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History and legacy of the Ministry of Information

Image: © IWM (D 650A)

Katherine Howells, a doctoral candidate at King’s College London, provides an overview of the  ‘Publishing and Communications History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-45’ project being undertaken by the Institute of English Studies (IES) in collaboration with the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s and the National Archives at Kew. Known as MoI Digital, it is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and its team of researchers come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, each investigating different aspects of the Ministry’s activity during the Second World War.

Tasked with the control of news and information of military value and the creation and dissemination of ‘national propaganda’ in Britain and abroad, the Ministry of Information (MoI) began work on 4 September 1939. It was highly innovative in the materials it published and the activities it pursued. For example, the Ministry pioneered the use of the social surveys to monitor public morale and organised multi-channel nationwide campaigns, such as Dig for Victory or Make Do and Mend, which we still remember to this day.

The MoI Digital Project aims to investigate how this organisation developed its methods, the materials it created, their reception and the legacy in terms of communications history and British cultural memory. Team members have their own areas of focus. Public historian Dr Henry Irving, has conducted detailed research into government publications, press censorship, propaganda exhibitions, and opinion polling. Dr Marc Wiggam, post-doctoral researcher at IES, has focused his attention so far on the Ministry’s regional work, and Dr Hollie Price, also a post-doctoral researcher at IES, is studying the films produced over the course of the war.

In addition to investigating MoI’s history and impact, the project aims to create a virtual archive of all the digital material generated by the research. One of the collaborators, King’s Digital Lab, is currently working to organise and digitise materials for the archive.

My own research is concerned with the influence of the Ministry of Information’s outputs on British cultural memory. I am investigating why the campaigns and images it created are still remembered today, and why some images are described as ‘iconic’. So far I have conducted a content analysis of a set of 2009 survey responses collected by the Mass Observation project. These documents comprise ordinary people’s written thoughts and memories of the Second World War, and cover a wide age range.

The analysis reveal that Ministry of Information campaigns are very easily called to mind when people are asked to think of the war. Campaign names such as Dig for Victory and Make Do and Mend, commonly function as shorthand phrases which symbolise larger concepts relating to the war. Many of the most popular campaigns are frequently referred to by members of younger generations with no direct memory of the Second World War, demonstrating how this cultural knowledge is transmitted over time. The next step in my research will be to conduct oral history interviews with members of the public to further investigate how these campaigns have entered the memories of different generations.

Working with the University of London, I recently conducted the first oral history interview of the project with Anne Olivier Bell who worked in the Ministry’s photographs and publications divisions during the Second World War. The interview has revealed some fascinating information which will be published on the MoI Digital website shortly.

The project’s progress and findings are being shared in a variety of ways. As well as the regularly updated project blog, we run a series of free public seminars featuring presentations by project members and invited scholars, and a 2017 summer conference is planned. More details on the autumn seminar programme is available here.

Katherine Howells is a PhD student in the department of digital humanities at King’s College London. She is studying the communications history of the Ministry of Information by analysing the impact of its materials on audiences during and following the Second World War, from their creation to the internet age.

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