New-Look Imperial War Museum Opens

London, we’ve failed you. The revamped Imperial War Museum has now opened. We avoided the press view in order to get a more authentic experience of the £40 million transformation. In particular, we wanted to look round the much vaunted First World War Galleries, deemed so important that both David Cameron and the Duke of Cambridge were lured in for the opening.

We failed you because we got nowhere near these new galleries. Arriving around 45 minutes after opening on a Monday morning we were handed a timed ticket for 1.15pm… a two and a half hour wait. No problem, we thought, there’s plenty more to explore here while we await our turn. Then we got inside and realised just how busy the place was. Despite the timed ticket system some in the queue had already been waiting in line for 20 minutes, and the delays were only going to get worse as the day wore on. On leaving at lunch time, we found that all the tickets for the new galleries had already been handed out.

So, we shall have to return on another occasion to review the centrepiece. The remainder of this article will concern itself with the rest of the redevelopment.

“How the bastard do we get into this place!?!” An emphatically American dad using a peculiarly British form of curse is having trouble finding the main atrium. He’s not the only one. Once through the grand entrance to the museum, the visitor is presented with an awkward space, poorly designed for the crowds who are here today. People mill in all directions trying to work out which way to go. In the end, we spot a large wall of backpacks crowding round what looks like a set of stairs. Ah yes, this is the way in. But to effect a successful ingress you must join a bunfight of confusion and photography.

The problem is this. The new atrium, designed by Foster and Partners, is a genuine ‘wow’ moment — much like the revelation on walking into the Great Court of the British Museum. Yet the way in is woefully inadequate. Everyone entering wants to capture that moment on camera. The main entrance seems to be perpetually blocked by the crush. Fortunately, this miserable entrance is only temporary, and a new scheme is set for the next phase of development.

Anyhow, enough of the grumbles (for now). The atrium is a resounding triumph. Some of the museum’s most treasured assets are shown off to their best. A dazzling hanging display of aircraft pulls the gaze ever upward. A cutaway V2 rocket stands beside its V1 predecessor. War machines of all descriptions protrude from a stack of alcoves along the walls — it’s like a giant, military wine rack. Alas, an equally prominent feature of the atrium on our visit was the snaking queue for the First World War Galleries, also on this floor.

For anyone as curmudgeonly about crowds as we are, relief comes on the upper floors. A bright, enclosed roof space leads to the Lord Ashcroft Gallery. This space tells the story of those who’ve won the Victoria and George Crosses. It’s not as popular as the rest of the museum, but its tales are every bit as captivating. The ever-powerful Holocaust exhibition remains rightfully untouched in these garret levels, too.

The next floor down contains the museum’s art collection. This was always our favourite part of the IWM. An excellent rehang and general up-sprucing have done nothing to change that. Not so impressive are the ‘Curiosities of War’ niches that girdle the edge of the atrium at this level. While the objects are fascinating — a rusty barrel in which Hitler hid war secrets, a jerry-rigged sofa made by British troops in Afghanistan — the corridors from which we’re supposed to view them are far too narrow. We must have uttered the word ‘sorry’ a dozen times while trying to squeeze through. And then not all of the labels are in the right place (strange wooden horse thing, we’re looking at you).

The next two storeys lead on from the ground floor WWI exhibition, and concern themselves with the Second World War (first floor), and Cold War and after (second floor). We liked this upward progression through history. The emphasis is on a smaller number of key objects and vehicles arranged by theme, rather than traditional display cabinets. The many highlights include a UN tank, a nuclear-carbonised body (not real), and sections of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, the signage again makes things tricky. We’re sent in contradictory direction on the two floors, and the exhibits are divorced from their labels, which are aggregated on freestanding boards some distance from what we’re looking at. We suppose this is to help with crowd management, but it initially baffled us, and many of those around us.

A final snafu occurred in the toilets — again too small to cope with the crowds. We joined a band of puzzled hand-washers who couldn’t work out how to make the taps work. And the hand-dryer has all the power of a wheezing sparrow.

So, apologies for the moans. We really want to love the new-look IWM, and there is much to commend here. However, choosing a very busy day to visit combined with the inevitable settling-in pains of a reworked space did not make for the most rewarding three hours. We hope your experience is better, though we recommend waiting a few weeks until the buzz of reopening has diminished. The museum contains untold riches, but the current popularity around the reopening makes it difficult to appreciate them.

We’ll be back to have another go at those First World War Galleries soon, and we’ll also have a piece on some of the temporary exhibitions later in the week.

Imperial War Museum , Lambeth Road, London, SE1 6HZ. Entrance is free.

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21 July 2014 | 2:30 pm

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