The best exhibitions to see for the First World War Centenary in 2014

By Richard Moss | 24 July 2014

Follow our regional guide to the best First World War exhibitions happening in the UK for the 1914-18 Centenary

A photograph of a group of trench signs displayed together in gallery
Trench signs displayed in the new Imperial War Museum First World War Gallery© Photo Richard Moss
Scroll down to find an exhibition in this region-by-region guide to the best exhibitions of the First World War Centenary.

London

According to Professor David Stevenson, Historical Advisor to Imperial War Museum, the new First World War gallery (open now) is “one of the highlights and most enduring legacies of the First World War centenary”.

With more than 1,300 objects on display from weapons, uniforms, equipment, diaries and letters to keepsakes and trinkets, photographs, film and art – and the return of the completely revamped trench experience and a new exhibition of First World War art – he might just be right.

The new gallery is filled with objects, films and interactive elements set within a chronological narrative designed to educate and raise questions about the conflict. The accompanying Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War is the largest retrospective of British art from the First World War in almost a century, making the IWM a must visit this year for anyone interested in the First World War and the Centenary.

Another big event in the first year of the centenary is the opening of the Royal Air Force Museum's new permanent exhibition at its Hendon site, First World War in the Air (from December 2014).

Featuring the world’s greatest collection of First World War aircraft, the new permanent exhibition tells the story of the birth of Royal Air Force in the museum’s historic Grahame-White Factory, a Grade II listed building which was an active aircraft factory during the First World War.

At London Transport Museum a relatively uncharted aspect of the conflict is revealed in the surprising role London’s bus drivers and their buses played on the Western Front.

Goodbye Piccadilly: From the Home Front to the Western Front (until March 8 2015) also reminds us that while the men were away at war, women were employed for the first time by the London General Omnibus Company as conductresses and clerks.

The Jewish Museum London is exploring the 50,000 Jewish soldiers who fought for Britain in For King and Country? The Jewish Experience of the First World War (until August 10). There's an intriguing exhibition at the Garden Museum exploring Gardens and War (September 21 2014 - January 5 2015) which looks at everything from trench gardens to pressed flowers in the seemingly disparate occupations of gardening and war.   

Another often overlooked area of the conflict is explored by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, whose Forgotten Fighters: the First World War at Sea (August 1 2014 – August 1 2015) moves the focus from the trenches to the high seas with a mix of personal stories, artworks and objects including weaponry, photographs, medals and ship models.

a poster with a soldier blowing a bugle
Reecruitment poster from the British Library's Enduring War Exhibition© British Library
The British Library’s Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour (until October 12) mines its collection of posters, poetry, books and pamphlets from the period to look at how people coped with life during the war: from moments of patriotic fervor to periods of anxious inactivity, shock and despair.

In a similar vein, the work of comic artists as propaganda is explored at the Cartoon Museum’s Never Again! World War I in Cartoon and Comic Art (until October 19) which brings together more than 300 images from sources such as postcards, newspapers, trench publications and even modern day comics.

Sadly the National Army Museum is closed for redevelopment during the first part of the centenary. But it is keeping itself busy with a series of touring exhibitions called Outbreak 1914 at partner regimental museums including Firing Line at Cardiff Castle (until May 4 2015), the Royal Engineers Museum, Kent (until December 22) the Durham Light Infantry Museum (until March 22 2015) and The Fusilier Museum, Tower of London (until August 31). See the National Army Museum website for more details.

The free street photography exhibition which wowed the crowds in Paris, Fields of Battle, continues its international tour by popping up in St James's Park opposite Horse Guards (August 4 until Armistice Day, November 11).

Featuring the photographs of battlefield historian Michael St Maur Sheil, the images show how even now a century after the start of the war, the peaceful landscapes in Flanders, Somme, Marne and the Vosges mountains still carry the scars of war.

And finally in the capital, don’t forget Tate Modern’s take on the centenary, Conflict, Time, Photography (November 26 – March 15), which sees the Thames-side temple of contemporary art tackle the relationship between photography and sites of conflict, with examples ranging from the 19th to the 20thcentury.  

North West

IWM North’s From Street to Trench: A World War that shaped a region (until May 31 2015) is a thorough overview of the war and how it affected the North West via more than 200 objects, films, sound recordings, photographs, artworks and letters.

If you’re in Manchester, also check out the Centenary Connections – Greater Manchester Mobile App for the rich First World War heritage in the city.

a photo of a large crowd of men in flat caps outside a recruiting office
A recruiting office in 1915. A Land Fit For Heroes© People's History Museum
At The People’s History Museum, A Land Fit for Heroes: War and the Working Class 1914-1918 (until February 1 2015) is a masterly look at why people supported the war, the role of women in the war effort, how home life was radically changed and the influence the war had on politics and the labour movement.

