diamond geezer

 Thursday, October 23, 2014

Earlier this summer the Imperial War Museum (London) reopened after a major revamp. The heart of the museum was ripped out, rejigged and overtly tweaked, while the galleries up the far end remained pretty much intact. I've been meaning to investigate the upgrade for a while, but had been reticent of visiting at the weekend when the place is packed, so I waited for an October pre-half term weekday and snuck in down Lambeth way. Still busy, but with more space than ever before to disperse the crowds.

If you remember the IWM of yore, the biggest change is the disappearance of the ground floor. Previously you walked straight into a display of weaponry and dangly things, but that level's now been removed to increase the depth of the atrium. Instead a new set of steps lead down to what was floor minus one, now zero, where nine iconic artefacts dramatically fill the space. Top tip: don't pause at the top of the stairs to take a photo, there are much less congested lookouts beyond. Top tip two: if you don't fancy the stairs there are entrances to the first floor hidden at each end of the gift shop. But best go downstairs anyway.

That's not an interactive display area on the left, that's more of the gift shop. Meanwhile on the right, no, that's the cafe. Don't worry, there is plenty of war hidden away beyond, including a major new World War One exhibition across most of the ground floor. It's very good, but also very popular, indeed on the day of my visit a man was positioned outside to say "It's Quite Busy In There" to anyone who approached. The exhibition is set out chronologically, and in considerable detail, which works rather well if you have the time to linger. Artefacts appear in clusters, sometimes sparingly, but always well described and in proper context. As you'd expect they're augmented by powerful audio-visual interventions, and all this on a subject that packs quite a punch in its intensity. Meanwhile appropriate emphasis is given to the ordinary soldier and to the role of women back at home, and even what the German people were enduring at the same time.

The IWM's previous WW1 exhibition was all medals and glass cases, whereas this is considerably more narrative-based and emotionally affecting. The one duff note is the recreated trench, a dull straight featureless canyon, whereas the fibreglass maze in the museum's former incarnation was somehow far more memorable. Nevertheless I learnt a huge amount about all the key battles and the tactics behind them, indeed about the shape of the entire conflict, which isn't bad given the volley of media attention the Great War's had this centenary year. In common with most visitors I spent at least an hour wandering through this atmospheric display, although it has to be said those unwilling to pause and read dashed through considerably quicker.

And what of World War Two? Two existing projects have that covered, the most significant of which is 'The Holocaust', spread over the fourth and third floors. I'm never anything other than humbled by walking through, indeed I make it a rule to return every few years to be reminded of the horrors inflicted on so many. Much closer to home, and rather newer, is 'A Family in Wartime'. This tells the story of the Home Front via the Allpress family from Lambeth, again extremely done, but the exhibition's now a year or two old. What you won't have seen before is the Turning Points series scattered around the balconies on the first floor. This is anything but chronological, more a series of bundled artefacts on diverse topics, and I found it unexpectedly unengaging.

The postwar years are covered by a very similar clustered exhibition one floor up. This works better, there being no consistent narrative to deliver, and dips into the Cold War, the Falklands, even the founding of the NHS. A small cinema shows propaganda films of the time - pray that your screening is not invaded by a school party relishing the opportunity to misbehave out of their teachers' sight. Equally I enjoyed the reaction of one primary class to Margaret Thatcher's Spitting Image puppet - "Oh that's freaky! - and why would they know any different?

Returning to World War One, two temporary galleries of paintings shed a different light on the conflict by hanging the works of some of the official war artists of the day. In only a handful of cases do we see traditional portraits of officers in uniform, instead a more sombre note is struck with very ordinary scenes of soldiers on the battlefield. And don't forget the Heroes gallery at the very top of the building (or as we're repeatedly reminded the Heroes gallery sponsored by Lord Ashcroft) where the world's largest collection of Victoria Crosses is brought to life by the stories of those who earned them.

All in all there's much to see at the Imperial War Museum, even if you thought you'd seen everything before, and it would be easy to spend the best part of a day exploring the lot. Just try to avoid coming at the weekend if you can, else you may spent more time in conflict with the crowds than learning about conflicts past.

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