Exhibition Review: Keeping Britain Afloat, by Anna Morell

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The modest exterior of the new permanent exhibition at The Historic Dockyard, Chatham reveals a collection of moving oral history stories from more than 50 veterans of World War II

Tucked between the historic warships is a humble little shed. There is little to see here. A drab convoy ship gun, a handful of exhibition panels, and in the middle – a wall covered in a collage of 68 elderly faces.

And that’s it. This is the new ‘Keeping Britain Afloat’ permanent exhibition at The Historic Dockyard, Chatham. Unlike most exhibitions, there is deliberately little to look at. For this is an oral history room. One where the walls really can speak, as the voices of those who served in the Navy’s Second World War convoys (or offices connected to their operation), reverberate off the bricks, recounting memories of their service.

 

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Vic Ould, veteran

Their stories are ordinary and therefore extraordinary. Life, told as story. Fantastic in its realism. Humbling in its bravery, or lack of bravery, because this is just what they did. Day in, day out. Code breaking. Travelling to the Arctic. Braving 45 feet high waves. Stories, sometimes horrible. Sometimes, humdrum. Each story part of something much greater – part of the fabric of a critical era in naval history, but made small, made personal, through these one to one encounters between ear and voice.

On the reverse of the middle wall is a small television screen showing talking heads of eleven of the 68 storytellers (nearly all of whom are connected to the Chatham Port Division and Chatham Rating). The full archive of stories is available online. On the walls, some of the exhibition panels are illustrated with portrait photos of some of the recounting personnel in their youth and old age. It is a form of reportage. A reminder that, despite the risks, and the focus of much naval history, not everyone dies at sea. These are whole faces. Happy faces. The faces of people who have lived full and fulfilling lives. If they were traumatised by their experiences, it is not visible now.

There is glee and wonder, terror and seriousness here. Different emotions pricked by different recollections. And above all, a connection: between speaker and listener, between then and now. Stop, listen, and feel it.

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‘Keeping Britain Afloat’ is on permanent display within The Historic Warships area in The Historic Dockyard and is included in the normal dockyard admission price. Visiting information for The Historic Dockyard can be found here.

The full archive can be found here.