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London’s Imperial War Museum revisits horrors of World War I

“Gassed: In Arduis Fidelis” (1919) is by Gilbert Rogers, a portraitist who served in France in the Royal Army Medical Corps. IWM (IMPERIAL WAR MUSUEUMS)

For the next four years, Britain will commemorate in a wide-ranging series of events and programs the centenary of the country’s entry into the First World War on Aug. 4, 1914, when it declared war against Germany. “The centerpiece of our commemorations,” in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron, is the renovation of the Imperial War Museum London. Cameron and Prince William attended the recent official opening of the museum’s new First World War Galleries, which draws upon the museum’s collections, the richest and most comprehensive in the world.

Opened last month. the compelling and emotional World War I exhibition introduces visitors to the trials and triumphs, the destruction and death that marked the “War to End All Wars.” Historians, curators, and exhibit designers have assembled more than 1,300 objects, ranging from weapons, uniforms, and equipment to diaries and letters, keepsakes and trinkets, photographs, art, and film, along with 60 interactive displays, to transport and edify viewers. And you don’t have to be a WWI junkie to enjoy the tour; you just need an eye and an ear for the war that shaped today’s world.


Visitors encounter a vibrant people’s history of World War I. They can follow the narrative of the war through the eyes of people in Britain and its empire, both on the fighting fronts and on the home front. They will gain a grasp of the war’s origins, why and how it continued, how the Allies (with the aid of US forces) won, and the war’s long-range, global impact.

The new galleries are part of a four-year, $67 million renovation of the Imperial War Museum, which was established while the war still raged to ensure that future generations would remember the toil and sacrifice of those who experienced the four-year conflict. It opened in 1920, after the armistice. The transformed museum features a newly configured atrium (designed by Foster & Partners), three new souvenir and gift shops, a cafe that opens onto the surrounding park, and improved visitor facilities.


Over the decades, the scope of the museum expanded to focus on later 20th-century warfare and the lives of people affected by war and conflict from the Second World War to the present day. Imperial War Museum now encompasses four additional sites, including IWM North in Manchester and the Churchill War Rooms in London.

“We felt that our biggest contribution to the centenary,” says Paul Cornish, senior curator, “would be the First World War Galleries and its fresh approach and new interactive elements for the 21st-century visitor. My hope is that the exhibition will provide a clear and coherent picture of the war to a modern audience. As a team we aimed to bring immediacy and excitement to events which now lie beyond living memory.”

The use of sound effects, video, touch screens, and interactive games in the galleries further grounds visitors in the horrors and workings of the epochal war. Evoking the experience of the war is the exhibition’s task and goal.

The galleries roll out in 14 “chapters,” presented chronologically, ranging from “Hope and Glory” to “War Without End,” each with its own story, protagonists, and artifacts. An annotated tour of the key points follows.

The first chapter, “Hope and Glory,” opens at the turn of the 20th century, when Britain ruled the seas and the financial world. Yet rising tensions and rivalries in Europe, including the Anglo-German naval race, led to the crisis of summer 1914 and the outbreak of war. At center stage are three large ship models, including the HMS Hercules, one of the fearsome dreadnought battleships. Next, screaming shells and shattering blasts announce “Shock” at “the murder of troops by machines.” Visitors come face to face with the deadly French 75mm field gun and other “quick-firing” guns that resulted in a million dead in just four months of fighting in 1914.


Also on display, the colorful uniforms and crested helmets of outmoded and out-gunned cavalries from both sides.

Then on to “Deadlock,” which solidified on the Western Front as soldiers sought refuge in trenches and dugouts. Trench signs such as “Hellfire Corner” and “Piccadilly Circus” attest to the grimness and complexity of battlefield networks. Displays include “geophones,” which detected the enemy in mine shafts beneath the trenches, antigas fans and masks, and a hollowed-out tree that served as a lookout post in no man’s land.

