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Changes include a revamp of the historic, grand atrium by Foster + Partners and a First World War trench exhibit. (Richard Ash)
Changes include a revamp of the historic, grand atrium by Foster + Partners and a First World War trench exhibit. (Richard Ash)

Imperial War Museum reopens with a fresh take on the Great War Add to ...

Outside London’s Imperial War Museum, two colossal grey naval cannons present their 16.5-metre-long barrels at a low angle, as if preparing to shell the town. This type of 15-inch gun was first used to bombard Gallipoli in 1915, and since January has been the only artifact from the IWM’s immense First World War collection visible here.

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An ambitious $74-million renovation closed what was once an asylum for the mad – the infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam – but which since 1936 has memorialized the insanity and heroism of war.

On July 19, the museum reopens with new and expanded First World War galleries, which curators hope will change our perspective on this great conflict of a century ago.

“This is a museum that really connects with ordinary people’s lives,” IWM director Diane Lees says. “Wars are not isolated events. They happen in the context of developing societies.”

Lees likes to say that the IWM’s job is to look at “the causes, the course and the consequences” of armed conflict. The new First World War galleries will, accordingly, devote more attention to political and social conditions prior to the war, to the home front’s role in supporting and sometimes challenging the conflict, and to lasting results on the combatant nations and on the waging of war itself.

Those who fought the war and most who remember it are gone – a fact that has made its mark on plans for the galleries. Curator James Taylor says the museum can no longer assume, as it could when his war-veteran granddad led him around when he was 7, that living memory can help fill in the blanks around artifacts.

The display will run on two sides of a horseshoe-shaped promenade, with the war represented on the outside wall, and the home front – including Germany’s – on the inside. Rather than hitting all the big battles, Taylor says, his team has tried to tell a story that covers the war’s chronology while highlighting major themes and developments.

It also wanted to give visitors some striking “pub facts” to take away with them, such as the surprising extent of air raids during the war. Powerful artifacts, such as a blood-stained tunic (donated by the man who was wounded in it) and a letter written by a woman unaware that her lover was already dead, have been given a stronger context, Taylor says. A big British howitzer that used to stand on the floor of the museum’s atrium amid a jumble of other large objects will now command the area at the top of the horseshoe that deals with the Battle of the Somme.

“Many people think that the machine gun was the war’s dominant weapon,” Taylor says, “but over 60 per cent of casualties were caused by artillery.” The high-tech weapon of the day was a 75-mm cannon that could load and fire 10 times faster than Napoleonic artillery, and that forced armies to dig themselves into trenches.

The exhibits will also question popular mythologies, such as the Christmas truce, which Taylor says was not just a poignant interlude but also an occasion to bring in the dead. He also debunks the idea of a prewar “Edwardian idyll” that was smashed by the conflict. “Large portions of the population were living in abject poverty,” he says. War offered many people the chance of adventure and steady pay.

The IWM has five different branches, of which the London headquarters was the most in need of investment when Lees, a veteran of five previous cultural building campaigns, became director six years ago. The heritage structure, lodged within a protected park, did not allow for any expansion, so architect Foster + Partners was asked to thoroughly rejig the existing space. Structural reinforcements made it possible to create a new atrium in which large objects can be presented on different levels, instead of crowded together on the floor. The Second World War galleries, which used to share a level with the Great War, have been sent upstairs, allowing the space for the First World War to expand by one-third.

But while its physical quarters in London remain constrained, IWM is expanding around the globe through a “digital redistribution” of materials online. Through a site called 1914.org, 2,800 registered partners in 49 countries are able to download 16 free display panels about the First World War, ready to be printed and displayed. Lees is keen to de-imperialize her collections by digitizing them or lending important artifacts to Commonwealth partners. “We want to take the Vimy Ridge flag, which is a centrepiece in our galleries, to Canada for 2017,” she says.

The IWM is also gathering and displaying items from conflicts in progress. It has been collecting in Afghanistan for 4½ years, has made 1,200 recordings of troop and family experiences, and two years ago exhibited a motorbike captured from Taliban insurgents just weeks earlier. Ideally, Lees says, the museum will display a similarly nimble response to any continuing conflict involving Commonwealth troops, inserting new objects into exhibitions whenever possible.

Unusually, the museum’s visitor response cards ask not just for people’s opinions of the exhibits, but also what could have been done differently. Sometimes, the results make for tough reading, although Lees says that’s part of running a museum that connects emotionally with people in ways that a science museum might not.

“The more you open up the conversation, the more contested it becomes,” she says. “You have to expect that the criticism and praise will be in equal measure.”

Admission to the Imperial War Museum London is free. For more information visit iwm.org.uk.

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