The atrium will display large iconic exhibits

Imperial War Museum gets revamp for WWI centenary

The Imperial War Museum’s main London site will re-open in July following a £35m transformation just in time for the centenary commemorations of The First World War.

The previous First World War Galleries were designed in the 1980s using the traditional ‘show and tell’ concept of showcasing an object alongside a printed caption. Now, 30 years on, IWM London is taking advantage of developments in technology to modernise its space and engage visitors using digital screens, interactive world maps and sensor-enabled experiences.

“We want our visitors to travel through the actual time of the First World War, and this can only be done by bringing objects to life; digital enables us to do these things,” explained IWM digital producer Jo Saull. “By digitising archive material, our visitors can engage closer to these objects as they wouldn’t have been able to before.”

The gallery is divided into two areas, Home Front and Fighting Front, which will cover 14 topics: Hope and Glory, Why War?, Shock, Your Country Needs You, Deadlock, World War, Feeding the Front, Total War, At All Costs, Life at the Front, Machines Against Men, Breaking Down, Seizing Victory and War Without End.

A collection of approximately 1,300 objects will be on display, including weapons, uniforms, diaries, letters and souvenirs. Alongside them, 66 digital pieces will give further insights into the history of the items.

Visitors are welcomed into the gallery showing the ‘People of Britain’ film, created by filmmakers Mitchell & Kenyon in the early 1900s. The film is projected onto a six-metre screen wrapping around the inside of a showcase of ship models using three projectors.

The Home Front area reminds visitors how the First World War was won from behind the scenes. This is portrayed in the Factory Window: a video wall comprising six 46in screens. The wall uses a six-channel Dataton Watchout PC to combine photographs and videos showing the industrial and human elements of factory life.

Along with the Factory Window, the museum has installed the Supply Line; a four-metre interactive table embedded with sensory objects, which aims to bring to life the story of the Home Front’s critical role.

Visitors will become part of the production chain as they interact with each object, creating shells to feed the guns, making clothing and sourcing meat, for example.  

The interactive table relies on four Epson projectors used for digital signage, four PCs running Microsoft Windows 7, two Point Grey infrared cameras and 25 TaCap3 capacitive sensors that trigger effects when activated.

The Fighting Front includes an exhibition that brings to life the war across the globe using touchscreen technology and animations to show different fighting fronts and more about the war at sea.

Similar is the Timeslice zone, an animated newspaper-like format showcasing a range of illustrated historical worldwide events before the outbreak of the war; a Microsoft Kinect camera detects the visitor’s movements, which trigger the animation.

Another space is dedicated to ten renowned artefacts from the First World War era: the French 75 field gun, Hymn of Hate gramophone record, camouflage tree, 9.2in Howitzer, Uncle Sam poster, identity tags, Haig map, Sassoon letter, artificial arm and the Orpen Versailles painting. Touchscreens tell each object’s background and meaning in greater detail than a printed caption could achieve.

The gallery’s Life at the Front space is a replica of the trench experience. Designed to give visitors a sense of what the troops encountered living outdoors in a war environment, the area includes a Sopwith Camel plane and a Mark V tank. It uses a 19-channel soundscape, along with projections and silhouettes from different settings such as thunderstorms, gas attacks and firing of machine guns, to add realism to the experience.

The ambience of the museum purposely draws out visitors’ emotions, not only through a colour scheme that uses different shades to represent the 14 different sections, but also through two atmospheric spaces, designed for reflection. These emotive zones – Should war have rules? and Kill or be killed – encourage visitors to reflect on the Rules of War and gas warfare, while listening to quotes and experiences taken from war diaries, letters and moving pictures.

The IWM’s transformation has had its challenges. Saull explained that maintaining the authenticity of the archives has been troublesome, as digitising the material takes time, especially when the film is old and it has to be modified before it can be scanned.

Nonetheless, staff who have spent the last 18 months applying modern technology to keep alive the remembrance of events 100 years ago will soon be able to judge the success of their efforts.
IWM London re-opens on 19 July.

For more details, visit the Imperial War Museum's website.

Further information

E&T's First World War special issue

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