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Oxford turns to public to collect artefacts for new digital World War II archive

Their Finest Hour, a University of Oxford project launched in July 2022, has received funding from the National Lottery Heritage and will be made accessible from the 6 June 2024. The online archive aims to catalogue local stories and relics from the Second World War, documenting human stories through everyday objects. The project follows the hugely successful Lest We Forget online archive for artefacts from the First World War. 

The project focuses on community archive collection as it builds an archival database. It will run a series of events and digital collection days scheduled at museums, libraries, and heritage centres across the UK. Organisers encourage members of the public to bring in their war-related stories and objects – whether this be documents, medals, letters, photographs, or stories passed down throughout generations. Dr Stuart Lee of the Oxford Faculty of English said: “Our aim is to empower local communities to digitally preserve these stories and objects before they are lost to posterity.”

Organisers say a Second World War project will become particularly crucial as the number of people 1939-1945 generation declines. Stories passed on through children and grandchildren will become vital in preserving the experiences of the wartime generation. As a free digital platform, both Lest We Forget and Their Finest Hour make wartime heritage accessible for all.

Items brought to a collection event in Gosport included a passport with a mysterious alteration. Valerie Cope, who brought in a British passport owned by her grandfather bearing visa stamps from locations in Latvia and Western Russia from the beginning of the war. His occupation was crossed out, a common identifier of wartime spies. Mysteries like this one will be researched and digitised by the database in an attempt to preserve stories and diverse narratives from the Second World War. Event volunteer Stephanie Cunningham said “We’re in danger of losing [these artefacts] and we have many people coming to the events saying they didn’t know where else to turn.”

Organisers emphasise that they would like stories and artefacts from children as well as narratives from relatives who refused to discuss their wartime experiences. Narratives from underrepresented backgrounds in wartime heritage, including those from women and the commonwealth, are particularly encouraged. 

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