A first look at the Imperial War Museum’s two new permanent exhibitions

We take a tour with Ralph Applebaum Associates, which designed the Second World War Gallery and Casson Mann which has designed the Holocaust Gallery.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) has partnered with Ralph Applebaum Associates (RAA) and Casson Mann to open two new galleries dedicated to the Second World War and the Holocaust.

As the major conflict begins to pass out of living memory, the intention of the galleries is to help current and future generations understand all elements of the war. More than 3,500 items and personal stories, from more than 80 countries, are shown across two floors of the museum – the effect, the museum says, is to offer a “truly global” narrative of the war, while also exploring the British experience.

Spread across 3000 square metres, the galleries are the product of six years of work and cost £30.7 million in total.

“Facilitating intergenerational learning”

The first of the permanent exhibitions is the Second World War Galleries, designed by RAA. Here the exhibition narrative is expressed chronologically through six gallery spaces.

In the first of the larger rooms, the exhibition covers the British civilian experience of the war. A large installation resembling a 1940s house sits across one wall of the space. On the ceiling, AV video boxes have been installed, and a 20-minute looped video is used to show a condensed experience of what bombing would have looked and felt like for those on the ground. It includes lulls of quiet, and much more intense parts where planes fly overhead.

Several interactive elements have been included in and around the house, as well as throughout the rest of exhibition, including full-scale Anderson and Morrison air-raid shelters, and digital elements like a tuneable radio and screens. RAA designer and project lead Patrick Swindell explains the numerous interactive elements have been included to be familiar but not complete replicas, thereby “facilitating intergenerational learning”.

“An attempt to represent loss in a way people can really quantify”

Elsewhere, Swindell says the intention was to “zoom out” and show the wider effect of the war. The second large gallery space takes visitors to the Philippines, Egypt, Ukraine and the Atlantic via large video screens to show the terrains and settings soldiers would have experienced while stationed there.

A large sculptural piece hangs from floor to ceiling at the head of the gallery. It depicts many boats, which each represent many more real-life vessels, which were lost in the Battle of the Atlantic – the longest continuous military campaign of the war. “It’s an attempt to represent loss in a way people can really quantify,” Swindell says.

Meanwhile the third large gallery space uses oversized world map sections printed on the floor, to orient visitors in different areas of the global conflict. Countries that are not often associated with the war, particularly British colonial countries like Nigeria and India, are given space to tell their own stories.

“This is not a light subject to be learning about for anyone”

A colour-coded graphic information system is threaded throughout the visitor experience. Orange plaques are used to explore consequences of the war we know in Britain, such as bombing or hunger, and showcase how these same experiences were seen in other countries. Yellow plaques offer general contextual information.

Meanwhile green plaques are dedicated to people. Around 100 portraits and accompanying plaques punctuate the exhibition journey. Swindell explains that these are people of diverse races, genders and nationalities, and not all of them are soldiers. “The idea was to tell the story of a ‘group’ event through the experiences of individuals,” he says.

Swindell says the inclusion of these graphic elements and AV parts, which get more common as visitors travel further inside the exhibition space, is an attempt to avoid information overload. “This is not a light subject to be learning about for anyone,” he says. “And a lot of this information will be new to people, as we’re telling parts of the story that aren’t usually included in retellings of the war.”

“The idea was to break up the narrative where possible with AV elements and strengthen understanding with the colour coded information to avoid overwhelming people,” Swindell adds.

“A dark setting enforces the idea what happened was inevitable”

Upstairs, the new Holocaust Galleries has been designed by Casson Mann – the studio behind the First World War Galleries on the IWM’s ground floor. Contrary to other exhibition spaces on the same topic around the world, Casson Mann has opted for a bright, spacious approach to start. Consultancy director Gary Shelley says this is indicative of the fact these atrocities happened in the daylight. “A dark setting, we thought, enforces the idea what happened was inevitable, when it wasn’t,” he says.

The narrative starts before the war, with a gallery space dedicated to showing people before their persecution. Life-sized 1:1 images of people are positioned throughout the space, “so that you can meet them at eye-level”, Shelley explains. Further on in the experience, the leaders of the Nazi fight, people like Joseph Goebbels and Hitler himself, are positioned for the same reason.

As war begins, the light walls are replaced with dark, almost burnt wood. Shelley says this is a nod to the fire and violence used throughout the early Nazi regime. Materials are a strong thread throughout the exhibition – as the Third Reich begins to fall, the space destructs as well. Plinths holding objects, for example, are broken down. A room dedicated to death camps uses improvised materials like untreated wood and barbed wire, to reflect the improvised nature of the establishments.

“We didn’t want these pieces to feel permanent in any way”

A strong division between persecutors and the persecuted is made throughout the narrative. In graphics, the “perpetrator voice” appears in a typeface made from an imprint of Arthur Seyss-Inquart’s typewriter. Seyss-Inquart was Nazi governor of the Netherlands.

Meanwhile the “victim voice” is represented in Haarlemmer, a recreation of a never-produced Jan Van Krimpen typeface. Van Krimpen’s work on the original, beginning in the late 1930s, was halted when the Nazi’s invaded the Netherlands. When quoting victims, Haarlemmer is presented either with backlit light or through projections.

Other divisions between persecutor and persecuted are more overt. In the middle of the exhibition Casson Mann has installed a domestic setting, featuring objects and décor common in Jewish households at the time. This sits at the centre of the room, while the perimeter is covered with Nazi propaganda. “We wanted to show how trapped these people were,” says Shelley. He adds that these posters and images appear on the walls printed on newspaper-like material. “We didn’t want these pieces to feel permanent in any way.”

“Evoke not recreate”

Sound is also a large part of the visitor experience, Shelley points out. As visitors approach the climax of the Holocaust genocide, a room which juxtaposes the city invasions and ghettos uses a soundscape to “evoke but not recreate” the experience of victims. One element of the soundscape is a high-pitched ringing, which is supposed to sound like tinnitus one might suffer from after being around loud gunfire.

Further still, a room dedicated to death camps insulates visitors from sound to convey the feeling of a gas chamber. In the space opposite, dedicated to concentration camps, sound is used to make the floor rumble, conveying the heavy industrial work prisoners were forced to do.

“Visually and ideologically connect the two galleries”

Both galleries reference each other throughout, but the removal of a section of floor from the Holocaust Galleries – exposing the Second World War Galleries beneath – serves to enforce just how intertwined these two events are.

In the double-height space hangs a V-1 flying bomb and as Swindell explains, the different perspectives offered by the two floors show what the bomb meant for different groups of people. From the Second World War Galleries, the bomb looms overhead and represents the threat faced by the Allies.

However from the Holocaust Galleries, it appears more at eye level. This reflects the fact concentration camp prisoners were used heavily in the construction of the weapons. The effect, Shelley says, is to “visually and ideologically connect the two galleries”.

The Second World War Galleries and the Holocaust Galleries open to the public on 20 October 2021. Entry is free, but pre-booking is advised. More information can be found on the IWM website.

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