Imperial War Museum reopens with interactive First World War gallery

By Richard Moss | 18 July 2014

The Imperial War Museum has opened after a £40 million revamp, including a new First World War Gallery. Richard Moss takes a look at the dramatic changes

a photo of a spitfire and V-1 rocket suspended in a gallery atrium
The aerodynamic new gallery atrium at the Imperial War Museum© Photo Richard Moss
IWM London is embarking on a bold journey. Gone are the uniformed mannequins and cases full of precisely labelled stuff of war, and in their place is a cleaner, sparser atrium space, a new, highly interactive 21st century First World War gallery and a chronological approach that attempts to explore the vast and challenging subject of conflict since 1914.

Architecturally, the £40 million revamp, led by Fosters and Partners, is very impressive. An integrated central space offers views across the park via a swish new restaurant and the new atrium is certainly cleaner and less cluttered.

But there are now just four key objects on the floor – the 1914 field gun, Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad car, a battered Reuters’ Land Rover and (hiding bizarrely behind the new large zig-zagging staircase) a post war, Czech-built, T-34 tank.

Above them float the two German revenge weapons, the V-1 and V2 rocket, a Mark I Spitfire and a Hawker Harrier.

A hundred years of conflict encapsulated in nine objects; so the immediate question is: where have all the tanks and other cool stuff gone?

Some of them can be found in the “clusters” – the chronologically themed balconies, which rise above the atrium that attempt to tell the story of conflict from 1939 onwards. Some of them are inside the much-vaunted new First World War galleries.

Feeding off the atrium, the latter is a new state-of-the-art gallery is designed to tell the full story of the Great War for a wide audience, and it's an impressive space.

a film still showing a black and white film of First World War Tommies marching montaged onto today's landscape
Archive film has been montaged onto contemporary locations© Photo Richard Moss
For First World War military enthusiasts there are still the objects - 1,300 of them to be precise - and the uniforms, now hung on faceless frameworks in clear cases.

But the collection is now accompanied by 60 digital displays in a chronology looking not just at the soldier’s experience, but also at the lives of those on the home front.

Primary sources – contemporary stories, letters and quotes – are featured throughout, some of them lavishly carved into monumental stone counters that recall the headstones of the fallen. Others appear in sophisticated films with ‘then and now’ montages of the fields of Passchendaele and Somme.

Touchscreen controlled interactive tables and hands-on exhibits tackle everything from recruitment to rations. Round tables with poignant objects - such as a leather glove dramatically shrunken to the size of a doll's hand by the effects of gas - are displayed in bell jars to fuse state-of-the-art projection and sound with traditional display.

There are helmets, trench clubs, mills bombs, field guns, ghostly gas masks and relics from the Red Barron, the sinking of the Lusitania and Lawrence of Arabia, all set within a narrative that begins with Britain as a great Empire Power and concludes with how the war changed the world forever.

There are also great artworks to pour over, films to sit and watch, soundtracks and sound effects, including the scream of shrapnel shells, to listen to.

Occasionally the labeling seems a little wayward, like that for Kaiser Wilhelm’s greatcoat (which is strangely turned away from the viewer, as if it were also looking at the displays) and TE Lawrence’s Arab head rope, which both take several reads to ascertain that they did indeed once belong to these famed figures. Elsewhere it is sometimes confusing - or sparse.

A case full of rifles, for example, is left to speak for itself - an approach sadly repeated elsewhere in the museum. There are some great stories and objects; like the life ring with a chamise worn by a woman who survived the German sinking of the Lusitania after being sucked into the liner's funnel then blown clear when the engines exploded, but the inconsistency is distracting. 

The revamped "trench experience", now with the inclusion of a looming Mark V tank and a Sopwith Camel suspended above the parapet, is also a disappointment, sadly forgoing the immersive drama and dramatic “over the top” denouement of its predecessor in favour of a very muted experience of snatched conversations and projected silhouettes.

The inclusion of the tank here is particularly baffling. In the main atrium it could be examined and peered into, allowing visitors to picture the conditions of the men who had once used this terrifying object. Now it is nothing more than a background prop shrouded in darkness.

But overall this is an ambitious exhibition that mostly strikes the right balance between objects, storytelling and cutting edge design, all delivered just in time for the August 4 centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The acid test will be when the public - and the IWM's gangs of enthusiastic school children - pour through the doors.

(Click below to launch a gallery of images)

Upstairs, the IWM has pulled out the stops with what must be the best ever exhibition of First World War art.

Truth and Memory (until March 8 2015) is packed with stunning paintings and sculptures in an intelligent overview of the impact of the war on art and artists and offers a chance to see both famous and lesser known works.

Elsewhere, the galleries that deal with the Second World War to the present day are less successful. In the words of its Principal Historian Nigel Steel, the new IWM is “not a traditional didactic gallery", but rather a place containing a "series of snapshots that ask visitors to make connections for themselves.”

For the Second World War (for which a new gallery is planned in the next phase of the development) and beyond, this means looking at the big turning points.

But the space is limited and, after the drama of the First World War gallery, it all feels rather sparse. Objects are unlabelled and there is a temporary feel throughout these balcony galleries and, inevitably, it lacks atmosphere.

There are quite a few omissions from the museum’s vast World War Two holding. Regular visitors will look in vain for Field Marshall Montgomery’s Grant tank, dispatched to the land Warfare Hall of Imperial War Museum Duxford, the Matilda Tank or the German Jagdpanther, with its side punched through by armour-piercing shells. Similarly, the uniforms and much of the personal equipment is now absent.

a photo of an old truck with weather beaten sand paint work
The LRDG Chevrolet Truck, located in the North African desert in 1980© Photo Richard Moss
There are some wonderful new additions such as the relic Japanese Zero fighter recovered from a Pacific Jungle and the mangled piece of World Trade Centre steel, but these fascinating objects are not explained or contextualised sufficiently, which seems strange for a museum that champions the stories that objects can reveal. The flow also relies too heavily on single interpretation boards, which you keep having to go back to refer to.

And with the galleries narrowing as you climb higher and some iconic objects wedged into balconies so you can sometimes only see them from behind, the overall experience is cramped, confusing and a little disappointing.

For the story of conflict after 1939, IWM London is still very much a museum in transition.

But in other areas, such as the gallery for the new art strand, IWM Contemporary, Mark Neville’s films and photographs from Afghanistan are a quiet revelation that remind us of the young lives at the sharp end of conflict and how the IWM succeeds in reflecting the pity of war as much as the mechanics of it.

The excellent Family in Wartime, Horrible Histories Spies and Secret War exhibitions have also re-opened, together with the Holocaust Exhibition and the interactive Lord Ashcroft Gallery of VCs and George Crosses.

It's good that IWM London is back in business, but some visitors, like myself, who have grown up with the Lambeth museum, will baulk at some of the changes.

The First World War gallery is, for the most part, a fascinating space and a bold departure, but the pressure is now on to see what they can do to provide a fitting exhibition for World War Two and beyond. It’s an intriguing prospect.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More on this story:

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

Imperial War Museum London re-launches in July with two new art exhibitions

Imperial War Museum launches "extraordinary" Lives of the First World War online memorial

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Fortunately we can still visit Duxford, Bovington, Cosford, Hendon, Fleet Air Arm Yeovilton and many other great museums if we want to see military hardware.
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