The art of war

The Imperial War Museum in London, whose First World War Galleries have just opened, says its interest is social history more than the military. What does that mean for the visitor?

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

You have to stare down the barrel of a gun to walk into the Imperial War Museum in London. The barrels of two guns, to be precise: a pair of massive 15in weapons that could fire their enormous shells 25km from the British battleships they were mounted on in the first half of the 20th century. Guarding the museum’s main entrance, they can make you feel very small and helpless.

And if you are Irish, with a less than comfortable relationship with empires and their armies, you have to stare down something else as well on entering this place: the gut feeling – the prejudice, even – that you are about to witness an orgy of militarism and triumphalism.

The first impression when you enter the museum itself is breathtaking, but it also tends to confirm such jaundiced feelings. A radical redesign by Foster & Partners, whose credits include the reinvention of the Reichstag, in Berlin, and the creation of Bilbao’s metro and London’s Millennium Bridge, has opened up a vast new atrium as a towering basket of light, from ground level to the fifth floor’s glass dome.

But that light is darkened by the shadows of more spectacular weaponry, a Luftwaffe V2 rocket and an RAF Spitfire and Harrier jump jet among them, dwarfing the humans who walk beneath. Well, what did you expect? It’s an imperial war museum, isn’t it?

A much more complex and challenging impression emerges, however, as you tour the broad galleries that surround the atrium. The exhibits, many of which have no immediate association with warfare, are arranged in clusters of six or seven. There is often no obvious connection between them, and they come without explanatory labels directly attached. Instead, you have to wander until you find a single panel, on which each object in the group is identified. This may be irritating at first, but it forces you to think – and wonder about their significance – more than you might do otherwise.

A large brown trunk, set in the context of Nazi propaganda exhibits, turns out to have carried the luggage of a Jewish couple, Leonhard and Clara Wohl, west from Germany with their children, in advance of their own planned departure. But their actual journey took them east, to the camps, and they never got to open the trunk again.

In another cluster, a large bedsheet is especially baffling at first. It appeared to have been remade into a kimono, and is covered with minute embroidery. There are names, signatures, diagrams and a strange lexicon of unusual words. This garment had been secretly created by Margaret Wanklin, a British nurse, as a meticulous, cleverly coded record of life in a Japanese internment camp near Hong Kong. It seemed all the more poignant for not being explained straight away by an adjacent label.

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