New Imperial War Museum is spectacular and heartbreaking

Jul 17, 2014

'Fascinating and frequently heartbreaking' exhibits make up for more 'adult' transformation

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The Imperial War Museum in London will open its doors to the public on Saturday with more objects on display than ever before, following its £40m transformation.

Among the objects is a suicide bomb vest, a piece of the World Trade Center, a Desert Hawk drone and a battered suitcase belonging to a Jewish couple who died in Auschwitz.

For the first time, visitors can also see a tunic button given by a German to a British soldier during the famous Christmas Day truce and a business card from one of the mademoiselles of Armentieres.

"Digital technology runs like a thread through every gallery," says the BBC's Robert Hall, with traditional exhibits of uniforms next to visual depictions of the men who wore them and a tank display accompanied by the voices of the "frightened young men who were there".

The new First World War galleries are three times the size of the old ones, while more objects are on display from conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Iraq.

Nigel Steel, the museum's main historian on the project, notes that fewer visitors have first-hand memories of the history within the museum's walls so the curators have been trying to make the objects "work harder to tell the stories".

The Guardian's Maev Kennedy describes the new First World War galleries as "spectacular" but says the loss of the old "trench experience" may be mourned by many visitors, particularly the younger ones. "Its tasteful replacement is a straight grey mud-textured passageway, with projected silhouettes of soldiers; though ominously overshadowed by a real Mark V first world war tank and Sopwith Camel overhead, it's no more frightening than an office foyer," she says.

The atrium at the core of the museum has been remodelled with a Harrier jet, Spitfire and German V1 flying bomb suspended from the ceiling.

In the Daily Telegraph, Alastair Sooke says the atrium – which once "seemed primarily designed to appeal to little boys" – is now a "much more adult affair". But any lack of visual flair is more than compensated for by the "judicious choice of its fascinating, and frequently heartbreaking, exhibits", says Sooke.

"It isn't just the Néry Gun. Many of the 400 objects displayed in the atrium's galleries, including more than 60 that have never been seen before, have stories attached to them that are similarly affecting and poignant."

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