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Early poster from the HIppodrome. Courtesy of the Vera Lynn Estate

How a Sussex museum were able to celebrate the legacy of Dame Vera Lynn

Dame Vera Lynn is the stuff of legend. A beloved veteran whose career in the music industry spanned 96 years, Lynn’s songs were crucial in maintaining morale during the Second World War; her wartime and post-war performances an emblem of 20th century spirit with her soothing vocals and nostalgic lyrics, including her most well-known, We’ll Meet Again.

“Music exhibitions weren’t our usual territory as an Arts and Crafts Museum,” explains Steph Fuller, Director of the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. “But Dame Vera was a village resident since 1944, and patron of the museum. When she died [aged 103 in 2020], we were keen to commemorate that relationship. I suppose the real coup was that because the process of probate was ongoing, a lot of her items which were promised to large national collections and institutions were available for us to exhibit. There will never be an opportunity to have all these things in the same place again.”

“We spoke to Dame Vera’s daughter Virginia about what might be appropriate to put on show, and talked about a small display for the museum,” says Fuller, “but as we visited her archive, we fast discovered that she had saved all her costumes beautifully in tissue paper and a lot of other items, which meant there was easily enough material.

Dame Vera Lynn: An Extraordinary Life, chronicled the nine decades Dame Vera spent in the public eye, displaying never-before-seen objects from Dame Vera’s private collection, including a copy of a top secret instruction from King George VI for Vera Lynn to perform at the then HRH Princess Elizabeth II’s 16th birthday in 1942; to moving letters sent into her radio show Sincerely Yours, which connected servicemen with their loved ones at home; and Dame Vera’s secret leather diary from her three-month tour through Burma in 1944, as she travelled 5,000 miles across the world in dangerous wartime conditions to perform to soldiers in the Burmese jungle.

Presenting only a fraction of Lynn’s total archive, other highlights of the exhibition included exquisite handmade costumes worn in numerous TV appearances, such as one in black velvet worn in 1952 when she appeared on the front of the New Musical Express having been the first non-American artist to reach No.1 in the Billboard music chart in the USA, and a floaty multi-tiered chiffon maxi dress from when she met the singer, Ella Fitzgerald.

 “Attendance was extraordinary, so successful that we had to extend the exhibition itself,” Fuller explains. “In terms of types of audiences, people said that only older people would come to the exhibition, but I don’t think that’s true as there were alot of people who remembered her from the ‘80s. Being such an iconic figure related to the war, I think Dame Vera is someone like Churchill – everyone knows who they are.”

Posters, playbills, gold discs and awards, including her 1959 Ivor Novello and her 2018 Classic BRIT Lifetime Achievement Award were also on display, recognising Dame Vera’s outstanding achievements in the entertainment industry.

Due to the age of some of her fans, her ties to the local area and to retain some legacy of the exhibition, the museum produced a digital guided tour which you can see here in return for a suggested donation. “The starting point for the virtual tour was the ‘in person’ tour that I do if you come with a little group, sharing the stories and anecdotes behind each piece. It felt like a person was showing you something rather than one which is looking just at ‘things.’ I’m very aware of having a human involved in digital; for me this is a good thing and much more relatable,” explains director Steph Fuller.