War and Peace: the transformation of the Imperial War Museum of London

War and Peace: the transformation of the Imperial War Museum of London

By Giuliano Gaiaphotography by Stefania Boiano

PROBLEM: how does one render it acceptable – in this age of political correctness – to include two objectionable words in the name of a museum: “Imperial” and “War”?

This is a common problem and involves many celebrated museums, which were created to reinforce the founding myths of society despite its ever changing perception: for example, the Italian museums of the country’s Unification, which have never been renovated and therefore seem older than the history they retell.

SOLUTION: It’s a courageous and fascinating choice by the Imperial War Museum to present objects and controversial events in a manner that instills doubt rather than certainty in the eyes its visitors and which stimulates opposing emotions in order to facilitate a critical approach. This approach is evident in its latest re-outfitting, which I was able to visit just a week after architects Foster & Partners completed the  £40 million renovation. In this article I will report on some of these renovations, while saving a more in depth discussion of the museums newest galleries – those devoted to the First World War – for a later post.

The V2

A vast central hall dominates the new entrance of the Imperial War Museum, the various galleries, which span over five floors, overlooking into the space.

The hall is largely dominated by a metal obelisk, a totem of modern times: a German V2 rocket, the most prominent symbol of the Nazi threat, one which brought months of terror to London as they dropped down unannounced on the defenceless city (one fell just a few meters from the actual Imperial War Museum, killing 43 people).

Although known as terrorist weapon, it was also considered the precursor to space exploration. In fact, its designer, Von Braun, instead of being tried as a war criminal – for the ruthless use of his creations and for the terrible conditions of the prisoners who were forced to build them – was immediately accepted into the United States with generous federal funding to continue his research, which would later lead to the early Apollo rockets. Therefore, the road to the Moon was paved with the blood of the victims of the Nazis. There is no doubt that this is something to reflect on, and the Imperial War Museum explicitly invites one to do so, even going as far as to publish (selected) thoughts visitors’ have on the subject.

The journalists’ Jeep

Visible from the entrance is the protagonist in a dramatic story:  a Reuters’ Land Rover with the words TV and Press written on it. In Gaza in 2006, a missile from an Israeli helicopter hit the jeep, severely injuring the two journalists inside.

The Israeli army maintained that the Jeep was not clearly marked as a press vehicle, but the example presented seems to demonstrate otherwise. One of the two journalists was later killed by an Israeli tank while he filming on another tour. The Imperial War Museum exhibits the piece as a means to remind us of the risks journalists face in times of war; certainly the display of such an object – in light of the current conflict in Gaza – could provoke controversy or accusations of being overtly political (although the Imperial War Museum most definitely cannot be accused of anti-Semitism when it houses a powerful permanent exhibition on the Holocaust).

Bloody Sunday

The galleries contain interesting exhibits concerning both distant and recent wars, always maintaining a critical rather than rhetoric approach: from anti-Blair posters on the war on Iraq to the explosive vest of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan to an armoured vehicle used to patrol Northern Ireland.

On the topic of Northern Ireland, it is surprising how a museum courageous enough to present ‘the other side’ of conflict was unable to dedicate an object nor a reflection on a an important and controversial episode in recent British history: the Bloody Sunday of 1972, when a regiment of British paratroopers opened fire on an unarmed demonstration, killing 14 and plunging Northern Ireland into a bloody civil war from which it has yet to completely recover. We will try to rectify this forgetfulness with the trailer of the beautiful (British) film of 2002, Bloody Sunday. 

Hitler and the suitcase

I conclude this first review of the Imperial War Museum of London with something that I found very moving: instead of using a thousand words only two objects are used to recount Nazism: a screen showing (without subtitles or explanation) the Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” by Leni Riefenstahl, and a single suitcase, which two German Jews had sent to their children – who emigrated to England – before they were arrested and killed in Auschwitz.

That simple common suitcase is a silenced pistol pointed towards the silent images of triumphalist gatherings, flying swastikas and hypnotic speeches. It is a warning, an accusation, a cry. If there is something that the new Imperial War Museum can give us, it is its powerful ability to allow objects speak to the hearts and souls of visitors.