As the Head of Contemporary Conflict at the Imperial War Museums in London, Louise Skidmore (2004) has a job description that sounds more like that of a daring foreign correspondent than a curator toiling away in the backrooms of a museum. Among other things, her work has taken her to Afghanistan to collect artifacts and stories from the height of wartime.
Skidmore, who has been with the War Museums for nine years, earned her Master of Museum Studies degree in the years of uncertainty and conflict following 9/11. With a Bachelor’s degree in history and art history from McGill University and an internship and work experience at the Art Gallery of Ontario already in hand, a program highlight for her was continuing to build her professional experience with a Vivian and David Campbell Family Foundation Summer Training Fellowship to work for four months at the International Center of Photography in New York. (A full-circle moment recently transpired when she put her curators in touch with her old bosses at the Center for a project on photojournalist Tim Hetherington, killed in Libya in 2011).
After graduating, Skidmore tried out various positions at the Design Exchange, the Art Dealers Association of Canada, and then back at the Art Gallery of Ontario as an exhibition coordinator. “It took me a while to find a permanent job and know which area I wanted to work in,” she recalls. Then, 12 years ago, Skidmore moved to England (she was born there, emigrating to Canada at age 2) to help start a new museum for Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest biomedical research firms. “It was my first experience of what I do now, working with people who are working in the field,” says Skidmore.
After other positions at smaller museums, Skidmore landed at the Imperial War Museums, three of which are located in London, one in Manchester and one in Duxford. They focus on the story of conflict in Britain and the Commonwealth from the First World War to the modern day. While the Museums had impressive collections from the First and Second World Wars, curators struggled to find new ways of collecting and telling stories about contemporary conflict. With her growing expertise in contemporary collecting, Skidmore proved a good fit with the team.
Skidmore and her colleagues set up a relationship with the Ministry of Defense and started “The War Story” project, conceived as a new way to collect and communicate conflict by proactively seeking out contemporary wartime experiences. They piloted the project in Afghanistan,collecting everything from photographs to video to armored vehicles. and interviewing participants to capture their stories related to objects and their overall experience. Skidmore personally made three trips to Afghanistan between 2012 and 2014. Later they expanded the project and now have dedicated collecting efforts around Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
While Skidmore herself is less in the field, her team still ventures out, provided they can do so safely (local NGOs already on the ground help out too). Skidmore calls her move into contemporary collecting a “natural progression” given that she had already worked with many contemporary artists.
Other challenges in her field include connecting with museum visitors at a time when many no longer know active service personnel and the sheer volume of available material. As the official depository for the British Ministry of Defence, the museum used to receive a couple hundred reels of film annually during the first World War. Now they get hundreds of thousands of videos per month.
There are also emotional involvements. “People are sharing some of the most harrowing events of their lives, whether as a soldier or as a witness to conflict,” says Skidmore. “I think that is probably the most humbling and important part of my job—we get to speak to people who have been through these things and share their stories with us. We feel a huge responsibility for making sure we communicate them in a fair and ethical way.”