The “Deadlock” exhibit

The large interactive maps of “World War” portray Germany’s global strategy, and Britain’s attempt to counter it with campaigns in the Middle East, Africa, and Gallipolli in Turkey.

In “Feeding the Front,” visitors of all ages can “make” food, boots, and shells through digital animations at the “Supply Line,” a 13-foot-long interactive table that demonstrates the unprecedented scale of homeland production required to keep the troops fed and fighting.

The 9.2-inch howitzer gun, “Mother,” towers over the “Total War” display, which explores the Battle of the Somme, a costly five-month-long campaign in 1916 that began with the unprecedented loss of 20,000 British troops on the first day of battle. A silent 1916 documentary on the battle, listed on the UNESCO film registry, captures the carnage.


In one of the highlights of the galleries, visitors to “Life at the Front,” walk through a “trench,” with a Sopwith Camel fighter plane swooping overhead, to encounter a multisensory experience complete with periscopes and a dugout and the sights and sounds of thunderstorms, gas attacks, and . . . the daily life of discomfort, danger, and comradeship.

“At All Costs” explores a feverish time when “total war” infiltrated every level of British society, when women staffed factories, hospitals, transport, and farms and even children had to contribute to the war effort, when Germany launched all-out submarine warfare, which hastened the United States’ entry into the war in 1917..

Nearing the tour’s end, “Seizing Victory” recounts the dramatic story of 1918 when the allied forces defeated Germany and its allies. The concluding chapter, “War Without End,” shows how, after enormous human cost, a new world order emerged, how this first “total war” irrevocably changed British society and its empire, and how the war didn’t end any wars.

To complement the permanent WWI galleries, Imperial War Museum has also mounted “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War,” which one critic noted “must be the best ever exhibition of First World War art.” Running through March 8, the major retrospective gathers 110 paintings (including John Singer Sargent’s monumental “Gassed”) and drawings, which show the poignant yet potent ways some of Britain’s most significant World War I artists portrayed the inhumanity of the front.


US visitors to the galleries can proudly view an American uniform placed alongside examples from the French and British armies to symbolize the united efforts that brought the armistice in autumn 1918. When asked about what US families stand to learn by touring the galleries, Cornish states, “There should be plenty to engage American visitors to our First World War Galleries, as the British empire story is shown in a wider context. The most relevant displays on the USA’s role in the war are those linked to the war at sea. The galleries feature memorable exhibits on the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 and Germany’s ‘unrestricted’ submarine warfare — and the subsequent US declaration of war in 1917.”

A tonal thread winds through the galleries: the voice of the people whose lives were touched — and trampled — by the war. The cement-colored platforms that surround the display areas are inscribed, almost like tombstones, with quotes from the soldiers’ diaries and letters written during war. “These quotes,” says Cornish, “evoke how everyday people lived through those extraordinary times. We wanted to use the voices from the people at the time to retell their stories to current and future generations.”

For those seeking some solace amid the devices and din of the First World War, the museum provides two of what it calls reflection spaces, tranquil spots where visitors are encouraged to pause and think about the difficult and terrifying aspects of the war, including the act of killing and the fear of being killed. Perhaps here, in these spaces, visitors will come to grasp the meaning of this war, of any war.

At IWM North: How a world war shaped a region

The Imperial War Museum’s satellite IWM North, which opened on The Quays in Manchester in 2002, marks the WWI centenary with its own exhibition, “From Street to Trench: A World War That Shaped a Region,” which ends May 2015. Housed in architect Daniel Libeskind’s iconic building representing a world torn apart by conflict, IWM North reveals the vital contribution England’s northwest made during the war. Britain’s war effort relied heavily on industrial centers, including the northwest, for essential munitions and equipment and for many fresh recruits who left the region and its factories for the first time to serve across the globe. Displaying locals’ collections of memorabilia, personal items, and emotional letters alongside national treasures, the exhibition deftly tells a huge story with a narrow focus.

Jack Curtis teaches writing at Urban College of Boston. He can be reached at jack.curtis1789@gmail.com.