VSActress and author Deborah Frances-White sits at a table in the shadow of a Spitfire hovering above her head. She is asked about everything she knows about one of the most violent conflicts of recent decades. What comes to her mind when she thinks of the Yugoslav wars? “I am thinking of words like Milošević, Serbo-Croatian, Bosnia… I think there is a star on the flag? She flounders. “I remember there was a cover of Time magazine with a man at the end of the war.”
Frances-White is in the hot seat because she is the guest of Conflict of interest, a new podcast from the Imperial War Museums (IWM) – the Spitfire above his head hangs from the ceiling of his London museum’s atrium, and his interrogator is Carl Warner, head of storytelling and curatorial of the IWM.
The seven-part series breaks down a complex contemporary conflict in each episode, through a discussion between famous guests, IWM curators, conflict experts and eyewitnesses – from the commander of British forces in Afghanistan to first-generation refugees such as Syrian filmmaker Waad Al -Kateab and Baroness Arminka Helić. A week earlier, playwright and screenwriter James Graham had sat in the same chair, a V2 rocket behind his left shoulder, as he was put to the test over the unrest in Northern Ireland. Prior to that, actor Carey Mulligan addressed the conflict in Syria, and documentary maker and comedian Jamali Maddix was asked what he knew about the war in Afghanistan.
The podcast – which also includes episodes on Yemen, Libya and Iraq – is produced by the IWM Institute, a new “innovation center” with the mission of expanding the museum group’s current modes of practice. . In doing so, he hopes to attract a young and diverse audience to a museum typically associated with school trips and the two world wars.
“The podcast market is not yet really an area that museums have entered yet,” says Eleanor Head, who heads the institute. “I wanted to tap into a type of media that was universal in scope and challenged the perception that you can only engage with museums in a physical and visual way.”
The idea for the podcast came to Head like all good ideas: from a conversation with a friend in a pub. “My friend is this very powerful lawyer who works for an international human rights charity, and she said she felt a little guilty and a little embarrassed that she didn’t really know the basics of many of the world’s conflicts. Last 20 years, ”says Head. “She wished there was a podcast that just explained things in a very clear and straightforward way. And I remember back then thinking, “My God, if she’s fighting, given her job, then how the rest of us must be feeling? “
Inspired by her friend’s thoughts, Head decided that the podcast’s thesis would be to embrace ignorance, with a guest celebrity asking the “questions we all feel too embarrassed to ask.”
But before any of the guests can ask these questions, they must share everything they already know, in all of their imperfections. “If I’m being honest I don’t know how rude it is, but I think I’m mixing it up [the war in Afghanistan] in my mind a lot with the war in Iraq, ”groped Maddix.
Graham has similar struggles: “I know the parties that are all alike, the UUP and the DUP and the SDLP, I know the mix of religious tensions – Catholic versus Protestant, North versus South – and I know the Battle of Boyne and William of Orange for some reason, and obviously the ’60s and’ 70s and the violence and the tensions and the bombs. I think of the Good Friday Accord, and I think of Tony Blair, but actually sometimes I think I should think of John Major, and I think of Bill Clinton and Mo Mowlam, and I think of Gerry Adams, and Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness … And then I think about all the things I don’t know, all the time, and I’m very ashamed.
To fill in the gaps and lift this shame, are museum objects, drawn by experts and eyewitnesses throughout the episodes. Describing these elements can be extremely powerful. Mulligan’s reaction to the camera of Al-Kateab, who captured the lives of his friends and family in Aleppo, or the baby carrier that held his daughter Sama to his chest, is incredibly moving, as these objects relate to the emotions they have rather than the objects themselves. . But others surely lose some of their impact on the recording because they can’t be seen – the violent size, for example, of the Humber Pig, the British armored vehicle that towers over Jo Taylor, “a child of the Troubles. “and the eyewitness on the Northern Ireland episode, who recounts how they patrolled the streets where she grew up.
But does removing these violent images make the subject more accessible? “Podcasts are going to be a really inexpensive way to learn the things you want to know without being overly traumatized, without coming up with horrible images that you can’t get out of your brain,” says Frances-White.
Perhaps, for an introduction to these often overwhelming conflicts, this is exactly what we need.