Imperial War Museum, London

The newly refurbished museum's First World War Galleries invite visitors to explore and ponder the "war to end all wars."

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Frances Wilson
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London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM London) has reopened after a £40 million ($68 million) refurbishment, its first since the 1980s. The result is a sleek, lofty interior designed by Foster & Partners housing a spacious and attractive museum that invites the visitor to wander and explore. New displays mark the centenary of the First World War, including the new First War Galleries and “Truth and Memory,” an exhibition of British art of World War I that runs until March 2015.

The National War Museum, as IWM London was first called, was founded in 1917 by the British government after it was decided that a museum should collect and display material related to World War I, which was still being fought at the time. A short walk from London’s Waterloo Station, it has long been one of London’s most popular visitor attractions, and it is an excellent example of a museum that has evolved and reinvented itself to respond to modern sensibilities. Its latest incarnation overcomes the difficulty of presenting exhibits about war and conflict by offering a creative and accessible layout, clear and informative signage, interactive displays, exhibitions specifically aimed at children and young people, and, mostly importantly, a continual focus on the human aspect of war and the impact of conflict on people’s lives. Every object on display tells a personal story.

Entering the redesigned central atrium, the hub of the museum, one is immediately struck by the renewed sense of space. Previously, the atrium was a crowded display that lacked coherence and appeared to be simply a parking lot for a jumble of military hardware. Now nine iconic objects, from a Harrier jet, which saw active service in Afghanistan, to a Spitfire fighter plane and a German V2 rocket, grace the level 0 atrium. These objects form part of the museum’s “Witness to War” permanent exhibition, and the aim is to allow them to speak out loud about their role in history. Further objects displayed around the museum, including an armored vehicle used in Northern Ireland, a Saddam Hussein mural and a Desert Hawk drone from more recent conflicts, continue the conversation and remind us that that war has an ongoing international and personal impact. With fewer objects on display, the result is commemorative and elegiac, allowing the visitor opportunities to pause and reflect. This aspect is emphasized by the inclusion of a memorial-like artwork by the Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller, which takes pride of place in the middle of the atrium floor. Consisting of the mangled metal carcass of an unknown car destroyed during abomb attack on a crowded book market in Baghdad in 2007, it is a provocative choice. Its message is clear: at no point in the museum is war glorified, and the surrounding displays go to considerable lengths to offer balanced and thought-provoking coverage.

The permanent First World War Galleries contain 1300 objects, ranging from a Sopwith Camel fighter plane and a howitzer gun to a button from a German tunic given to a British soldier during the 1914 Christmas Truce. The museum describes its World War I collection as “the richest and most comprehensive in the world,” incorporating weaponry, uniforms, diaries, letters, keepsakes, photographs and film. There is even the recreation of a Western Front trench, complete with a tank poised on the parapet, and authentic sound effects. The aim is “to present 1914-18 afresh for a 21st century audience,” and the new First World War Galleries are at the forefront of the museum’s activities this year to mark the centenary of the outbreak.

Despite the large number of objects on display, this exhibition does not feel crowded, and the intelligent chronological layout presents an overview of the origins and progress of the war, including a special focus on the home front, the war at sea and caring for the wounded, and ends with the Treaty of Versailles and the inter-war years. World War II, subsequent conflicts, the Cold War and the war on terror are presented in themed displays — “Turning Points”, “Peace and Security”, and “Curiosities of Conflict” — and at the top of the museum is the poignant and extremely moving Holocaust exhibition.

The IWM has always had a strong focus on war art (it has a fine permanent collection) and is planning a series of major exhibitions on the subject. The program opens with “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War,” which brings together over 110 paintings, sculptures and drawings, and includes works by such major artists as John Singer Sargent, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and Wyndham Lewis. One of the strengths of the exhibition is that it demonstrates the sheer variety of responses to the war by artists of all ages, traditions and backgrounds, from George Clausen’s raw and elegiac “Youth Mourning” (1916) to the brash futurism of C.R.W. Nevinson’s “La Mitrailleuse” (1915). Also included are iconic images like Sargent’s huge canvas “Gassed” (1919), and Nash’s bitterly ironic “We Are Making a New World” (1918), which have come to epitomize the slaughter and sacrifice of the conflict.

Taken as a whole, with its huge variety of objects and breadth of coverage, IWM London is an excellent and sensitively organized museum, with an important message for all generations. Highly recommended.

Frances Wilson & Nick Marlowe

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