The 75th Anniversary of D-day was always going to be a pivotal event for Portsmouth and for the D-day Story. But the announcement that Donald Trump would be attending the national commemorative event in the city, and that the security measures would make it more difficult for the general public to attend, made it even more important for us to help residents feel part of what was happening. It threatened to dominate the tone of the anniversary.
We knew that we had to do more. But the story of D-day actually helped us. It didn’t take place in museums, or at the war memorial – it happened in the streets around the city, and in the homes of the men who went off to fight.
We installed panels marking the homes of the 119 men from Portsmouth who were killed, and we crowdsourced photographs of many of them. Taking them back to their homes helped to make the story of D-day human, and reminded residents that the story didn’t start in Normandy at 6am on 6 June 1944; it started in their communities when these men left their homes to go to war.
The museum’s collections inspired our outreach. A map of the embarkation routes and some remarkable photographs of troops boarding landing craft at the pier inspired our We Knew Something Was Happening event, named after an ever-present phrase in oral histories of the time. Something as simple as marching re-enactors through the city, down the same routes that troops marched in 1944, and recreating the sights and sounds, helped to evoke the same emotions that residents would have felt at the time. How many of those young men would come home? What was it like for residents back then, hearing the ever-present crunching of hobnails on cobblestones?
My favourite photograph of the event shows troops marching past The Mother Shipton, which featured in the Britain’s Toughest Pubs TV documentary. Anyone who has worked for a local authority will know that praise does not always come easily.
But to hear residents say “well done Portsmouth City Council” – particularly given that the anniversary events necessitated road closures and significant disruption – was incredibly satisfying. By the end of the anniversary, residents were not talking about president Trump, they were talking about the veterans and their city. The museum, and its collections and stories, helped us do that.
We need to look to the lessons of the first world war centenary period and rethink how we commemorate the second world war. Most veterans are in their mid-90s, so soon we will need to look even more to our collections and the stories that they tell.
James Daly is the cultural development and projects officer for Portsmouth City Council, and was previously collections researcher at the D-Day Story