Monday, 6 April 2015

Who Ruined The Imperial War Museum?

Imperial War Museum - photo by Chris Gunns
Recently I took my nephew, visiting London from California, to see the refurbished Imperial War Museum in Southwark. I'd been telling him how great it was, and indeed it used to be one of my favourite museums in London - bright, airy, full of fabulous stuff like Spitfires and Sopwith Camels suspended from the ceiling in its cavernous interior.  The museum was closed for well over a year for an extensive (and expensive) refit and the result is that it has been completely ruined. How could this happen? How could so much public money have been spent on such a horrible mistake?

Photo: Wikipedia
To see what the problem is, take a look at the photo above (courtesy of Wikipedia) which shows how the museum used to be, before the renovation. The building was a converted hospital, and its vast glass roof filled the huge central atrium with light. Visitors walked in from the street in to a massive display area with lots of space to move and plenty of opportunities to admire the objects on exhibit.

Now look at the photo below, of the new museum, also from Wikipedia.  The photo is taken with a fisheye lens, to make the central atrium seem bigger than it actually is. What the architects have done is to make the interior much much smaller, by narrowing the central hall, and also much darker, by blocking out all the natural light that had filled the room from the glass ceiling.

Photo: Wikipedia



But why have they done this? Presumably it was to make room for more gallery space in the museum. But whoever designed the new galleries has made the exhibits so cramped and small that, even on a not especially busy day, it was difficult for us to navigate our way through.

The displays are oddly laid out and it all feels rather disorganised, and crammed into odd-sized spaces. The big machines that used to be in the central hall, such as the Sopwith Camel and the WW1 tank, are still there, but they are squashed in to the cramped galleries and it is almost impossible to see them properly.

Sopwith Camel at the Imperial War Museum by Max Smith. Photo taken before the renovation of the museum

The displays are full of high tech media, with iPad-style interactive screens, but somehow as you walk through it all you feel as if you are always standing in somebody's way - or someone is in yours, so you can't really see it all properly. The layout makes you want to skip through the galleries as fast as you can just to find some space to breathe. 

The building was refurbished, apparently, in order better to celebrate the WW1 centenary.  But one of the very best things about the old museum was the trench exhibit - where you got to walk through a recreation of a WW1 trench - and this has been removed. Why take away something that worked well? Why fix something that was not broken?

The new atrium. Photo: Wikipedia

The oddest thing about this long and expensive renovation is that someone, indeed (presumably) many people, no doubt good and well-meaning people, must have taken a close look at the plans and thought - yes, this will be a really good idea, worth spending £20m of public money. Some noble and high-minded committee decided that wrecking the beautiful central hall by filling it with arches, stairs and galleries was a good plan. Better yet, they thought, let's block off the natural light from the glass roof and replace it with artificial light.

For people who have never been to the museum before, there is lots to enjoy. It is still a good museum packed with much to see, and it is free to enter. But for anyone who saw it before it was wrecked - a visit will be a depressing experience.

---Alex


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