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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  • Ashley

    They (Foster & Partners) have taken a lovely light filled space and turned it into a gloomy cavern! What posses them them to block the light from the glass roof with a pointless mezzanine level on the top floor.
    Confusing signage and overcrowded displays! A beautiful Rolls Royce Merlin engine is displayed with no information what so ever. The attendant had no idea what it was and advised me to complain!
    I couldn’t wait to get out of what used to be my favourite Museum!

    • Nightmale

      Completely agree about the Merlin engine, though this was just one of quite a few examples. It is increasingly the trend in museums to tell you very little about the things you’re looking at, and now the IWM has taken this approach a step further by placing what little information there is well away from the exhibit itself.
      I suspect quite a sizeable percentage of people seeing the stunning Merlin engine would have liked to know its age, power, speed, what it was installed in, and so on. The IWM’s policy is that we should see it, play ‘hunt the information panel’ for a while, and then be satisfied by the words ‘Merlin engine’.
      I wasn’t.

  • Catharine Arnold

    Agree about the queues for the galleries but expected it to be rammed at peak tourist season. The Secrecy and Security exhibit was excellent with plenty of info and objects explained and interpreted. I went twice in two days.

  • Bob

    Went just yesterday, 23 July, very disappointed, for all the reasons listed, go back? No way, sooner go to the dentist!

  • Jake

    Completely agree with this review – I had a couple of occasions when I saw something interesting and then had to hunt for the information to along with it. The first time, before I worked out about the boards with the little plans of the displays on, it took me several minutes and I became genuinely angry as I circled round and round an interesting-looking model of a partially-destroyed tanker trying to work out what it was and what it was doing there. I don’t think inspiring that kind of irritation in visitors is at all what the IWM was aiming for.

    Most of the main gallery floors also seemed irritatingly laid out in that (unless I was missing something) you had to go through them to the end, then turn round and go back through them the same way in order to access the one on the other side, and then back through that one to return to the lifts. Given they were already overcrowded, that hardly helped.

    It didn’t seem nearly as detailed as I would have hoped, and the lack of emphasis on recent wars was particularly disappointing. Over a decade of constant fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has seen huge advances in vehicle technology, weaponry and medical procedures, yet the only vehicle they chose to display is one that is essentially a civilian landrover painted yellow. Sure, that makes a point about the inadequacy of the equipment, but it’s not actually very interesting to look at.

    And did they decide that the ‘experiences’ (Blitz and Trench) are hopelessly out of date now? Perhaps they’re right, but why not update them rather than getting rid of them altogether.

    I’m looking forward to going back when it’s less crowded and I can see a bit more of it more easily, but after genuinely looking forward to the re-opening and rushing to see it at the earliest opportunity I confess to being fairly disappointed by the result.

  • Therese

    Went yesterday and can only echo the comments already made. I was saddened to see the once airy and open space had gone and the new walls felt like they were squeezing you in. The lack of information on the exhibits was so frustrating and a real loss. The information boards were crowded round and it was really difficult to find what you wanted to know on them. You couldn’t look up instantly at the exhibit when you found something out to see what they were talking about. A horrible, horrible system! I spoke to a man on the feedback comment desk and he told me that this had been done so people ‘could choose to find out if they wanted to’. Incredible! Surely we all have a self-filtering instinct when in a museum, we can read about something that interests us and ignore information when it doesn’t? Here, you are given no choice as no information is at the point of viewing and the boards do very little to help.
    The galleries where you just reach a dead end and have to turn back are ill thought out as there is no flow and just a feeling of swimming against the tide in order to get back to where you started from before you can go anywhere else.
    The wonderful Blitz shelter and trench experience have gone too. The shelter was a true gem. Many children I have taken there have been profoundly moved by this and the feelings it invoked.
    The loos are only signed for men and women on the ground floor. On every floor there is a loo but it is a single disabled loo. We thought that you could only use them if you were disabled and travelled all the way down to the ground floor about three times! Apparently anyone can use these loos but there is nothing to tell you this. I agree about the taps in the ladies, about a 1 second blast of water but only if you could get them to work in the first place.
    The art exhibition was superb and it had labels! Where though is John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’ that wonderful, evocative painting that used to stop you in your tracks in the old gallery? Surely it deserved a place in the exhibition currently on display?
    Glad to see the exhibits from more recent conflicts as they were missing before. The stories that go with them give you pause (when you can find the right board to read them) and they are a moving testament.
    All in all a huge disappointment after such a long wait and much anticipation. I will go back in the winter to try and make sense of it again and I truly hope that there will be information about each exhibit actually on the exhibit.

  • Scott Clifford

    I have been waiting for the IWM to reopen almost since the day it closed. I have visited the museum dozens of times, even being lucky enough to use their archives for a degree I did a few years ago. What I saw today made my heart sink. This focus on ‘a few key exhibits’ means that literally thousands of items not on display anywhere else in the world will never be seen again by members f the general public. They seem to have decided what to keep based on size alone- kept the Spitfire but binned dozens of newspaper headlines, uniforms, weapons and artifacts that didn’t fit in with the visual design. My own research, humble as it was, was sparked by looking at some of the trench items in a cabinet crammed with 60-odd such items. None remain on display. I am aware I am too close to this subject, the museum having been my favourite thing in London for decades, but I can’t help thinking what has happened is some sort of cultural crime. If you didn’t see the place a couple of years ago there is so much that you will never see now- it’s gone, stored in a dusty box somewhere. Even what remains is, as previous commentators have remarked, almost bereft of information. Sure, over in a corner is a big plaque that vaguely lists about six items that you can then run about trying to see, but we’re too cool now for a boring white card with a paragraph of description and context. Still, it photographs better for a tourist brochure I suspect. I advise you all to go visit the National Army Museum instead- long the little brother to the IWM in London with only a fraction of the items on display, it now dwarfs the IWM with its breadth. Go now before the clever people redesign it and take all this from you like they have with the IWM. It’s all so sad.

  • Matt

    horrible entrance- too many people wandering about- you have to go through the shops to see the exhibit- with poor signage

    So much wonderful exhibits with no local signage- I totally agree about the merlin engine- but this is applicable to so much more. Such a shame, even 5 words actually on each exhibit would help. The idea of having a room plan elsewhere in the ‘very busy’ room is a result of very poor foresight.

    come on IWM, your country wants you to do better.

  • Ian

    I’ve gone back three times in an attempt to try and love the IWM again. But the redesign is awful. Overcrowded – shoved through shops at ever entrance – and lacking information. When people are asking “is that a torpedo?” you know that you’ve got your signage wrong. The last time I went people were on hand to give out information – but even they lacked the human stories behind the items. And what has happened to the lancaster bomber you used to be able to walk through? Design over content.