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Friday, 12 July, 2002, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Imperial War Museum North
Imperial War Museum North

The new branch of the Imperial War Museum which opened on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal in Trafford.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)


Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North. Tom Paulin, Libeskind has said imperial and war and museum are all difficult words. He had no problem with north. He is right about those first three. Has he made sense of them.

I think so. I think he's a genius. It's a building that has been constructed in war-time conditions. They didn't get a lottery grant. So the budget had to be cut by a quarter. They had to extemporise, and invent out of that deprivation.

I remember we reviewed the Museum of Popular Music in Sheffield. Beautiful building, which failed after a couple of years. Lots of lottery money. Why didn't they put money into this extraordinary building. It's very moving. The dioramas, the silos. The fact that you can actually touch objects. T34- the great Soviet tank- I was able to put my hands on. Wonderful.

Not enough at all, though about the war in the Soviet Union. Apparently, there isn't that much material because of the cold war. There's a lot of social history here. We have evacuees, what was happening between the wars, we have prisoners of war, we have women at war. It's also become as great tribute to this country at welcoming refugees. That's part of the theme of the building. So it's marvellous.

Alkarim Jivani, with most museums, the experience begins internally, once you walk through the doors. This is trying to offer two, the exterior and the interior one. What do you make of it?

The exterior worked better than the interior, in terms of the exhibits as opposed to the building. Both the building and the exhibition have been fatally holed below the water line. The architects survived the bombardment better than the curators did.

When you enter the building you go through a concrete trapezoid, as if it's a pure rectangle which has been pulled apart by the tensions going on inside. You go up this air tower, which is 95 feet above the ground. As you walk out of the lift your heart does a lurch. You realise are you standing on a metal grid and you can look through to the ground below. The construction of the building is radiating struts which look like search lights. The building is an expressive one. I thought it was beautiful. Beautiful is the wrong word. It's disorientating and disarming in a sense.

I thought the problem with the exhibition was that by comparison it was flat and one dimensional. There is one big room which seems to go chronologically through events. What happens then you have to go into anti-chambers, to get anything interesting. This is the Imperial War Museum. There is a silo where all the empire's contribution is dumped. I felt it was dumped.

What is more irritating for me is outside the imperial empire's contribution to the war there is a glass cabinet which has an India's girl's party dress in it. It seemed tangential to me, it was about post-war changes. More importantly they mislabelled. It was called a sari. You can call it a number of different things. It wasn't a sari. I do mind being marginalised but I mind it even more when they get basic facts wrong.

I think the building is extraordinary. It's powerful and unsettling, as you're walking through it, it becomes a living metaphor of the state of the thing that you are walking into. It's a building that is about man's inhumanity to man. The exhibits are shot through with humanity all the time.

I think there are some problems with the big picture shows that they have. Where they have these huge pictures from photographs from the collection and music and so. Not dramatic enough. As for the silos¿ I could have spent days and days in there. The juxtaposition of materials are heart breaking. There is one letter from a British soldier in a Japanese prison of war camp to home. It says "Dear mum and dad, my health is excellent. We are working every day. Don't worry about me I'm all right". Next to is it a loincloth which one man would have worn which has been washed and preserved. It has a religious simplicity, it was profound.

The concentration uniform.

What the museum lacks is testosterone and aggression. It's a caring sharing War Museum.

There was an extraordinary leaflet from the First World War which warns about wasting bread. The phrase it uses is that "every bread waster has the ghost of a merchant seaman sitting at their table". That kind of documentary material, I thought was good.

The silos are like mounds of short stories. There is a parka worn by an Iraqi soldier in the Gulf War. Next to that is a letter from a British squaddy writing home cheerfully to a friend saying "we took out five tanks and our APC's this morning, pretty good, eh". These things are amazing juxtapositions. They tell their own stories.

They need to be brought into the main body. Some of the letters are incredibly poignant. This is slightly tangential but I went to the Melbourne War Museum. I was reduced to tears by a letter from a trooper sent to a sweat heart received after she received the news of his death. That needs to be the centrepiece. The first thing you see when you walk in is these arms holding up a harrier jet. That was at wrong image to start with.

Before you move on. There seems to be a problem with conventional museums in this culture when you have computers. The big question is can they compete?

I agree with Tom. I think this Millennium Commission thing is a disgrace that they lost £20 million. Anyone who has seen the opening few minutes of Saving Private Ryan knows what can be done with image and sound. They need more money for the content. They need to be braver. The building is so bold and brave, they need to up the content and they will have a fantastic museum for Manchester.

See also:

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