The Imperial War Museum was founded during the First World War, so it seems appropriate that, after a £40 million transformation, it should reopen in time for the centenary of World War One.
The Imperial War Museum Reinvents Itself
The building, formerly the Bethlem Royal Hospital, is an imposing structure. Set in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in the London borough of Lambeth, it is guarded by two 15-inch naval cannons.
The refurbished interior, with its soaring atrium and refurbished galleries, do the building justice.
The museum was founded with the aim of keeping alive the memory of the sacrifices made during the Great War, as it was then known, for future generations.
The new version has kept to that ideal, while acknowledging that, with the passing of the generations, certain things that once seemed obvious now need to be explained. Using modern technology, the displays present a dynamic and fascinating insight into conflicts from 1914 to the present day.
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Witnesses to War at the Imperial War Museum
The revamped structure centres on the atrium, a grand space spanning four levels, designed by architect Foster + Partners. It showcases over 400 objects, more than 60 of which have never been seen before.
The Witnesses to War display on Level 0 steals the show. Spanning every major conflict from World War One to today, the iconic objects illustrate the realities of war, from its role as an arena for breathtaking courage to its appalling costs. A Spitfire, the ultimate symbol of plucky heroism, hangs from the ceiling, while beneath it sits the remains of a car destroyed by a bomb in Baghdad in 2007.
The First World War Galleries
The new permanent First World War galleries on Level 0 are riveting. Designed by Casson Mann and lead curator James Taylor, the galleries offer a tantalising mix of the personal and the high-tech that together draw the visitor into the ‘war to end all wars’.
The galleries offer a full immersion experience. As you pass through, you experience something of the rush of patriotism that accompanied the beginning of the conflict, and the feeling of shock engendered by the reality of modern warfare. Seven million men marched off to war in August 1914. A million of them lay dead by the end of the year.
Touch screens invite you to investigate further, while listening to an aural backdrop of exploding shells and machine-gun fire, warnings of gas attack and the deafening sound of rain. It is all too easy to imagine the mud.
The galleries display over 1,300 objects, which range from the 42 cm shell fired by the German mortar known as Big Bertha, to the hollowed-out fake tree trunk that served as a listening post in no-man’s land, to Lord Kitchener’s recruitment poster. You can walk through a trench with a Sopwith Camel flying overhead and marvel at how the museum managed to get a Mark V tank inside the gallery.
There is something very personal about the galleries. Curator James Taylor noted in his welcome speech that the aim of the galleries was to tell the story of World War One through the experiences of those who lived through it, and those who died. The displays are adorned with quotations from letters and diaries from those at the front, and those who supported the war effort at home, detailing the terror and the boredom of it all.
“Our latest recreations are tennis with entrenching tools … and cricket with the aid of a biscuit tin and a piece of packing case.”
Lance Corporal Roland Mountfort
The museum commissioned Aardman Studios, famous for Wallace & Gromit, to make a poignant animation about the galleries and their focus on the personal stories of the war.
Conflicts Since World War One
The upper levels focus on more modern conflicts, from World War Two through the Cold War to the uncertainties of today’s ever more volatile world. Exhibits include a Japanese Zero fighter, found in the jungle after being abandoned for 50 years, the casing for an atomic bomb, a suicide vest and a Land River used by Reuters in Gaza which came under Israeli fire.
Current temporary exhibitions in the revamped museum explore the role of art in warfare. Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War runs until 8 March 2015, while the related exhibition IWM Contemporary: Mark Neville runs until 25 September 2014. The latter focuses on the artist Mark Neville’s work in Afghanistan, where he spent two months with 16 Air Assault brigade as a war artist, a tradition that can be traced back to the First World War.
Imperial War Museum Re-Opened
The Imperial War Museum re-opened to the public on 19 July 2014, and is free to enter. Have you been?