An interview with Bob Cook: Kohima Museum, York’s Curator

In 2013, Kohima was chosen as the ‘Greatest British Battle Ever’ in a deserved tribute to all those that for our tomorrow, gave their today. While many books and papers describe the battle and the wider Burma campaign – the longest in the Second World War – the Kohima Museum in York is not as widely known as it should be. Providing yet another reason to visit this beautiful city replete with history, the museum is not only home to myriad interesting objects, but serves as the focal point for educational and outreach activities – in addition to being involved in Anglo-Japanese reconciliation efforts. The museum also offers a mobile display, which is available to other institutions and events. This year, Bob Cook – a retired warrant officer Royal Signals – is taking part in a trip to Kohima, which is another reason to interview him…

Helion (H): Could you tell us a bit about the Kohima Museum? What are its origins and how is it structured?

Bob Cook (BC): The Kohima Museum (full title: The 2nd Division Kohima Museum Trust) was formed from an ‘ad hoc’ collection of artefacts and memorabilia donated to the headquarters of the 2nd Division by the veterans themselves and their families. This ad hoc collection was formalised into a museum collection and accredited in 1992.

H: What is the profile of your visitors – and what is their main motivation to visit the museum?

BC: The main core of our visitor group were, until recently, the veterans themselves – but now as the mobility and capability of the veterans declines, the main groups comprise the descendants of the veterans who want to find out more about what their ancestor did, together with individuals and groups whose interest has been sparked by the Battle of Kohima and Imphal being picked as Britain’s greatest battle.

H: Indian troops played an important role at Kohima. Is the museum popular among tourists from the subcontinent – and what about British visitors of South-Asian descent?

BC: Despite repeated attempts by the museum management and staff to engage with this group, there has been little uptake or interest. This may be in part due to the fact that despite the majority of casualties throughout the Burma campaign being Indian, the majority of the casualties at Kohima were British.

H: What is your favourite item and why? Which one prompts the largest number of questions among visitors?

BC: I have a few ‘favourite items’, so I will list them in no particular order of preference:

–          A photograph of Mrs Ellen Hannay kneeling by her husband’s grave at Kohima: L/Sjt Robert Bell Hannay of 1 Queens Own Cameron Highlanders was killed in action at Zubza on 14 April 1944. Mrs Hannay is probably the very first war widow to visit Kohima after the fighting. The photo was taken on 26 December 1945 and her ashes are now interred in her husband’s grave

–          A small chipped and glued coffee cup recovered from the headquarters area of 4th Indian Corps at Imphal. This was given to me by the Imphal Campaign WW2 Group during my visit there in 2014

–          The full set of medals, honours and awards of Major General JD Shapland CB DSO MC, who commanded 6th Brigade during the battle until he was wounded through the neck. I also have copies of his records and memoirs – plus copies of his FOUR Mentioned in Despatches awards.

H: You will soon be travelling to Kohima; could you tell us a bit about the trip?

BC: This next trip has come about as a result of the six visits that I made to Kohima in 2014. Four of these visits were co-ordinated by a company called INDUS Experiences; the CEO noticed that my name was on all of them. He contacted me and asked if he could initiate a study group – in conjunction with the museum – to the battlefield. It is the intention to take some contemporary maps, personal accounts and operational diaries from commanders and soldiers in order to actually walk the battle areas.

H: It is often said that in order to truly understand a battle, one has to visit its grounds. What, in your view, is most relevant in this regard when we are talking about Kohima?

BC: The terrain in Kohima is not conducive to set-piece battle, with many deep valleys and steep inclines not properly shown on the 1944 maps. It was mainly primary jungle and thick forest, with few or no tracks. This required that General Grover situate his headquarters just two miles from the main focus of the battle area. One cannot get a true idea of the extreme difficulties that faced both the Japanese troops, as well as the British and Indian troops, until you are stood on the same ground that they stood on.

H: You visited Japan a couple of years ago and took part in some events with a British and a Japanese Kohima veteran. Could you tell us more about your experience? How can museums aid in reconciliation?

BC: This was a very interesting and most moving experience for me, although for the veterans, it was obviously more so. Education and the availability of information helps to dispel ignorance and prejudice – and although I am not in any way a museum professional, it is clear to me now after eight years as a volunteer curator that a museum tells a story through the interpretation and display of the artefacts available. Reconciliation is an individual thing, but it is enhanced and encouraged through education and information.

York’s Kohima Museum is located at Imphal Barracks, Fulford Road, York YO10 4HD. The museum is open every Thursday morning from 9am to 12noon (although it is advisable to check this prior to visiting) and is open at almost any other time subject to prior arrangement (please telephone 01904 665806).

The museum’s website is http://www.kohimamuseum.co.uk/ and its Facebook page is available at https://www.facebook.com/Kohima-Museum-400715083329791/?fref=nf

The museum can be followed on Twitter at @KohimaMuseum

Interview by Alex Calvo.

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