EILEEN Mitchell walks in the footsteps of giants each time she visits the Imperial War Museum North.
The Salford Quays museum may be an hour’s drive from her home on the Fylde coast, but is close to her heart.
“I marvel at the people I meet there, their stories.”
Eileen is a member of the museum’s Veterans North group, which includes 250 people whose lives have been affected by conflict. She’s also one of 280 volunteers.
She is helping present a new exhibition of 10 remarkable stories of northern fortitude as part of the museum’s 10th birthday events.
It’s a campaign for hearts and minds, and Eileen admits her voluntary work there is “life enhancing”.
She adds: “When I was a child I thought museums were dark gloomy places – this museum is anything but that. It’s wonderful, inspirational and it’s a joy to come here.”
She was a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service in the ’70s, part of the motor transport section, driving a range of vehicles, rubbing shoulders with royals, military chiefs and other VIPs.
Her own story featured in the museum’s All Aboard: Stories of War at Sea exhibition.
Eileen’s thrilled to be involved in the 10@10 celebration of the museum’s work over the past decade, and is leading some of the Closer Look tours involved.
“It’s a great privilege to be part of it,” she admits.
All 10 tales have some connection with the north. They include the diaries of First World War soldier Thomas Witts, who forged his date of birth to join the army at 16, and letters home from Guardsman Edward Charlton, posthumously awarded the last Victoria Cross in Europe during the Second World War, who died weeks before the war ended in an act of valour that saved many of his friends.
Three of Eileen’s fellow volunteers feature in the display.
They are Thomas Boardman, ravaged with malaria while a Far East prisoner of war, who kept spirits high with a hand-made ukelele; Frank Halls, a contractor captured and held hostage in Iraq for five months as part of the human shield deployed in the First Gulf War in 1990; and Frank Tolley, an RAF pilot who bombed Dresden in 1945, who admits he felt a sense of redemption when he helped to save thousands of lives months later by dropping food parcels over the Netherlands.
The others featured include Saranda Bogujevci, who received the first Anne Frank Award for bravery as the first child to testify at a war crimes trial after the Kosovo War.
She bore witness to the ethnic cleansing inflicted upon her friends and family.
Harbilas Singh Sagar was a child refugee who settled in England after his heroic mother helped him flee the violence of the partition of India.
There are other battles, too, such as Lt Cdr Patrick Lyster-Todd’s campaign to lift the ban on homosexuality in the British armed forces. And the First World War civilian nurse and motorcycle dispatch rider Mairi Chisholm who won medals for bravery in setting up an emergency treatment station 50 yards from the frontline – yet scandalised senior officers with her masculine breeches and leather jackets.
It’s brought up to date by Major Helen Ball, a medical practitioner who volunteered as a Territorial Army (207 Field Hospital) medic and served in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, one of the busiest military hospitals in the world.
Graham Boxer, the new director of the Imperial War Museum North, says: “In our first decade we’ve won almost 30 awards and received more than 2.5 million visitors, including many from the Fylde coast, who have come to discover remarkable stories of people whose lives have been shaped by conflict; all difficult stories told in a sensitive way. Now we’re inviting visitors to come and be amazed by 10 inspirational, tragic and heroic individuals.
“Some assume visitors to the museum are just interested in warfare, guns and planes and tanks and that kind of thing. We’re so much more than that.
“We are about what causes conflicts, the consequences, how it shapes individual’s lives. It’s a very challenging and exciting museum.
“Even the architecture is amazing, the shapes all metaphors for conflict, representing land fragments, air and water shards, so the experience is slightly disorientating.”
Eileen, chairman of the Fleetwood and District branch of the Wrens Association concludes: “My time with the WRNS was the happiest of my life. If I could have my time again I’d go in as a photographer because you see the world. Or a war correspondent – I was thrilled to meet Kate Adie at the museum. Back in the day I felt guilty because I enjoyed my work so much. Today I help others see the bigger picture.”
The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm, with free admission, at The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester M17 1TZ (near MediaCityUK Metrolink and Junction 9 of the M60). For more information visit www.iwm.org.uk.
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