IWM North

Being in the area, I popped in to see the Northern branch of the  Imperial War Museum today. It’s on the edge of an industrial estate, quite near Old Trafford, and the building is spectacular. It’s designed by Daniel Liebeskind, an architectural rule-breaker, and the idea is that it represents an exploded world, with the building made up of three shards of the debris. These are supposed to represent air, water and earth, though I defy anyone who had only seen the building without reading the justification ever to guess that. The shape is intriguing, though.

The inside is even more striking. Thre is hardly a vertical line in the place. Walls, doorways and partitions slope at a variety of angles, and the internal decoration and lighting add to the sense of vertigo. A visitor feels like an extra in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari or similar expressionist movie. The idea, I think, is to disconcert us, to make us doubt everything, including all our set ideas about war. (Which some might find patronising, since it assumes that we aren’t disturbed by war already, maybe…)

This afternoon (Thursday in the Easter holidays) the museum was pleasantly full and lively. Museum staff were telling stories to younger children; slightly older ones were enjoying pressing buttons and opening flaps. There were families. couples and single venturers. The museum has found an audience.

The design is overwheming, and threatens to overwhelm the artefacts, though. There are plenty of things in glass cases, but they are not always easy to see, especially when the lights dim and a big film about victims of war is projected onto white oddly-shaped walls. I’m not a gun nut, but if I were I think I’d be aggrieved if there wasn’t enough light to see weapons in detail.

This sis the opposite of a museum that lets artefacts speak for themselves. Here the things are surrounded by commentary and explanation, and a design that draws attention to itself. Yet contexts can be blurred, as artefacts from one conflict are put in the same case as those from another, and a generalising message connects them. I’ve a suspicion that the IWM people are so frightened that what they display could encourage the glorification of war that they over-curate, to be on the safe side.

I wonder what the museum will look like in fifty years time. The Lambeth IWM (converted lunatic asylum) has taken on many meanings over almost a century. Memorial, tribute to the fallen, tribute to the brave, dreadful warning, etc. This adaptation has been possible because  its inside is a neutral space where displays can generate their own meaning. The Tate Modern, a very strongly curated museum, preaching a paprticular modernist gospel, does so in a space that is impressive without being intrusive. If, when Serota is dead and gone, the Art establishment decided that the true father of twentieth-century Art was not Picasso but Sir Alfred Munnings, a display demonstrating the new interpretation could be put into the existing space without much difficulty. But Liebeskind’s design is so overwhelming that I doubt whether a different kind of display would be possible. But that was the trouble with expressionist film directors. they controlled the frame so tightly that the the characters rarely became more than puppets of the director’s intention…

The main reason I went, though,  was not to see the main displays, but the temporary  Women War Artists exhibition. This was very good, containing work from 1914 to the present. I was especially struck by the water-colours  of VAD work in WW1 by Olive Mudie Cook.

from the IWM Somme exhibition

The WWII paintings by Laura Knight are terrific, too. She’d be a good candidate for a big retrospective show at Tate Britain.

(Page edited and spelling improved the next day. Memo to self: do not write blog after drinking too many glasses of red wine.)


  1. Posted April 13, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I read about this exhibit and would love to see it, but alas, no plans to visit England any time soon. I’m quite fascinated by Laura Knight’s work – I wish I could find a comprehensive book on her, but maybe one hasn’t been written yet (?). Maybe we need that retrospective of her work. There’s a big painting of hers in the War Museum in Ottawa, Canada. I forget the name of it, but it depicts two soldiers boxing in an outdoor ring surrounded by spectators and majestic landscape. I love the juxtaposition of “sport” fighting as a break from war, visually and culturally.

  2. Posted April 13, 2009 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    At the Lowry Gallery (just across the canal from the IWM North) last year there was apparently an exhibition of Knight’s theatre and ballet paintings. I saw the catalogue there, and wish I’d seen the show.

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