The Imperial War Museum is open again, hooray! So is it bigger and better and all improved? Well, yes, in many ways, but they haven’t destroyed what I loved about it in the first place. There may be less big kit in the entrance hall, but that made it all more manageable for me – there’s still big guns and a Spitfire and Harrier flying from the ceiling, but it seemed a little more thought through, for instance bringing a crumpled car from a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad in 2007 to centre stage, which gets people stopping, wondering and thinking.
I was disappointed when I visited the museum during the renovation and am not a big fan of the WWII house gallery that feels more of a 1940s cliche than telling you anything about war, but now that there are many more galleries complete I am impressed at what they’ve set out to achieve.
For instance, how do you tell the story of the 2nd World War? IWM have chosen to break this down into ‘turning points’ and take you through different aspects of the war with focus on using their collections to tell the story. One ‘cluster’ looked at the war in the Pacific and included the wreck of a Japanese aircraft, with a story about how it was found with a British bullet lodged in the side and a Lotus flower carried by Japanese pilots for good luck. And in the cluster about the desert war a series of metal detectors were on display to represent the huge number of unexploded mines in Egypt.
And then onto the main event, the new WWI galleries. Well, they were busy, they were packed full of people, but also objects and images and information and way too much to get through in one sitting, but this IS the national museum dedicated to telling this story and I’m glad they wanted to tell you as much as possible rather than trying to make a minimal bite size version. And besides, it gives me many reasons to go back when its a little less new and a little less busy.
Highlights of the WWI exhibition? Personal letters in many guises, whether a letter from a female fan of Lord Kitchener offering to become his wife or the more harrowing stories from life at the front. And the video screen of the land where the Battle of the Somme raged, with old images and text describing the battle as it progressed, with the land turning to bog and holes from shells deep enough to drown a man.
The objects work well to draw you into finding out more about the war and I was immediately drawn to the gas masks and learning that the gas used was often more of a mild irritation than a deadly weapon. But there is A LOT to read too, so be prepared that you might not take all of it in in one go, but to take in every bit that you do read as I can’t imagine it was ever created with the intention you’d read it all.
I admit to having WWI overload already with so much of it in the press and in every museum in the world, but I’m still looking forward to going back to this exhibition many times in the future.
There’s loads more I could say such as the large panels on the ground floor telling you some of the stories of the Victoria and George Cross winners enticing you up to the 5th floor to see the full versions; and the people watching – how does someone react when they come across one of the casts for the bomb that would destroy Hiroshima (most just gave it a little pat and went on their way) or a plastic shop dummy that’s been burnt by an artist to represent the effects of the atomic bomb (most people stop and wonder whether its real, what it is and have a proper think about it).
And so the verdict? Well, in the words of a young boy “This is great, really great” and of an older man “There’s just too much to read”. Both are true and I’m glad. I like reading, but I also like having something visual to look at too as my attention span is pretty limiting at times. Different people will take different things out of it too, some will be drawn to the personal stories, the human suffering on all sides and the sense of loss, while others will see heroism, just cause and celebration of standing up for what you believe in.