Imperial War Museum #2: the First World War Galleries

Imperial War Museum #2: the First World War Galleries

By Giuliano Gaiaphotographs by Stefania Boiano

The new section dedicated to World War I, which was inaugurated on July 19th 2014 – the centenary of the war –  is the highlight of the renovations to the Imperial War Museum in London – which we discussed in a recent article. Even though entrance to the museum is free (as is with all important London museums; a remarkable sign of culture), in order to visit the Galleries it is necessary to make a reservation at the ticket office and to prepare oneself for the inevitably long queue, especially during the weekend, due to the success of the newly renovated museum and, in particular, its Great War Galleries.

Structured chronologically and thematically, the Gallery opens with an introductory section whose scope is to give economic, political, and social context to the outbreak of the War.

This introductory section is equipped with films and touch-screen multimedia that allow the exploration of maps and timelines. I personally found the use of short phrases and quotations of the era fascinating. The phrases – sometimes projected on video or printed on the walls – surround the visitor like ominous lamps, giving the feel of a pending storm just on the horizon.

Once past the introduction, you are immediately thrown into the war itself with a powerful installation: the terrifying moment in which thousands of young people were thrown into the fire of enemy machine guns with no chance of success or survival, a death sentence by firing squad carried without remorse on an entire generation of Europeans.

The installation consists of a series of silhouettes of soldiers in assault, similar to those of many commemorative monuments, so common in our cities. Projected on these silhouettes are videos of soldiers who charge and then fall and die.  The overlap between the video and the silhouettes creates both an alienating and poetic effect.

Another riveting point is the recreation of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest of the war, in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in vain.

A large video, covering the entire wall, displays the peaceful French countryside, as it is today, a paradise of groves and green hills, on which soldiers appear like ghosted columns marching towards death.

The idyllic country soon turns into a sea of ​​mud, a boggy landscape overturned and monochrome, on which flow harrowing phrases from the letters of the soldiers on the front line.

In great tradition of British museums, there are small interactive exhibits that increase understanding and encourage visitor involvement – for example an enlistment station where you can measure your eyesight, chest and height in order to know if you would have been physically fit for war according to the standards of the time.

The final part of the gallery displays a reconstruction of small section of a trench with an interesting multimedia object: a periscope that protrudes over the edge of the trench and displays the spectral terrain of no man’s land, the image of the terrain changing as the viewer rotates the periscope. An example of virtual reality recreated realistically due to the limited view forced upon the visitor, and therefore, creating credible images within the periscope’s display.

A towering military tank looms over the trench, authenticating the terror these slow and inexorable pachyderms of steel instilled in a vulnerable infantry. This and the shadows projected on the walls as ghosts of soldiers add to the atmosphere of anguish and distress.

The Galleries are effective in conveying anguish and demonstrating the appalling massacre that we associate with the Great War. Thanks to books such as All Quiet On the Western Front and films such as Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, it is possible to understand clearly the horror of those individuals who were crushed to death by man’s stupidity rather than by his wickedness.

In fact, in World War I, as opposed to the Second, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys”; there is no Nazi to fight or a democracy to defend. There is only massacre, immense and futile, in which Europe burned the best of herself for years for no reason; and the Imperial War Museum recounts this in a powerful and memorable way.