One is told to forget any preconceptions of war museums when it comes to the Imperial War Museum North at Manchester. “You’ll never have seen anything like this before!”, wrote the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.
They were right!
In fact, what there was to see was very strange indeed. Most people who went there seemed to agree. An interactive display at the museum recorded that most visitors felt it had not increased their knowledge about the war. Even fewer felt that their attitudes to war had been changed by the museum.
Why is this so?
At the Imperial War Museum North, visitors find only a few wartime artifacts on exhibit. There are hardly any attempts to explain or contextualise what has been selected. War is presented as a series of personal experiences rather than what silly, old fashioned modernists saw as a result of imperialism, colonialism, competing economic interests or just plain loony tune ideologies.
The War Museum is located what had been bombed out dockland, a place where real people died defending democracy. It is housed in a vast new European Community financed building designed by the “world renowned architect”, Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind said that his work tried to “address a multidimensional problematic”. “The exhilarating aspect of such a trajectory, at least for those engaged in it, is that its goals are unknown and its ends indeterminable and uncertain,” he said. I interpreted this to mean that he didn’t know what he was doing. This seemed to be confirmed by his Museum in Manchester.
Sadly this very strange and very, very expensive construction seems as empty as the heads of those who curate it. Inside, the building has no straight lines and innocent visitors such as my self become quickly lost. A helpful guide told me that this effect was intentional. “People get disoriented in wartime,’ he said. “The building helps visitors share this experience”.
“People also get killed in wartime, and some of them deserved it” I thought uncharitably. Being naieve, I thought that people went to museums to learn something but this was clearly old fashioned thinking. The guide directed me to the wartime multi media experience. On the walls bombs fell, guns banged and lights flashed, momentarily illuminating displays, which included a British 17 pounder gun, a Hussar’s hat and a nurses uniform.
War had been uncoupled from history to create an entertaining show. Maybe the curators had read a post modernist cartoon book which told them that all history was opinion and all opinions should therfore be treated equally, however mis-informed, deluded or as they say here,”balmy”. The museum and all it contained was a gigantic intellectual fashion statement.
When the lights came on, I found that there was an East German Trabant motor car at the centre of the room. Losing it, I remarked that “Trabants have about as much as do with Imperial war history as my left boot!”. “Exactly!”, replied my post modernist pommie companion, gesturing triumphantly to a large but previously unobserved window display of left boots.
At this point, I noticed that the nice men with radios and uniforms were moving closer. They helped me find the exit which thanks to Daniel Libeskind’s multidimensional problematics, was well hidden. Maybe in wartime, many people cannot escape from other’s silly ideas. Was this intentional?
Confused, I launched myself on a trajectory to the pub.