Over at The Museum of Liverpool they are Reflecting on Liverpool’s Home Front (from July 23) by looking at some of the lesser known local stories of the period including a special display exploring the experience of black servicemen and their families.

If you’re in Liverpool, also look out for the Dazzle Ship and Dazzle Camouflage commissioned by the Biennial, Tate and Merseyside Maritime Museum. 

Elsewhere in the north-west, in Kendal, Abbot Hall Art Gallery’s The Great War in Comics (September 28 – December 6) looks like a lively show as it looks at three contemporary comic artists who have covered the First World War, including Joe Colquhoun, the artist behind one of the most popular war comic strips ever created, Charley’s War.

Yorkshire

There are several excellent exhibitions happening across Yorkshire for the centenary. At York Castle Museum, Yorkshire 1914: When the World Changed Forever (until December 2018) explores the outbreak with a selection of iconic objects and personal stories.

Drawing on an impressive collection of social history, the exhibition evokes the journey towards war with a reconstructed train carriage and trench that helps visitors take a reflective look at how culture and society’s values were revolutionised by the conflict.

At the Royal Armouries in Leeds Bullets, Blades and Battle Bowlers – the personal arms and armour of the First World War is a new permanent exhibition opening in the War Gallery for the centenary that uses individual stories to explore how technological advancements helped catapult the world into the era of modern warfare.

Leeds’ Thackray Medical Museum also reveals the medical advances resulting from the war in Recovery? From Flanders to Afghanistan (ongoing) and, at Museums Sheffield Weston Park, Sheffield & the First World War (until March 1 2015) commemorates the steel city's people, both at home and on military service and tells their stories through objects and documents from their collections.

Scarborough Art Gallery’s Remember Scarborough (July 26 – January 15) looks back at the infamous bombing of the seaside resort by German warships in December 191. And at the Green Howards Regimental Museum, in Richmond, they re-open in the autumn with a new exhibition about the regiment called The First Battle of Ypres 1914 (October 14 2014 – April 30 2015).
 

Scotland


a card with five oval portraits of soldiers on it
A memorial card featured in Common Cause© National Museums Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland
’s response to the centenary is a timely look at nationhood and Scottish identity at home and abroad in Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War (until October 12).

Telling the story of the Scottish Diaspora and the Scottish divisions, battalions and regiments raised throughout the Commonwealth nations during the First World War, the exhibition features poignant objects on loan from some of the countries where Scots had made new lives, as well as newsreel footage and photography.

The National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle looks at Next of Kin (until March 28 2015) via a selection of poignant family keepsakes and treasures that present an intimate portrait of Scotland at war and introduces some of the major themes and events of the conflict across the fighting fronts.

Remembering the Great War (August 4 2014 - July 5 2015) at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, features a thought-provoking and poignant selection of portraits and related images will reflect the stories of a wide range of people, from famous figures to ordinary men and women, and the many different ways in which their lives were touched by the conflict.

At the National Library of Scotland, Behind the Lines: personal stories of the First World War (until November 11) uses diaries, letters, photographs and sketches of soldiers, nurses, grieving parents and conscientious objectors to offer a direct link to the diverse experiences of individual Scots during the war.

Wales

A trio of exhibitions at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Cardiff (all until January 2015) marks the beginning of the national programme of centenary events in Wales.

Efforts and Ideals: Prints of the First World War features all 66 works from the 1917 print portfolio “The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals”, commissioned by the Ministry of Information from artists such as Augustus John, Frank Brangwyn, William Rothenstein and CR Nevinson.

The Welsh and the War is an exhibition of portraits of people – soldiers, sailors, airmen, politicians and families – whose lives were transformed by the First World War and National Memory. Local Stories explores how objects from museum collections can help today’s young people and artists create their own response to the First World War.

In Swansea, the National Waterfront Museum looks at the role of the factories that turned out the munitions and equipment in Working for Victory – Welsh Industry and the First World War (October 11 2014 - March 15 2015).

East of England

The Museum of East Anglian Life is the first stop for an interesting touring exhibition that explores the role of the nurse in the Great War. Everybody’s Darling – the First World War Nurse (August 4 – November 16) explores both the lives and experiences of front line nurses and the myths and romantic images of them that were used for propaganda purposes.

There's a very interesting show of French prints at The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge that reveals the how the stylised imagery of the Fin de Siecle helped maintain a distance from the brutal reality of the opening salvos of the war in La Grande Guerre: French prints of the First World War (until September 28).

