‘The Imperial War Museum was established while the First World War was still being fought, to ensure that future generations would understand the toil and sacrifice of individuals and the impact war had on the world’
This past July heralded the centennial of the start of World War I, prompting the launch of commemorative exhibits, events and memorials worldwide. Among them was the highly anticipated reopening of the First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum London. Military History recently spoke with IWM Director-General Diane Lees—who assumed her post in 2008 and is cultural lead for the First World War Centenary Partnership—about the significance of the commemoration, the IWM’s renovated London galleries and what visitors should expect to see.
What are the origins and mission of the IWM?
The Imperial War Museum was established while the First World War was still being fought, to ensure that future generations would understand the toil and sacrifice of individuals and the impact war had on the world in which we now live.
What is the IWM’s focus?
IWM continues its commitment to our founding mission, finding new and relevant ways to engage visitors on the subject of warfare, from the First World War to present-day conflicts. We continue to collect and record the stories of those affected by conflict and have done so since the First World War. Our family of museums—IWM London is the flagship—tells the stories of how war has shaped and continues to shape people’s lives.
How did you get involved with the IWM?
I became director-general in the autumn of 2008. Prior to that I was the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood, working on a project to transform and create a sustainable future for the museum. In other roles I worked on the recovery and display of the Mary Rose warship in Portsmouth Harbor and the redisplay of the Nelson Gallery at the Royal Naval Museum. I am also currently the chair of the National Museums Directors’ Council.
Explain the museum’s role in the centenary partnership.
In 2009, when we were drawing together our plans for the centenary, we realized many organizations would be marking the events of the First World War. Since the IWM was established during the war, we were very aware we have resources that could aid other organizations in developing their own programs, and we didn’t want to swoop in with a top-down partnership. We wanted to created something democratic—much like our collections themselves—where organizations could sign up to a network of partnering institutions. They could use the resources we provide, and they could commemorate the centenary in a way that is relevant and appropriate to them.
How did the museum balance its responsibility to inform with the necessity to commemorate that world-changing conflict?
We have a number of projects across IWM to mark the centenary, inform our visitors and commemorate those who lived and served in the conflict. The brand-new First World War Galleries allow audiences to explore what the war was like. The objects on display give a voice to the people who created them, used them or cared for them and reveal stories not only of destruction, suffering and loss, but also of endurance and innovation, duty and devotion, comradeship and love. Visitors will see what life was like on the front and experience the sights and sounds of a re-created “trench,” with a Mark V tank nearby and a Sopwith Camel fighter plane looming above them. Through our digital project Lives of the First World War the public can contribute their own items to help us discover, remember and share the life stories of the 8 million [British and Commonwealth] men and women who served at home and on the front.
Our First World War Centenary Partnership offers support to any not-for-profit organization marking the centenary. IWM is leading this but wants organizations to offer events meaningful to their own communities. Through the partnership members can connect and access resources, and the public can find out what is happening locally through the events calendar.
What were the driving forces behind the upgrades to the London galleries?
There were many reasons we wanted to undergo a development of this size. The last time IWM London was redeveloped was in the 1980s. We wanted to offer visitors clear and easy navigation through the building. We started the project to transform the museum in 2010, and now the new atrium is filled with freshly curated displays, telling the story of the conflict in Britain and the former empire chronologically from 1914 to present. We felt that our biggest contribution to the centenary would be the new First World War Galleries, with a fresh approach and new interactive elements for the 21st century museum visitor.
Visitors can expect more than 60 audiovisual and interactive displays in the new galleries, which are important in telling the story of the war in color and giving a visceral sense of what life might have been like. In our new trench experience you see soldiers as shadowed projections on the walls; you hear thunder, lightning and rain as well as artillery fire.
The redevelopment of IWM London is stage one of a master plan. We hope to extend the exhibits to new Second World War galleries and also alter the entrance to the main building.
What changes were made to the physical space?
Our atrium has been transformed—we have removed a floor to bring the atrium floor to ground level, creating a cathedral-like space, with new terraced galleries rising up either side. You get a glimpse of the objects on each level peeking through the new, large “fins” that line the space. The view when you used to come into IWM was a real “wow” moment, and I think the new view surpasses that.
What were some of the major challenges in completing the renovation?
We had a fixed date on which to reopen, and working toward an absolute deadline can be challenging; plus all the logistical and technical issues of positioning very large and heavy objects, such as the newly acquired Harrier jet and our Mark V tank, which sits at an extreme angle.
The First World War Galleries comprise how many artifacts?
There are more than 1,300 objects, ranging from large artillery to photos, letters and diaries. Running through the fabric of the new galleries are quotes from the soldiers themselves taken from diaries and letters written during the conflict. These quotes evoke how everyday people lived through these extraordinary times.
What are some of the more striking pieces in the collection?
Many of the letters and diaries in our collections are really outstanding. One item in the First World War Galleries that will surprise our visitors is a German uniform button given by a German soldier to 19-year-old Corporal Eric Rowden on Christmas Day 1914. He comments that they joked and smoked cigars together on this day, as if there wasn’t a war even happening. It’s these remarkable and poignant stories that stay with you.
Have any artifacts undergone major restoration during the museum’s closure?
Every object that went into the First World War Galleries and atrium displays underwent some level of conservation, including a First World War camouflage tree, comprising sheets of iron made to look like a tree on the Western Front but used as a lookout and observation point. It’s a very delicate object; the surface was reconsolidated and certain areas repainted.
What does the First World War mean to you personally?
It was a landmark conflict and turning point in history that still has echoes today. It affected everyone on a wide social scale down to the stories within our own family histories and communities. For me it is the connections to the First World War that make it so compelling and relevant. My family fought with the Durham Light Infantry, and luckily everyone came back. Some weren’t so lucky.