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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 4: War •


Imperial War Museum North
view across the river

The Imperial War Museum (North): The Triumph of Style over Substance?

Dr Matthew Hughes (Politics and Contemporary History, University of Salford)

Sitting by the Manchester Ship Canal opposite the Lowry Arts complex, the new Imperial War Museum North (IWM-N) is a stunning architectural addition to the regeneration project for the Salford docks area. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the sweeping metal carapace of the IWM-N mirrors the modern design of the Lowry opposite. From afar, the two buildings offer the approaching visitor an impressive vista: two gleaming structures towering above the waters of the docks. The new war museum for the north is a shard-like structure, consciously reflecting the shattering nature of war, with floors that are not flat and walls that are not true. The air shard is a tower leaning at 4 degrees with a lift (already out-of-order) ascending to a viewing platform. The girders of the air shard tower are visible through the mesh floor of the viewing platform. The sense of space is apparent – not just the view out over Trafford and Salford but the view to the ground below the viewing platform. The restaurant is in the water shard, overlooking the Ship Canal and docks.

The meat of the museum, if we assume that people are going to the IWM-N to see something about the history of conflict, is the one-floor earth shard, home of the cabinets, exhibits and displays. In the earth shard, there is also a separate exhibition hall, currently given over to a show about the building of the IWM-N. The main body of the earth shard is a cavernous space built at a tilt with a time line, 1900-present, ringing the walls. Filling in the space between the walls, are six thematic silos and a handful of core plinthed exhibits. These core exhibits comprise a T-34 tank (which would be knocked out by a PIAT anti-tank weapon according to the museum guide), a Trabant car, a fire-fighting appliance, an artillery piece and a US Harrier Jump-jet. The silos concentrate on the topics of experience, women, empire, impressions, science and legacy of war. There is an immense sense of emptiness in the earth shard: a few big exhibits and some cabinet displays recessed into the wall as part of the time line rattling around in a dark open space. To fill this void, the museum designers have created three carefully crafted image and sound shows called the Big Picture that play on the walls of the earth shard. These are the main exhibits in the earth shard. Weapons and War, Children and War, and Why War? provide the three themes for the changing sound and light shows. While the visitors are encouraged to walk about during the Big Picture, most stand or sit to absorb the visual extravaganza of images and oral accounts that, for 15 minutes, turns the earth shard into a cathedral-like nave with a shifting altar and a sermon of peace.

Imperial War Museum North - entrance sign

It is impressive. The professionally designed Big Picture captivates and provides an interesting use of space. The Big Picture is an organic part of the intense feeling of space surrounding the whole IWM-N experience. The IWM-N has eschewed the approach of the IWM in London, with its main hall full of military kit like a boy’s bedroom, opting instead for a distinct pathway of social aspects of war exhibited via new media in the most modern of settings. This is not a traditional museum displaying artefacts in cases. The IWM-N wants to attract a ‘non-traditional’ audience, including women and ethnic minorities. It is branding itself as a multi-cultural, social history museum rather than a military history museum, consciously challenging the idea that war is a male, Eurocentric experience played out on the battlefield. This will provoke many military historians to apoplexy. However, this is exactly what the top brass at the IWM-N wants: controversy and a distinct ‘northern’ war museum with a broad-church approach to war.

Imperial War Museum North - exteriorThe IWM-N is a great day out for the family. There is the Lowry opposite, there are the docks, there is the view from the air shard viewing tower, you can eat in the water shard restaurant, and you can buy a range of gifts from the IWM-N shop. In addition, the sensory feast of the Big Picture leaves the visitor with powerful images and accounts of war. The problem comes with the fact that without the Big Picture, the IWM-N is just a box with a restaurant and a viewing platform. The captioning for the objects on display in the cases on the time line is, at times, anodyne. To give just one obvious example: did Europe just slip into war in 1914? Most historians acknowledge the scholarship of the 1960s that lays much (or at least some) of the blame on Germany. The origins of the Great War are presented with no mention of the Fritz Fischer debate. The display case captions tell the uninformed visitor very little. For the informed visitor, there is a feeling of hopelessness – where did all the history scholarship of the last decades go? Someone obviously forgot to inject some controversy into the display cases. This is patronising to visitors. There is an assumption that ‘ordinary’ people will only want the magic of the Big Picture, rather than objects, displays and interactive videos that challenge assumptions about the many conflicts of the contemporary

The IWM-N has, at present, no historical archive. This is not the fault of the IWM-N. Rather, the Lottery pulled millions of pounds of funding for a fourth shard that would have housed an archive. The plan is that this fourth shard will be built. This will be an important addition to the IWM-N if it is built, for without such an archive all enquiries have to be routed through the archival staff at the IWM in London. The presence of an archive will give the IWM-N historical clout, will inform new shows and displays, and will, importantly, provide a ‘northern’ focus for local people with research queries. One hopes that the construction of the historical archive is given top priority. This may seem like the lament of a professional historian, but the absence of an archive reinforces the sense that the IWM-N is more style than substance. In business terms, it will also help the IWM-N meet its target audience figure of 250,000 per annum as visitors to the archive swell numbers and spread the word about what is available at the IWM-N.

The planners of the IWM-N have put together a slick package that will appeal to a wide audience. A large part of this appeal is Libeskind’s building. The IWM-N is selling space. Only time will tell if this works, but the IWM-N might rue the day it decided to antagonise what many would consider to be its core audience. It is this audience that returns repeatedly to the IWM in London.


The Institute would like to thank Nicole Harris for the photographs of the Imperial War Museum North

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