The Imperial War Museum North Examines The North At War

By Jenny Minard | 24 March 2005
Shows a black and white photograph of a large gun pointing out to sea. Beside it stands a soldier looking out to sea with binoculars.

From the cliffs of the north east coast, a constant wartime guard is kept over the North Sea by the 508th Coast Regiment, Royal Artillery. © Imperial War Museum.

Jenny Minard takes us on a tour round Imperial War Museum North's massive new North At War exhibition.

Two events, which together made up 10 years of conflict and claimed millions of lives, are being commemorated in Manchester at a major new exhibition about the First and Second World Wars.

The North at War, on show at Imperial War Museum North until January 8 2006, documents what happened in the north of England during the wars and how it shaped the country we live in now.

Walking into the gallery visitors are confronted by a large-scale map of the north of England that defines the geographic area examined by the exhibition. There are buttons to light up various points on the map while a TV displays a German training Film teaching pilots how to bomb Britain.

It’s both visual and interactive – key elements in the overall design of this exhibition.

Shows a black and white photograph of a female welder standing in a shipyard.

In a North East Shipyard. Photograph by Cecil Beaton. Study of a girl welder. © Imperial War Museum.

The exhibition is themed and takes visitors on a journey from Celebration right through to Loss. You are encouraged to walk through themes of Threat, Change and Industry in which tales of both wars are entwined, creating and heightening a sense of the effects of war.

In the Celebration area wartime songs such as Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again belt out of a giant 1930s radio, its dials showcasing the most important stages of the war from start to end.

Old newspaper cuttings are also showcased and quotes about war are painted onto the walls. One such quote, from the Rt Hon Stanley Baldwin addressing the house of commons in 1932, reads: "The only defence is an offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children than the enemy if you want to save yourself." A stark reminder of the casualties of war.

Shows a black and white photograph of a soldier sleeping on a table.

Crewe is one of the biggest railway junctions in the country. Here an American sergeant waits for a connection on the waiting room table during the Second World War. © Imperial War Museum.

From there comes the ‘public air raid shelter’ where visitors can learn about the threat of war. A display shows how, during the First World War, Hartlepool and Scarborough were targeted by the enemy and how, during the second, German forces tried to ‘starve’, invade and aerial bomb Britain into submission.

This section includes an interactive workstation and handsets, which are littered throughout the exhibition, for people to listen to archive accounts.

Walking out of the shelter there’s a giant replica of a tram used to recruit officers in Leeds in the First World War. At the time the tram station in Swinegate was converted into a recruitment office when the original office in Hanover Square was unable to accommodate the mass of volunteers. The tram ran through Leeds picking up recruits and taking them to sign on.

Next up Change highlights the way the country had to adapt in wartime including how, in the First World War, women were charged with keeping the home fires burning and in the second how the blackout affected the war effort.

Shows a black and white photograph of a woman painting white lines on a cow.

A potential traffic hazard avoided during the Blackout in 1939. © Imperial War Museum.

The exhibition boasts a number of quirky interactive displays. Among them are two buzzer machines on which visitors can guide a rod along a metal buzzer to reflect the difficulties of conflict on the ocean. There are two levels for younger children which vary in difficulty and are aptly named ‘plain sailing’ and ‘rough crossing’.

Another is a set of three doors for visitors to open, which give an indication of what a blackout was like. There is also archive footage including Welcome to Britain, a documentary made for American troops coming over here, that explains the British way of life.

In the Industry themed area cabinets overflow with memorabilia. Women’s efforts are showcased through munitions uniforms and various arms, which were manufactured and created in Britain.

While hovering above is a replica barrage balloon, painstakingly made to the original plans at a fifth of its size.

Shows a black and white photograph of barrage balloons in production at a factory.

Making barrage balloons at the Dunlop Balloon Factory in Manchester during the Second World War. © Imperial War Museum.

Yet another interactive addition is a clocking card system. Every visitor is given a clocking-in card, which gets stamped in the Industry section and visitors are encouraged to express their feelings on the cards and hang them in the Loss area.

As the title suggests, this section is full of stories of loss and woe. A particularly memorable story is that of George Anderson, a Liverpool man who followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and joined the Merchant Navy.

He died in 1940 when his ship was bombed and was later followed into the service by his son who wrote a letter to his father the day he died. It never reached him, but is currently on loan to the exhibition.

One of the main features of Loss is a floor-to-ceiling sculpture made from Perspex, which lights up to show inside where poppies dangle while written on its walls are tales such as that of the Lancashire Fusiliers, Sunderland Gunners and the aircraft disaster at Freckleton.

Shows a black and white photograph of soldiers and land girls dancing under an American flag.

British girls and US Eighth Air Force men at a dance held at a Women's Land Army camp during the Second World War. © Imperial War Museum.

Finally, visitors are encouraged back into the Celebration area and immediately forced to take stock of how people suffered and the kind of lives they led during both wars.

Laurie Milner, historian for the Imperial War Museum in London, has worked on the project since September. He talked of how exciting it is to have this exhibition at the museum especially with the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is approaching.

"I think it is tremendous," he said. "Visually it is the best I have ever worked on. It’s surprised me how hard it was to find material from the north. The ministry of information at the time collected according to where they were based in London, hardly venturing up north."

He continued: "We put this exhibition together because demand was so high. When we opened the museum, visitors thought it was great but wanted something more specific to the north and also some kind of commemoration for the anniversary."

Shows a black and white photograph of firemen spraying water on burning buildings.

Firemen directing hoses on burning buildings in the city of Manchester during the Second World War. © Imperial War Museum.

Walking around, it was interesting to see the experiences of the two wars compared to each other.

Among the most profound images on show, are displayed side by side, and depict the bombing of Manchester in 1940 and the 1996 IRA bombing. It demonstrates how conflict doesn’t change, but can be learnt from and responded to.

This vast exhibition truly has something for everyone from children who want to learn to grandparents who want to reminisce and there are unlikely to be many more chances to see so many war artefacts without a trek down to London.

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