Wednesday 16 July 2014

Remembering the First World War: the re-opening of the Imperial War Museum

When we moved to our current neighbourhood two years ago, the main local landmark promptly closed down (I'm sure the two events were not connected).  The Imperial War Museum has been closed for an extensive (£40 million) refurbishment, and is about to re-open, just in time for the centenary of the start of WW1.

For a few weeks there, I was worried the team were not going to deliver.  The hoardings remained stubbornly in place, the builders looked casual (to say the least) and every day as I walked past the building site they didn't seem they would ever move on to "finishing touches".  But I have to say, as today the site was visited by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the IWM seems to have finally pulled out the stops and dusted itself off.  There will be a "soft" opening tomorrow (Friday 18 July) before the Big Day on Saturday, from 10am.

But what can we expect?  

Well, let's start with the amenities.  First and foremost, there is a brand new cafe area (run by Peyton & Byrne) that opens out to the parkland on the Kennington Road side of the building.  This should prove to be a big improvement on the previous offering, and should really help connect the impressive building to the equally impressive grounds it sits in.  The famous atrium, in the heart of the building, has been deepened and reconfigured with "iconic" large objects (Spitfires, tanks etc).  We should also expect improved buggy/wheelchair access and more educational and group visit space.  All of this is good news for local (and visiting) families and community groups.  Hurrah!

But the "meat" of the refurbishment was always the Great War.  This August marks one hundred years since the start of WW1, the war that was supposed to end all war.  From this modern-day vantage point it seems right that the IWM should become The home of WW1 memories, artefacts and lessons. And so visitors will also be treated to a new exhibition, "Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War", and its brand new First World War Galleries (displaying over 1,300 objects - many of which have never been seen before).

There is just too much to see to be mentioned here.  As a wife and mother my eye is immediately drawn to the "At all costs" exhibit, which explores how a total war on the battlefields meant also a total war on the home front.  Women stepped into new roles in factories, hospitals, transport and agriculture - a movement which, although for the worst of reasons, gave women a new-found sense of capability and responsibility which eventually helped lead to universal suffrage.  
(c) IWM

And even children helped the war effort, as tenderly displayed in a 9 year old's letter to Lord Kitchener:
(c) IWM
("Dear Lord Kitchener,
I am an Irish boy, 9 years of age, and I want to go to the front.  I can ride jolly quick on my bicycle and would go as despatch rider. I wouldn't let the Germans get in.  I am a good shot with a revolver and would kill a good few of the Germans, as I am very strong and often win a fight with lads twice as big as myself. I want a uniform and a revolver and will give a good account of myself... ")

I'm not sure how our children today could fathom what total warfare consisted off, but perhaps a walk though the IWM's reconstructed "trench" might help them understand.  With a Sopwith Camel fighter plane swooping low overhead, and a Mark V tank looming above, projected silhouettes of soldiers (and a soundscape) will evoke the drudgery, discomfort, danger and comradeship which characterised the experience of a British "Tommy".

For those who would like to explore the role and legacy of women in WW1 further, there is an exciting (ticketed) event on 16 September 2014 at 7pm: "In Conversation with Kate Adie: The Legacy of Women in the First World War".

IWM London, Lambeth road, London, SE1 6HZ
Tel: 020 7416 5000

1 comment:

  1. Ooh can't wait to have a look, we used to live just up the road and enjoyed the old museum but the new one sounds great!