Imperial War Museum North

Jim Forrester


Imperial War Museum North

The Quays, Trafford Wharf Rd, Trafford Park, Manchester M17 1TZ, UK

Opened to visitors on 5 July 2002, Imperial War Museum North (IWM North) is one of the most talked-about new museums of the year. Pursuing a long-standing vision of the Trustees to exhibit their collections in the North, this new, fifth branch of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) was constructed on the bank of the Manchester Ship Canal in Trafford between January 2000 and July 2002 to a budget of pound;30m. The astounding building and dramatic displays seek to communicate how people's lives are shaped by war and, whilst commemorating the contributions of all those who took part in conflict, the exhibition strategy also addresses the need to engage a younger audience.

IWM North is the first building in the UK by the internationally acclaimed architect, Daniel Libeskind. Clad in aluminium, this landmark building is a visionary symbol of the effects of war and signals the innovative approach of the entire project. It is based on the concept of a world shattered by conflict, a fragmented globe reassembled in three interlocking shards. These shards represent conflict on land, in the air and on and under the water. It is a place in which the significance, sacrifice, tragedy and legacy of armed conflict in the 20th century can be explored.

"I hope that this building will enable the Imperial War Museum North to accomplish its mission of inspiring, involving and educating its audiences." Daniel Libeskind, Architect

"Informative, fascinating and very heart- rending, all in a fantastic building." Visitor to IWM North

The Imperial War Museum has massive collections covering British and Commonwealth citizens' experiences of war since 1914.   At IWM North, the project team wanted to blend effective elements of conventional display with newer methods so that people could discover the powerful, individual stories which often lie behind the collections. The displays include a 220 metre Time Line that uses cased-displays and graphics to explore the history of conflict throughout the twentieth century, and the Silos - six flexible, themed exhibition areas highlighting aspects of conflict such as Women and War or Impressions of War. In addition, the museum has a Special Exhibitions Gallery where changing exhibitions will be mounted to offer challenging perspectives on themes such as entertainment or sport in wartime and to show some of the IWM's rich art collections.

These displays are supplemented by dramatic, new exhibition techniques that include:

The Big Picture  - a unique way of giving access to some of the Imperial War Museum's 6 million photographs and 36,000 hours of sound recordings. During The Big Picture the Main Exhibition Space is transformed into a massive auditorium where visitors can immerse themselves in the 360-degree audio-visual shows. The three current shows, Why War?, Weapons of War and Children and War, are shown at hourly intervals, in rotation, throughout the day. Further shows will be commissioned in the future to provide diversity and change in the programme.

"A brilliantly fresh and new arrangement that allows thinking time- I cried along with others at the Big Picture show." Visitor to IWM North

Our research also showed that many people wanted to handle ''real' objects and talk to staff about them. Our response was to ensure plenty of opportunities for this kind of interactivity in the museum - handling, talking, and social interaction.

TimeStacks - these have been built into the walls of two of the six silos. The TimeStacks are industrial storage retrieval systems with large trays that can each be arranged with up to 20 mini-exhibitions which visitors can select at the push of a button. These automated delivery systems are used daily in industry but have not been used before in Britain to display historical material.

"I am overwhelmed. I feel humbled by what you have gathered together here." Visitor to IWM North

The information provided by the displays is supplemented by a team of staff - known as Interactors - whose role is to answer queries from visitors and to be proactive in helping them engage with the exhibits. The Interactors lead regular handling sessions at the TimeStacks and deliver performances after the Big Picture shows both for general visitors and for booked groups.

The Interactors form part of the Learning Access team who are an essential part of the museum's communication strategy. The success of the museum depends considerably on visitors feeling welcome, valued and listened to, so that a useful discussion about war and conflict can begin here and carry on beyond. Extensive education programmes based partly around the needs of National Curriculum but also delivering a range of lifelong learning opportunities have been set up and publicised through the distribution of 10,000 CD-Roms. To ensure relevance and local focus, these programmes were researched with local schools, colleges and community groups in the two years that the museum was under construction.

"The museum is very interesting, exciting, enjoyable and a great learning tool." Visitor to IWM North

To further ensure the quality of a visit to IWM North, a Volunteer Programme has been created which was described in The Guardian as the Museum's most futuristic feature. In line with the vision of the Museum as a regional centre for learning in the widest sense including the development of work-based skills, this innovative, structured programme offers people from local communities work experience along with training and support for an NVQ in Cultural Heritage. The scheme, which has drawn in special funding, has been a resounding success, recruiting around 80 volunteers who provide the Museum with a committed volunteering team to supplement the paid staff. The Museum now intends to take the volunteer programme to new heights and act as a volunteering best practice ls"hub' for museums in the North West, offering its tried and tested model for involving volunteers from disadvantaged and excluded groups in innovative learning programmes

"It's opened up a whole new world for me" Volunteer

The continuing aim is for the Museum to be a hub for learning and a forum for debate. The history of conflict involving Britain and the Commonwealth moves relentlessly on and, with a remit to follow and interpret contemporary conflicts, the displays will continue to change in response to world events. Access to the rich collections of IWM as a whole will be expanded through the gradual introduction of on-line research facilities and digital enquiry services, and further shards will be added to provide these research and learning areas along with more exhibition space to house long-term displays of IWM material.

The funding of Imperial War Museum North was a two-phase development. Phase One began in 1997 with the development and construction of the Museum. Peel Holdings, owners of the Manchester Ship Canal, provided pound;12.5 million of the pound;30 million needed for the project. This contribution did not include the value of the site, which was donated by the company. The remainder came from the European Regional Development Fund, English Partnerships/North West Development Agency and Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council and the IWM itself as well as a wide range of benefactors and sponsors.

For phase two, the Imperial War Museum North Appeal was launched to fund the fit-out of the building, together with the implementation of the exhibition and display strategy. An active programme of fundraising from individuals, companies and trusts raised the required funds to meet the appeal target of approximately pound;2.5 million. The campaign was chaired by Kate Adie OBE, an IWM Trustee and Chief News Correspondent for the BBC.

Additional revenue income is generated through the shops, restaurant, corporate hire facilities and car-parking. Further funds are sought in the form of sponsorship for learning programmes, events and special exhibitions.

The Museum is open 7 days a week from 10am-6pm with free admission and, one year after opening, has welcomed over 480,000 visitors.

"Thought provoking and stunning. Everyone should come and see this." Visitor to IWM North


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