IWM London - Side View New Atrium © Foster+Partners
Side view of the atrium at IWM London © Foster+Partners

‘The description ‘permanent exhibitions’ is perhaps misleading for our main displays, since it is not the exhibitions which we regard as permanent but rather their themes and content’

Initial Brief for Redevelopment of Main Building of Imperial War Museum, November 1980 (IWM EN4/41/CF/1/1/4/8)

Making an exhibition about the First World War at IWM (Imperial War Museums) is no mean feat. Although IWM has been doing this for 97 years (and 78 years at the museum’s Lambeth Road site) as part of its remit, various factors during this period have influenced what is said, and how and even why it is said. My Collaborative Doctoral Award research focuses on these factors, through examining some of the permanent and temporary IWM First World War exhibitions between 1964 and 2014.

One might think that all an exhibition requires is the dutiful placing of objects from the conflict into showcases. Originally, this philosophy worked. When the IWM opened immediately after the First World War, objects did not need much explanation because visitors knew what they were, or knew someone who had recently experienced them first-hand.

This presence of veterans was important, because they could share their experiences of the displayed objects with fellow visitors. Living memory of the First World War has now passed, and the IWM’s new galleries will be the first without this assisted interpretation. To meet this unprecedented responsibility, the museum has employed a fresh approach, reflecting the latest historical thinking, to tell a new generation of visitors about the conflict’s causes, courses and consequences.

First World War Galleries ©IWM
Section of the First World War galleries at IWM London ©IWM

Nevertheless the team behind these new galleries have drawn much from their predecessors’ efforts – particularly the previous ‘permanent’ galleries of the conflict that were built in 1990. These showed what the essential components of an IWM First World War permanent display should be, and therefore what would need to be addressed in the successive galleries:

  • Decisions on how to weave the war’s chronology and themes together into a broad approach;
  • A rationale behind the selection of particular items of weaponry, equipment, documents and ephemera for display;
  • The writing of captions and text panels that would stand up to historical scrutiny;
  • Ensuring that the objects and text supported each other.

The sum of these equates to an exhibition that could deliver specialist information and portray a strong message in a stimulating and memorable way. Today this has been helped by the fact that the technology used to deliver historical exhibitions is more capable than it was in 1990. Those galleries had made use of the once cutting-edge technology of video, along with the accurate recreation of the walk-through Trench Experience. Their 2014 equivalents are numerous digital interactive displays (For insight into the thinking behind one of the projections from one of the galleries’ designers, see http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2014/jul/17/first-world-war-imperial-war-museum) and a different kind of immersive Trench (For a preview, see http://blogs.iwm.org.uk/transforming-iwm-london/2014/03/what-to-expect-in-our-new-first-world-war-galleries/).

First World War trench ©IWM
View of the trench in the First World War galleries at IWM London © IWM

Now you can see come and see the new ways in which the First World War is being told for the generation that will witness the War’s centenary when you visit IWM London. When it comes to creating new exhibitions, the IWM has never lost sight of what has gone before. Even if the methods of delivery and display techniques have changed, the core message remains the same.