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IWML Exterior 2 - By Permission of IWM (Imperial War Museums)

The Imperial War Museum reopens

29 July 2013 Charlie Kenber

This week the Imperial War Museum partially reopens after a six-month closure. We have a look behind the scenes…

After six months of refurbishment, the Imperial War Museum partially reopens this week with several exhibitions – many brand new. Although the main atrium and First World War exhibits remain closed until the conflict’s centenary next summer, the use of a side entrance will allow access to the rear portion of the building, with plenty on offer to justify the visit.

As you enter it quickly becomes apparent just how extensive the Museum’s refurbishment programme has been. Once you reach the rear of the building however, there are several spaces open as usual, including People’s War: Second World War Portraits, Architecture of War and the new IWM Contemporary space. Surely the blockbuster summer attraction however is a new family exhibition: Horrible Histories®: Spies. Promising to immerse the visitor into the world of World War Two spycraft, families can get hands-on with many of the exhibits. There’s plenty of time to catch it too, as it remains open until January 2015.

People’s War and Architecture of War are both permanent collection exhibitions, utilising the large catalogue of work owned by the Museum. Both exhibitions display individuals’ attempts to capture the face of conflict. Although often work commissioned by the somewhat restrictive War Artist’s Advisory Committee, the images in People’s War stretch across a remarkable range of styles. As Sir Kenneth Clarke, Chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee put it in 1947, the art attempts to capture the “Individual and yet typical” nature of those involved in the war effort.

Architecture of War contains a similarly startling range. Selected from 20,000 works in the Imperial War Museum’s fine art collection, the exhibition presented its curator, Claire Brenard, with quite a task. In the light of the Horrible Histories exhibition next door, Claire wanted “to keep it accessible. I was thinking about that when I was writing the captions, but I was also thinking about a bold visual approach. Children are encouraged to draw from a young age, so why do people sometimes say ‘it’s an art exhibition, kids won’t want to see that’? So I’m hoping they might wander in here and not be put off!”

The most exciting development however is the new IWM Contemporary art gallery, which enables the museum to interact for the first time with truly relevant and to-the-minute trends in modern warfare, through frequent free displays. “There wasn’t a consistent contemporary offer, so people didn’t really identify us with that kind of work,” the space’s curator, Sara Bevan, tells us. “We wanted to have this branded consistent offer. The space will host three shows a year, allowing for flexible programming: “we can be quite responsive in terms of contemporary events,” Sara explains.

This approach is certainly fulfilled by IWM Contemporary’s first exhibit: a powerful thirty-minute film by Omer Fast. Entitled 5000 Feet is the Best (the optimal height for drones to fly at) the film explores the realities of life as a drone operator. Through extensive interviews with one such operator in a Las Vegas hotel, Fast’s piece increasingly blurs reality and fiction. On-camera interview extracts with the operator are cut with staged extracts of off-camera testimony, as well as disturbing shots of rural Nevada from the air.

“It deals with such a pressing contemporary issue,” Sara adds. “I think it deals with the politics and ethics of it, but it goes beyond that to deal with it in a more philosophical way as well…this sense of narrative and space that comes alongside the issues of drones and contemporary warfare.” The operator’s repeated digressions into apparently irrelevant anecdotes and stories certainly reinforce this sense of reflection as he attempts to explain life as a drone operator.

So after it’s six-month hiatus, there is even more reason than usual to head over to the Imperial War Museum. Indeed when the First World War Centenary does arrive next year, it seems the Museum will have some exceptional transformations, with galleries worthy of such an important anniversary.

Horrible Histories®: Spies runs until 4th January 2015. Tickets from £3.30 - £6.20, available here.

People’s War: Second World War Portraits runs until 1st September 2013, admission free.

Architecture of War runs until 5th May 2014, admission free.

Omer Fast’s film 5000 Feet is Best runs until 29th September 2013, admission free. Book online here.

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