Comedian and author Deborah Frances-White is sitting at a table, in the shadow of a Spitfire which soars above her head. She is being interrogated on everything she knows about one of the most violent conflicts in recent decades. What comes to mind when she thinks of the Yugoslav wars? “I think of words like Milošević, Serbo-Croatia, Bosnia … I think there’s a star on the flag?” she flounders. “I remember there was a Time magazine cover with a man at the end of the war.”
Frances-White is in the hot seat because she is a guest on Conflict of Interest, a new podcast from the Imperial War Museums (IWM) – the Spitfire above her head is hung from the ceiling of its London museum’s atrium, and her interrogator is Carl Warner, the IWM’s head of narrative and curatorial.
The seven-part series breaks down one complex contemporary conflict each episode, through a discussion between celebrity guests, IWM curators, conflict experts and eyewitnesses — from the commander of British forces in Afghanistan to first-generation refugees such as Syrian film-maker 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 through his paces on the Northern Irish Troubles. Before that, actor Carey Mulligan addressed the conflict in Syria, and documentary maker and comedian Jamali Maddix was asked what he knows about the war in Afghanistan.
The podcast — which also includes episodes on Yemen, Libya, and Iraq — is made by the IWM Institute, a new “innovation hub” on a mission to expand the museum group’s current modes of practice. As it does so, it hopes to draw a young, diverse audience to a museum that is typically associated with school trips and the two world wars.
“The podcast market isn’t really an area that museums have broken into yet,” says Eleanor Head, who runs the institute. “I wanted to tap into a type of media that had a universal reach and that challenged the perception that you can only engage with museums in a physical, visual way.”
The idea for the podcast came to Head as all good ideas do: from a conversation with a friend in a pub. “My friend is this very high-powered lawyer working for an international human rights charity, and she said that she felt sort of guilty and a bit embarrassed that she didn’t really know the basics about a lot of global conflicts of the last 20 years,” Head explains. “She wished there was a podcast that just spelt things out in a really clear and simple way. And I remember at the time thinking, ‘My God, if she’s struggling, given her job, then how must the rest of us be feeling?’”
Riffing off her friend’s thoughts, Head decided the podcast’s thesis would be to embrace ignorance, with a celebrity guest asking the “questions we all feel too embarrassed to ask”.
But before any of the guests get to ask these questions, they have to share everything they already know, in all its imperfections. “If I’m being honest, I don’t know how rude this is, but I think I mix it [the war in Afghanistan] in my mind a lot with the Iraq war,” Maddix fumbles.
Graham has similar struggles: “I know the parties which all sound the same, the UUP and the DUP and the SDLP, I know about the mix of religious tensions — Catholics versus Protestants, north versus south — and I know about the Battle of the Boyne and William of Orange for some reason, and obviously the 60s and the 70s and the violence and the tensions and the bombs. I think of the Good Friday Agreement, and I think of Tony Blair, but actually sometimes I think I should think about John Major, and I think about 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 feel very ashamed.”
Helping fill in the gaps, and lift this shame, are objects from around the museum, drawn on by the experts and eyewitnesses throughout the episodes. The description of these items can be immensely powerful. Mulligan’s reaction to Al-Kateab’s camera, that captured her friends and families’ lives in Aleppo, or the baby carrier that held her daughter Sama to her chest, is incredibly moving, because these objects are about the emotions they hold rather than the items themselves. But others surely lose some of their impact on the recording because they cannot be seen — the violent size, for example, of the Humber Pig, the British armoured 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? “The podcasts are going to be really economical ways of learning the things that you wish you knew without getting too traumatised, without coming up with horrible images that you can’t get out of your brain,” Frances-White says.
Perhaps, for an introduction to these often overwhelming conflicts, that is exactly what we need.