Recreating the First World War streets of Northern England

Nissen Richards Studio has designed immersive street scenes for IWM North’s special exhibition which looks at the impact of First World War on the lives of people in the North West of England.

On the Street render showing the perspective of a street view with a 'real'  graphic representation of a typical Manchester street to one side, contrasted with an abstracted colour elevation opposite
On the Street render showing the perspective of a street view with a ‘real’ graphic representation of a typical Manchester street to one side, contrasted with an abstracted colour elevation opposite

The exhibition at the Manchester museum, From Street to Trench: A World War that Shaped a Region, is IWM’s first major show marking the centenary of the conflict.

It will feature never before displayed objects and personal stories from IWM’s national collections.

Nissen Richards Studio, which has worked with IWM North on previous exhibitions, was appointed in August 2013 following a tender process.

The exhibition has been devised around six sections: Introduction; Waking Up To War; On The Street; Feeding The Fire; Witnessing War; and Aftershocks of a Million Shells.

It will ‘appeal to families,’ says Nissen Richards Studio director Pippa Nissen who feels there are different levels of engagement for children, adults, and grandparents.

Interactive touchscreens will reveal the roles visitors of all ages might have had to play in WWI.

Nissen says, ‘We’re focusing on people; the connection between people fighting and those left behind. As theatre designers as well as exhibition designers and architects we’re used to working with narratives.

‘We’ve used theatrical techniques so that you can literally walk down streets, through the facades and into other rooms.’

More than 200 personal objects, films, sound recordings, photographs, artworks and letters will be presented in the context of scenes including Stockport Market in 1914, a northern cobbled street, houses, and shops to provide ‘an emotional engagement with the story,’ says Nissen, who adds ‘children can access the space more physically and adults can read’.

Witnessing War render of trench: View from the faceted trench landscape looking toward the Feeding the Fire section. Sopwith Camel replica suspended high above sections.
Witnessing War render of trench: View from the faceted trench landscape looking toward the Feeding the Fire section. Sopwith Camel replica suspended high above sections.

Stories told include those of poet Wilfred Owen and Clement Attlee who went on to become Prime Minister, as well as Victoria Cross recipients and first-hand accounts by civilians on the home front.

Graphics on the ‘set’ – like shop signs – have been designed by Northover and Brown which has ‘worked carefully on the colour and tone to really make you feel as if you’re there,’ says Nissen.

On The Street ‘is like a stage set and gives you a sense of a particular moment and place – a false perspective of a street – and at one end there is a floor-to-ceiling size original photograph. It’s like stepping into another time,’ says Nissen. ‘You can go into different rooms and find objects in there.’

The story of Altringham’s Chapel Street, known as ‘the bravest little street in England’ is told, revealing how 161 men from just 60 houses served in the armed forces during the war.

The Witnessing War section moves visitors to the front line where trenches have been recreated, and this includes a tunnel section which children can crawl through.

It also shows how the sewer workers of Manchester were employed for a secret task in France.

Witnessing War sketch with abstracted trench landscape and tall cases relating to soldier's individual stories rising above the surface.
Witnessing War sketch with abstracted trench landscape and tall cases relating to soldier’s individual stories rising above the surface.

The stories of individual soldiers are presented here and a soundscape has been commissioned which draws on archive sounds.

The exhibition will reveal previously unpublished stories of soldiers, sailors and pilots who fought in all the major campaigns from Gallipoli in Turkey to the Somme in France and Ypres in Belgium.

Artifacts include the field gun that fired the British Army’s first shot of the First World War on the Western Front, the revolver carried by Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien on the Somme, huge paintings by WWI artist Gilbert Rogers and a 100-year-old biscuit that went uneaten in the trenches.

Nissen says, ‘It’s important to make all the stories relevant to today so that you can make that connection to both the normality and the extraordinary in their situation.’

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