Every object tells a story: Imperial War Museum's new atrium promises new creative displays

By Richard Moss | 14 July 2014

Imperial War Museum London re-opens on July 19 with newly curated gallery displays and objects in its shining new atrium

an architect's visualisation of a museum atrium
The vision for the new atrium of Imperial War Museum London© IWM
The refurbishment of one of the most iconic museum spaces in the country is about to be revealed as Imperial War Museum London gears up to reveal the results of its £40 million revamp.

With its suspended aircraft, tanks from all conflicts, iconic rockets, relics and artillery pieces, the famous atrium of the Lambeth museum has long provided a fitting entree to one of the world’s finest collections exploring conflict since 1914.

Now, after months of refurbishment work, which earlier this year forced an unplanned closure of the whole museum, this famous centrepiece redesigned by Foster + Partners is about to be unveiled as IWM London opens its doors on its new look, including its new First World War Galleries, on July 19.

The ambitious new central space includes terraced galleries rising on either side of an atrium that has restored the historic architecture and opened the building up to the surrounding park.

Filled with more than 400 objects from IWM’s collections – more than 60 of them have never been displayed before – the new central galleries will display everything from aircraft and tanks through to letters, personal mementos and artworks.

Citing the museum's central mission of displaying objects - whatever their size - that tell a “personal story”, Museum Director Diane Lees is promising "new creative displays" which will showcase the continuing work of the museum to "collect, preserve and display people’s experiences.”

The ground floor will be offering a cleaner sense of space than the busy collection of the previous incarnation of the museum, with nine iconic objects including a Harrier, Spitfire, V-1 rocket, T-34 tank and a Reuters Land Rover damaged by a rocket attack in Gaza, selected for a display called Witness to War. 

Roger Mann, of Casson Mann, the company who used a highly interactive approach for the Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms and the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the IWM, said the new space had created an opportunity to create "something very different".

“Working closely with historians Nigel Steel and Roger Tolson, we were entrusted with great creative freedom in how to represent key themes and events,” he reflected.

“Choosing to draw out the stories from the predominantly large and often surprising groups of objects themselves, we devised a series of collectively chronological yet distinct display ‘clusters’ that we dramatised and choreographed to explore themes, events and personal stories.”

One of these clusters, Turning Points of the Second World War, can be found on Level 1, where a number of themes and events, ranging from the role of strategic bombing and the fronts in Russia and Africa through to the D-Day landings, will be explored.

Newly displayed objects range from the wreckage of an X7 midget submarine, sent to attack the German battleship Tirpitz, and a Japanese Zero fighter recovered in 1993 from an atoll in the Pacific.

A trunk belonging to a Jewish couple, Leonhard and Clara Wohl, tells the tragic story of a family who managed to send their two youngest children to Britain before events in Germany overtook them. The couple died at Auschwitz in 1943.

On Level 2, themes from 1945 to the present day are explored via displays including an original atomic bomb casing, a walk through a "prefab" house, demob suits, a model train set made out of materials salvaged from bomb damaged buildings and posters advertising the ‘New Britain’.

Elsewhere, artworks and objects large and small will evoke the responses to Northern Ireland and the Falklands via objects as varied as a puppet of Margaret Thatcher - from 1980s television programme Spitting Image - to a Humber ‘Pig’ army vehicle, used at the time of the Bloody Sunday shootings.

Queen and Country, by film director and visual artist Steve McQueen, is placed at the opposite sides of Level 2.

On Level 3, Curiosities of War will present some of the more unexpected objects in IWM’s collections.

A large wooden wheel which British engineers stumbled upon in 1919 in Poll, Germany, is thought to have been envisaged for a secret new aircraft the Germans were designing , while the packaging from a seized parcel contains parts for Saddam Hussein’s "super-gun".

“In the new Atrium, everything from jerrycans from the North African desert to a piece of World Trade Centre steel will be put on display,” says Steel, the museum's Principal Historian.

“We hope these stories will offer visitors a chance to reflect and contemplate on the nature of 20th century conflict.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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I'll reserve judgement until I visit, but they seem to be keener on showing off their new architecture than any actual wartime mementoes.

The wonderful thing about the museum before the refit was the sheer amount of things they'd squeezed in - having a select few items that someone's arbitrarily decided represent a definitive idea of war seems terribly subjective.
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