Gledhill was a Research Fellow at National Museums Scotland and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Stirling working on the Materialising the Cold War project between 2021–2023. He was previously curator of social history at the Museum of London and York Castle Museum and more recently curator of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum at Edinburgh Castle. He specialises in contemporary British social and military history, international politics and heritage studies.
Linden Williamson is the project's Administrator at National Museums Scotland.
Samuel J.M.M. Alberti & Holger Nehring (2021): The Cold War in European museums – filling the ‘empty battlefield’. International Journal of Heritage Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2021.1954054
Jessica Douthwaite (2022): ‘Is Radioactive Iodine Present Equally in the Cream on Milk as in the Milk Itself?’: Lonely Sources and the Gendered history of Cold War Britain. Gender & History, https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0424.12643
Holger Nehring (2022), War Times: Layers of History in Russia’s War against Ukraine. Labour History Review, https://doi.org/10.3828/lhr.2022.11
Materialising the Cold War is a collaboration between National Museums Scotland and the University of Stirling. The project will explore how the Cold War, its global experience and heritage are described in museums and how museums can adapt to tell this story in future. Our research will achieve this in two ways: first, by evaluating existing displays and collections together with key partners in the UK, in Germany and in Norway, and second by creating a new, ground-breaking special exhibition at NMS on the basis of our findings.
Funded by a major grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, our three-year project will leave a legacy of ideas and practices developed through academic research, events, a schools programme, a major exhibition and publications.
It has been over 30 years since the Cold War ended with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the time has gone from "is" to "was" – an historical period to look back on. Many people are still alive who remember it vividly, but some may not have heard about it at all.
Stories from Cold War Hotspots aimed to collect stories, memories, and perceptions of the Cold War from our visitors. Between 26 July to 13 August 2023, visitors to the National Museum of Flight recorded their own Cold War story in a Cold War Hotspots recording booth.
At the height of the Cold War in October 1962, the world stood on the edge of an abyss as the United States and the Soviet Union prepared for nuclear war over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Five months earlier, the charismatic poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko broke the ice to visit Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid.
Research Fellow Dr Jim Gledhill recounts their meeting of minds in the Scottish Borders in our latest blog: