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Thoughts on a modern museum

This is an thoughtful posting:

The weekend was spent in Manchester, via Oxford. On Sunday morning a friend and I visited the Imperial War Museum North, which forms part of the dramatic redevelopment of the quaysides around the ship canal on the Salford/Trafford border.

I was brought up on school trips to the Imperial War Museum in Kennington. The huge naval guns at the entrance, the trench experience, the endless tanks, artillery pieces and bombers’ cockpits you can climb over, the uniforms, guns and bayonettes in cases. Regardless of your attitude towards war, you can’t deny it is a fascinating collection.

So we expected something similar in Manchester, but were surprised. There are very few physical exhibits: one T34 tank, a field gun, a fire engine, and for reasons I still don’t understand, a Trabant car. The cases are sparsely filled. The emphasis is not on weapons or uniforms or battles, but on the effect of war on people – refugees, children, prisoners, asylum-seekers, and peace protestors. So there were more letters and diaries than rifles and grenades. There was even a case filled with cultural items which reflect Britons’ obsession with WWII: Warlord comics, action man, and Dad’s Army.

There are frequent films projected on the vast walls – we saw one about children in war, and one about the ’causes of war’ (it’s all about oil and money).

This is not a place for a military historian or one who wants to see the development of the machine gun, but perhaps that’s not what people want anymore. Does the new type of musuem reflect changing social attitudes, or is it trying to mould them?

At least the architecture of the building, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is stunning, and you can buy Airfix models in the giftshop (very tempting!).

“Stunning” means, from the outside, looking like this:


Normally, I do not dislike buildings of this sort. For modern art something along these (curvey) lines is very appropriate. But put it like this, if the people who fought and died in the wars being propagandised about inside this edifice were asked what they thought of it, what do you think they would say? Or is it that I now associate such buildings with harmless trivialities, that therefore it really does not matter what they look like, and that therefore the architect might as well have some fun – but this is a museum about war?

By the way, to add some other design-related facts, the genius who did the recent redesign of Samizdata.net, and who designed this and this, and also, not surprisingly, this, also did this.

13 comments to Thoughts on a modern museum

  • Is that building skinned in metal or in concrete? I’m guessing metal, but the larger picture on the linked site makes it look like a giant slab of sidewalk that’s frost heaved itself into the air.

    I have to also say that I’m not a big fan of ‘artistic statements’ that need multiple paragraphs to explain, referring to things such as ‘earth, water, and air shards’ and ‘multiple silos’. There’s a difference between the architect having been ‘inspired by’ an object, and actually naming parts and pushing them on people by way of explanation. Maybe it’s more conceited ‘modern art’, and we’re not supposed to ‘get it’ unless we’re of a certain mindset.

  • Julian Morrison

    That building looks pretty to me.

    And it’s very important to propagandize the evils of war. Human nature falls too easily into the old “glorious little war” “we’ll be in Berlin by christmas” mindset. That more than anything was what caused the first world war – underestimation of the cost. And the first caused the second – which covered the growth of communism and the compensatory creation of big-government cold-war America.

  • I wish that building — and all others like it — would fall down on their designers’ pointy little heads.

    And then, the whole mess — all over the world — should be gathered into one heap and shot up Frank Gehry’s ass with a giant rocket.

    Yes. That would be satisfactory.

  • Chris Josephson

    “Does the new type of musuem reflect changing social attitudes, or is it trying to mould them?”

    Great question. Wish I had an answer. I tend to think it’s the latter, but have no proof to offer.

  • Does the new type of musuem reflect changing social attitudes, or is it trying to mould them?

    Both, with each egging the other on in their own little vicious circle.

  • A_t

    “Does the new type of musuem reflect changing social attitudes, or is it trying to mould them?”

    Neither. As far as I understood it, the way the museum works was decided on the basis that there were millions of still photos, films & audio recordings in the archives, most of which were never seen or heard. It was decided that this museum would be a good place to show these.

    We’re well into the information age now, & the biggest collections of wartime material are probably virtual. Most people are very comfortable with the various media involved, & are accustomed to paying for virtual experiences (my trivial spending over the past couple of weeks? a couple of games; basically i’m paying for information/code, no?).

    If you mean an agenda re. “illustrating the human side of war”, I’m with Julian on this one; most conventional war museums don’t really do so, particularly when it comes to civilian impact, preferring to focus on whizz-bang boy’s own type experiences & exciting military kit. I don’t see why the full reality of war, civilian suffering and all, along with astounding/cool bits of engineering, shouldn’t be represented honestly.

    I also like the building a lot, & don’t think you need any kind of “clever” explanation to get it; just an open mind. A smart concept’s all well & good, and personally I quite like it, but the aesthetics are the first thing that should be judged, & to my eyes, they’re great.

    I’m curious, to all those who object to the design, what type of thing would you rather have?

  • Kelli


    Loved the four sentence synopsis of 20th century history! Makes me wonder why I spent all those years studying books about the subject.

    If I recall, the Imperial War Museum in London contains quite a bit about the human impact of war–my most vivid memory of my visit there was the Blitz experience, and if I’m not mistaken, there was also a faux-trench from WWI.

    A war museum need not be (and frankly, rarely ever is) either a paeon to the glories of battle OR an overwrought plea for pacifism.

    Here in Washington, the once-proud Smithsonian has been straightjacketed by wankers who want to turn exhibitions into propaganda of one or another sort. Should the Enola Gay be displayed amidst photos of apocalyptic, bombed out Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Sure, but only if you also want to display photos of Japanese POWs on the Bataan death march, the aftermath of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the rape of Nanking, etc., etc. Pretty soon, it’s not a display about one plane and its role in history–it’s about EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE (and viewers shake their heads and walk on by).

    Museums should not display a bias, and when they do it should not be at taxpayer expense. At least this much I’ve picked up from reading this blog.

  • ernest young

    I’ll reserve judgement until I see it for myself, but, it does rather look like history being rewritten from the viewpoint of a so-called ‘caring’ society.

    Having lived in London all through the blitz, and remembering it all very vividly, I might add, it will be quite an eye-opener to see the modern version of WWII, as writ by our bias-free academics.

    I wonder if they manage to capture the spirit of war time Britain? and the real sense of community that prevailed.

    In many ways, those were, ‘the good old days’, not that I would like to go through it all again … but that ‘cohesivness’ of community, that existed then, is something that is sadly lacking in today’s society, and cannot be engineered by government diktat, nor by ‘cocktail libertarians’.

  • Rob Read

    Maybe that’s the left’s idea…

    Make a tyrannical national socialist hell hole, so we all pull together in a “community”!

  • limberwulf

    Its all very easy to judge character and actions of history by todays standards. Its a hindsight thing. But to have one viewpoint in a public facility that claims to be “information” is false advertising. There is a need to educate people that war is hell, and there is a need to educate people on mistakes of the past. There is also a need to educate people in the reasons for the action, and to get people to recognize that in the real world there is a need to defend oneself and ones freedom. Generally that also means defending the rights of those around you, and sometimes its not done on home soil. I dont see a museum as a place to “propogandize” anything. A museum is a place to view the past in a more physical manner. I have read about the Aztecs, but I was never so impacted by what I read as I was by going to the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. In fact, all I saw there was artifacts, the explanations and writings and other things that might or might not have had spin were in spanish, which I am just now learning. Museums are the place for physical evidence of history, not for propoganda.

    As for the building, I sort of like the nonstandard look. Big cubes get annoying.

  • J.R.T

    Maybe it reflects what is now – and has been – taught in secondary schools.

    From 1996:

    “A mainstream history textbook offered to British secondary schools reprints a communist anti-war propaganda painting about the horrors of the Blitz, representing the opinion of a microscopic defeatist minority at the time.”


  • Kelli

    Has anyone on this thread been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC? This is a stunning, state of the art (read: very expensive) institution, and an odd mixture of public and private (the building was paid for by private subscription, the land is government-owned, I’m not entirely sure who pays salaries, but I think it’s a privately endowed foundation). On the whole, the museum is a great success–the visitor is “processed” into a camp, having passed first through the shtetl and ghetto; there is moving homage to the resistance and the “righteous” gentiles who saved Jews from death. It is all very moving, very thought-provoking. Then, at the end, you are faced with a piece of pro-Israeli propaganda which seems oddly out of place. It hits the thoughtful visitor: here is a museum (in the US capital) about the Jewish experience in Europe, which ends up, somehow, in Jerusalem. Message: They murdered 6 million of us so we took back our homeland. I found it inappropriately political given the setting, even though I support Israel’s right to exist!

    One more point about the politics of history. Most historians today (in the US and Europe) are trained in social history. Social history priveleges the experiences of “little” people and their “movements” over those of “great leaders”, who are made almost incidental to historical events. Military history, per se, is segregated, held at arm’s length by graduate students lest it contaminate their thought. Simply put, most of the historians and curators entering the workforce today couldn’t tell a howitzer from a Sherman tank (and are PROUD of their ignorance). This is the reality. How one is to get balance back into western museums at this point is an open question.

  • It’s quite likely that the simplistic hollow rhetoric is down to politically correct curators but Libeskind’s architecture has a lot to do with it too. But not because it is “expressive” or “modern”. I see no reason why a modern dynamic building cannot be a proper War Museum. The problem with Libeskind in particular is his approach to architecture. He takes a simplistic, literal concept and uses it to generate a design. This building is laughably based on the globe “shattered by conflict”, hence the curved shards. He gets away with this because he can fire off pages and pages of pseudo-intellectual post-hoc justification for these crude designs.

    I have a few thoughts on his benevolent charlatanism at my blog.