West Midlands


Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery's Soldier Stories: Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 - 1918 (until July 26 2015)
recounts the experiences of the Birmingham men who served with the Royal Warwickshires between 1914 and 1918 using personal objects, medals and memorabilia.

In Shropshire RAF Museum Cosford is limbering up for its major exhibition The First World War In The Air (from December 14) which will feature several iconic aircraft including the Bristol M1c, the Sopwith 1 ½ Strutter and the Sopwith Pup.

East Midlands

a decorated picture frame with the picture of a sailor in it
A decorated picture frame featured in Sheffield's WWI exhibition© Museums Sheffield
One of the biggest regional programmes of the First World War Centenary, Trent to Trenches, encompasses talks, screenings, re-enactments and exhibitions right across Nottinghamshire with a central exhibition bringing it all together at Nottingham Castle.

Featuring paintings, drawings, photographs, maps, trench art and other objects as touchstones for investigations in to local family histories, Trent to Trenches, at Nottingham Castle (July 26 – November 16), also features map tables and research stations so that visitors can carry out research on the spot with the assistance of a team of volunteers. There is also a ‘feedback wall’ so that people can leave their own memories and stories.

At Leicester’s New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester at War 1914 – 1915 (July 2014 26 – April 12 2015) looks at the local and personal stories of the Great War, including the contribution of the Indian Army via artefacts, art works, photographs, documents, diaries and newspapers to tell the story of life in the early years of the war.

West Country

In Bath, two exhibitions look at the differing responses during and after the war in the fields of fashion and painting.

a photo of a woman in a long coat and hat
Betty the munitioner, 1917.© Bath Fashion Museum
Bath Fashion Museum
’s The Great War in Costume: Family & Fashion on the Home Front (until August 31 2014) looks at how World War I changed women’s life forever in terms of status, class, position and what was acceptable for a woman to wear via propaganda posters, artworks, photographs - and a selection of costumes from the TV series Downtown Abbey.

At the city’s Royal West of England Academy they are exploring the wider theme of conflict with Back From the Front - Art, Memory and the Aftermath of War - a series of interrelated exhibitions including Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash (until September 14); Shock and Awe (until September 17) and The Death of Nature (until August 8).

Bristol's response to the centenary is Bristol 2014, an extensive programme of activity marking the centenary of the start of the First World War in the city.

At M-Shed, Moved by Conflict, Bristol and the First World War – lives changed forever (October 11 2014 – March 1 2015) is an exhibition organised in partnership with Bristol Old Vic that looks at how the War had a profound effect on Bristol and its people, through hundreds of original objects, archives and people’s stories.

South East

One of the most pleasing exhibitions of the centenary so far has been the tour of Stanley Spencer’s paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel while the chapel has been refurbished. This summer sees them return to the chapel, which will once again house Spencer’s epic series of 19 works created to honour the forgotten dead of the First World War (from August 5).  

At Brighton Museum, War Stories: Voices from the First World War (until March 1 2015) recounts the wartime experiences of 13 individuals whose intensely personal memories and extraordinary stories reveal the impact of war.

At Chatham Historic Dockyard, in Kent, they are exploring the role played by the Dockyard in Valour, Loss & Sacrifice: Chatham, The Royal Navy and the War at Sea (July 26 – November 30).

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, is the setting for a series of evolving exhibitions at the National Museum of the Royal Navy looking at the role of the Royal Navy beginning with the story of the opening months of war at sea in Racing to War.

There’s a little gem of an exhibition in Basingstoke at The Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery, whose The Artists Rifles: From Pre-Raphaelites to Passchendaele (until September 27) explores the experiences of the famous regiment and its members through a selection of artworks and memorabilia.

And in Oxford, the Bodleian Library explores ‘War in the Archives' in its Great War exhibition (until November 2), which looks at letters and diaries to reveal the story of soldiers, civilians and politicians with connections to Oxford University.

Nationwide

English Heritage

As part of the First World War Centenary English Heritage has initiated a major project to record the 'footprint' left by the First World War on the fabric, landscape and coastal waters of England. To find out more about these projects aimed at recording these remnants together, as well as a new tagging project around aerial photographs, see the English Heritage website.

14-18 Now

How can art be used to engage people about a big subject like the First World Centenary? The 14-18Now project has already induced thousands of people to write to an unknown soldier on Paddington Station, repainted a Thames moored battleship in dazzleship camouflage and instigated a plan to turn out the lights for a nationwide evening of remembrance on August 4. Find out more at 1418Now.org.uk

1914.org

The place to find out all about the First World War Centenary is www.1914.org which lists all of the events and exhibitions happening worldwide.

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