Inside the new-look Imperial War Museum London

By Jon Bauckham, 17 July 2014 - 10:29am

The Imperial War Museum’s flagship London branch has undergone a major revamp. Jon Bauckham paid a visit ahead of the public reopening on Saturday 19 July and explored the new First World War Galleries

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 17 July 2014
Jon Bauckham, staff writer
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The new atrium at Imperial War Museum London, which is home to the largest items in the museum collections (Credit: Jon Bauckham)

Designed by Foster + Partners, the impressive new atrium space at Imperial War Museum London contains some of the largest items in its collections (Credit: Jon Bauckham)

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the unveiling of London's new-look Imperial War Museum (IWM).

Closed since January to undergo a £40 million refurbishment, the event enabled the press to go inside and meet the curators, historians and architects before it reopens to the public on Saturday.

And the toil has certainly paid off – stepping out into the museum’s vast atrium, you are instantly taken aback. Although the familiar Spitfire and V2 rocket still take pride of place, it has been expanded and reconfigured by digging through the floor to create an impressive new space.

However, with the centenary just around the corner, a significant part of the revamp has been the creation of brand new galleries devoted to the First World War. Split into 14 ‘chapters’, the exhibition provides both a comprehensive and compelling history of the conflict.

Through the displays, you get a real insight into the lives of ordinary people – from the optimistic young men who flocked to recruitment stations in 1914, to the shell-shocked soldiers of the Somme two years later. 

Over 1,300 artefacts are exhibited, each with a story of their own.

A section from the First World War Galleries at Imperial War Museum London named 'Feeding the Front' (Credit: Jon Bauckham)

The First World War Galleries reveal how the conflict affected civilians, as well as soldiers. This section, named 'Feeding the Front', looks at the work which took place at home to keep supplies going to the Western Front (Credit: Jon Bauckham)

“The objects on display will give a voice to the people who created them, used them, or cared for them,” explained IWM director general Diane Lees.

“They will reveal the stories not only of destruction, suffering and loss, but also endurance and innovation; duty and devotion; comradeship and love.”

Some of the items really do have remarkable tales to tell. Alongside letters, diaries and propaganda posters I spotted a field service pocket book owned by Captain Annan Dickson of the Sherwood Foresters Battalion, which saved his life when it was struck by a stray bullet.

As curator Louise Macfarlane pointed out to me, there’s also a button from a German tunic that was given as a present to a Tommy during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914.

Yet next to these intensely personal items are the instruments of war themselves. Just around the corner from Captain Dickson’s book stands a colossal 9.2-inch howitzer gun used by the British forces. Although harmless in its current home, it’s still a menacing piece of kit.

At the heart of the exhibition space there is also a recreated trench from the Western Front, complete with periscopes and a tank teetering over the edge. With artillery fire ringing out and shouts of ‘Gas! Gas!’ (invoking Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est), standing inside is a truly unsettling experience.

A collection of signposts in a section of the new First World War Galleries at Imperial War Museum London (Credit: Jon Bauckham)

These 'street signs' show the nicknames that British soldiers gave to different parts of the complex trench network (Credit: Jon Bauckham)

But while ‘immersive’ technology was clearly high up on the agenda, it is apparent that the curators wanted to ensure the voices of those who experienced the war first-hand were heard. Almost every wall and screen is plastered with quotes.

“We felt it utterly crucial that visitors should see the conflict through the eyes of those lived and died during the First World War,” said lead curator James Taylor.

“Their words are written in diaries, in letters and in the quotations in the gallery's very fabric – none are taken from later memoirs. We present events just as they were experienced by men, women and children at the time and without the benefit of hindsight.”

However, the quote which struck me is actually an exception to the rule. On the wall by the exit is a comment from the last surviving Tommy to have fought in the trenches, Harry Patch: “I’ve tried for eighty years to forget it. But I can’t.”

It’s ironic – because of Harry’s death five years ago, there’s actually a fear that the First World War could be forgotten by future generations, which would be devastating. We would lose an important chapter in our national history.

However, anyone who explores the First World War Galleries will be reassured. Through the hard work of IWM and its curators, the incredible stories of these people are sure to live on for decades to come.

Imperial War Museum London reopens on Saturday 19 July. For more information, click here.


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