Imperial War Museum or: How To Waste £40 Million

These items dominate the atrium and are pretty much visible from all angles of the museum. So how many signs are there for it? One. Just in front of it. Good like finding it.

The Harrier jet dominates the atrium of the Imperial War Museum and is visible from almost every angle. So how many signs are there for it? One. It’s the size of a memo and on a giant board somewhere. Good luck finding it.

I am no historian and whilst I consider myself to be an academic, my knowledge and interest in most subjects is either niche or not in depth. One such subject that would fall under this category would be history! I can maybe give detail on certain aspects of the Roman Empire. Or maybe even a decent outline of how World War Two played out. Despite this, let me assure you, I am no aficianado.

I am also slowly but surely working my way through every major attraction in London and that is what brought me to the Imperial War Museum this past week. I like reading tedious information panels and learning arbitrary facts so museums are something of an endless source of entertainment for myself. With regards to visiting IWM, I have a vague enough knowledge of modern(ish) military history but not so detailed that I could distinguish between two different tanks. Or recognise a downed Zero by its fuselage. Or recognise the window frame of a destroyed building during a terror attack (see below).

All you'd think is that this piece of scrap probably came from some military vehicle. In fact, it came from the World Trade Centre. Who knew? No one looking at it.

All you’d think is that this piece of scrap probably came from some military vehicle. In fact, it came from the World Trade Centre. Who knew? No one looking at it.

For those who don’t know, the Imperial War Museum has been closed for a long time as it under went renovations costing in the region of £40M. That is the equivalent of one whole David Luiz. For that kind of money, I was expecting something pretty impressive. So imagine my disappointment when it was a colossal mess. I can’t be bothered to write a whole new blog about it so I’ll repost my TripAdvisor review of the incident:

I’ve never visited the Imperial War Museum before but I have visited Duxford (which is fantastic) and have been wondering how the new renovations would be. Unfortunately, I think the museum seems to be lacking in some departments (mainly in its main atrium).

 

I’ll start with the positives though. The Holocaust exhibition and the Ashcroft gallery are great, as our some of the other sections such as the Espionage exhibition, etc. These parts of the museum are successful for basic reasons that all good museums seem to follow, which is to say a clear and easy to follow lay-out, plenty of information that is readily available for those interested and creative displays. This, however, seems to be missing in the atrium.

 

First of all, I walked through the entrance and straight away I felt lost. The atrium is impressive (if not crowded right now) but after I’d taken everything in, I found myself wondering “how do I actually get to the objects I can see all around the room?” I eventually wandered down the central staircase and worked my way to the back of the building and back UP another flight of stairs to reach the exhibitions. It was only when I’d walked down to the end of the first floor that I realised I could have gotten there just by slipping through the shop. I can appreciate having a shop at the exit/entrance of a museum/gallery, it’s very common practice but there seemed to be one on both sides along with one on the floor below?

Information panel? Check. Post-it note sized information panels for everything in this room? Check. Small crowds who can handle this information at their own convenience? Uh oh....

Information panel? Check. Post-it note sized information panels for everything in this room? Check. Small crowds who can handle this information at their own convenience? Uh oh….

My real gripe with the museum laid with the presentation of information (or lack of, perhaps). Imagine seeing an object of interest in a museum. Some of the first things you think is, “What is this? Where did it come from? How does it work? What was it for?” Most museums have that information readily available at hand but at IWM, they seem to have implemented a design whereby all the information on displays is located exclusively on one large panel within the vicinity. So after spotting something of interest, you then have to wander around a busy room looking for an information panel that is surrounded by other people doing likewise. Now imagine having to do this for everything in an exhibition. Needless to say, I skipped over a lot of items I would have otherwise been interested in because of this.

Here we have a fascinating display of items X, Y and Z. Obtained from A, Used as B. This particular model was used during C! Or maybe just nothing.

Here we have a fascinating display of items X, Y and Z. Obtained from A, Used as B. This particular model was used during C! Or maybe just nothing.

I can only speculate that the reason they have done this is for crowd management but ironically, I think they make the crowds worse by forcing you to cluster around information panels. Some displays seem bizarrely empty as a result of this choice and it just doesn’t feel right.

 

Eventually, I worked my way to the top floor and I also have to wonder, what is the purpose of the Mezzanine? It is literally just empty space in a very full and busy museum. When I saw it, people are just sitting on the floor against the walls because there are no chairs or anything. Very strange floor to have.

 

Lighting was also an issue in a variety of displays, notable in the Holocaust exhibition in particular. The lights for displays are sometimes placed in questionable positions/angles meaning the information panel is only visible when you stand directly in front of it, which makes me feel very inconsiderate in a museum. Video screens seem inconsistent too, with some ranging from wall sized projections and others more akin to the old fashioned CRT screens.

I think I can see the potential in the museum but I think they have a few kinks to work out still as they only recently reopened it. I will likely revisit in the winter when it’s quieter and will hopefully have a better time of its exhibitions, which seem more suited for smaller crowds.

The IWM has a huge glass ceiling providing light for the entire atrium. Or at least it did until they built a mezannine floor for...no real purpose?

The IWM has a huge glass ceiling providing light for the entire atrium. Or at least it did until they built a mezzanine floor for…no real purpose?

Horrible stuff, right? Now I’m not a curator, or an architect, or anything at all credible to do with how a museum should be run but what I kept imagining during my visit was the amount of confirmation bias and groupthink that took place when a group of ‘professionals’ sat around deciding how to best redesign a museum. The saying, “A Camel is a horse designed by committee” also comes to mind. It’s as though it was designed by a group of people who had no real connection to anything relevant to a museum or history. The idea of information-free displays seems very new age and the kind of thing which on paper seems like a good idea but it is horribly implemented and it’s almost embarassing. I’m not the first person to have made some of these complaints and I won’t be the last and I’m left wondering why no one involved in this project spoke up about these very real flaws. Cronyism? Well meaning ignorance? Arrogance? I don’t imagine I’ll ever know.

P.S. Excuse the poor photography. I was using my camera phone and the combined anger of poor infrastructure, push chairs bumping into me and people putting their grubby, disgusting, fat fingers all over the displays left me so irate I could hardly focus on taking my usual excellent standard of photography.