First World War Galleries – Imperial War Museum

Disappointing, that’s the only word for it, disappointing. After eighteen months of complete or partial closure and many millions of pounds spent, expectations for the newly designed First Word War Galleries were high. After all, it is the centenary of the conflict’s beginning and whatever this museum chose to do with its impressive collection would be a significant marker in the way the conflict will be remembered and understood in years to come.

As a regular visitor to the museum both as a customer in the galleries and an academic in the reading rooms, I did enjoy the old First World War collection. It was arranged chronologically and with clear sections for each area of study – the origins of the war, the battles, the air war etc. Although clearly somewhat old-fashioned in its glass cabinets and placards approach, as you walked around it you did get a sense of how those various elements came together to make up the experience of conflict. My hope for the repurposed galleries, therefore, was to retain that overall structure but weave into it much more testimony from the IWM’s extensive collection of letters and diaries, as well as the stories of those who fought in other services, other fronts and from other parts of the Empire, as well as the changing experience of life at home. The result would be a bold statement about how the war should be remembered and a place where all those who participated were recognised and understood.

It took two attempts to actually get into this exhibition such are the unstinting crowd levels even several weeks after opening. This time, with lots of signs explaining the need for timed entry (at last), and staff issuing tickets on the steps of the museum at opening time, I finally made it in there. The first thing you notice is that it’s very very crowded. Lots of people are being admitted in each batch so you do have to queue to get to the exhibits and to it’ll be impossible to read everything. This will calm in time but you should factor-in at least an hour or 90 minutes for even a superficial walk around.

It does look impressive, the gallery itself is low lit with lots of interactive maps, games, projection and videos all of which add to the richness of the content on offer. In the past the IWM has been among the first to embrace interactivity in its public engagement and this is becoming a vital communication tool for the modern museum. In some aspects it’s even artistically realised, particularly the stylised sculpture of a pack of running soldiers onto which is projected footage of soldiers charging. There’s also a huge amount of information here covering most aspects of the war including different nationalities and war roles. However, while this is good to see and gives the tiniest flavour of the scale and diversity of the experience, as a unified gallery collection it sadly fails in several ways.

First there is the problem of organisation. Although this is roughly a chronological account of the conflict, starting with a map of European rivalries and ending with the Versailles conference, it’s not always entirely clear where you are in the exhibition, or more importantly, when. This is further complicated by tangential ‘themes’ mixed into the soldiers’ story, such as the home front, which is placed next to some 1915 pieces about the Western Front. Looking down the room, you can see case after case of interesting items but no signposts to indicate the year – these could easily be suspended from the ceiling above the relevant section to guide the viewer as they walk around. The themes also sit somewhat uneasily in the current structure because they inadvertently imply that the Home Front or the naval war, for example, was a static thing and did not change as the conflict unfolded. Much as the events in France and Belgium changed, so too did every other aspect of the war but this is barely reflected here.

Second is the question of learning outcomes, what is it the curators want you to know about the war from this display? Yes, it tells you there were lots of elements and yes it wasn’t very nice, but unlike the old galleries, you don’t leave feeling that you have a basic overview of events. It is all in there, the early battles, Somme, Ypres, Jutland even, but that sense of participant knowledge evolving, of events developing alongside and directly resulting from the technological advances, how one thing leads to the next, and how it all fits together in a system of war which is as extraordinary as it is frightening, is missing. Again, better signals could have been given to those markers and what they meant in terms of the armed forces and Britain’s changing position. Even the trench experience is less than half the size and nowhere near as evocative as it used to be.

Now, there are a lot of signs -each item has its own description and sections are given a relevant quote and a bit of explanatory text – although bizarrely these look like poems with four or five words on a line, it’s really very odd – but somehow it falls short of a consistent narrative or any kind of bold statement about remembrance. And there are factual errors and sweeping generalisations that at times slightly misrepresent events. So, there are a number of improvements the IWM could try to make this both an insightful and educative experience. First their collections are astounding and much more could be made of the plethora of first-hand accounts they own. I would still arrange this chronologically but in each year have 5 sub-themes – the army, the navy, the Royal Flying Corps, the Home Front and technology / medicine. So in 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918 you would learn what each of the services was doing, what changes were occurring at home and how new machinery or techniques were changing the way war was fought and how men were treated. I would also pick some key dates for each year and show what was happening (e.g. 1 June 1916, the Somme; 31 July 1917 Passchendaele) and have a number of servicemen and others whose testimony recurs throughout the exhibition so you can ‘follow’ their war experience as well as seeing a variety of others.

The Western Front would dominate each year – that is to be expected give the emotional hold it still has – but this structure would give scope to tell the stories of other people involved, as well as the integration of colonial servicemen. It would also show you how the system of war developed in these years and how increasingly important the role of the three services became. Much as the soldier understandably dominates, pilots and sailors were an important factor in a complex war machine; take one piece away and the others function differently. The IWM claim they want the new galleries to help a modern audience understand human conflict, but in its current arrangement it fell short on curation. The objects and information are there and the new interactive technologies genuinely add a lot to the galleries, but you don’t leave with a clear understanding of the conflict or its human cost. I wanted the new galleries to be so great and I really hoped they would be, so disappointed really is the only word for it. A hundred years have passed and historians have done much with these primary sources to further our understanding of the Great War. IWM has a unique opportunity to use that to shape the public memory and decide what the conflict will mean to any who visit in the next hundred years.

The First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum are free to enter but currently timed ticketed entry is in operation. Tickets can be obtained from the front of the museum on entry at 10am or from the ticket desk by the new gallery entrance.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 350 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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