In the summer of 2014, London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) re-opened after an extensive architectural intervention by Norman Foster (the first phase of a master plan), and a re-think of some of the major exhibition spaces, most notably the First World War Galleries. The response has been incredibly positive; the museum has even been included as finalist for Artfund’s ‘museum of the year award.’ Though originally established in the Crystal Palace during the war in 1917, the IWM has been housed in the former Bedlam Hospital since 1936.
Given the centrality of WWI to British cultural memory narratives and the importance of the IWM, as one of the premier national institutions charged with housing WWI memory in the UK, to shaping these narratives, an analysis of the IWM will allow us to take the pulse of contemporary British cultural memory.
My investigation engages in a close reading of the narratives (literary and philosophical) in the newly renovated IWM and situates it in two contexts: diachronic (within the history of the IWM as an institution, with particular attention paid to the changing uses of the Bedlam building) and synchronic (within the WWI centenary cultural phenomenon that has manifested across media ranging from museums and sombre installations, to Sainsbury’s Christmas advert).
The aim of the project was to ascertain what may be conceived as particularly British (or Imperial) about the IWM and what may simply be attributable to transnational museum and cultural memory trends as well as pervasive neo-liberal reification. I argue that there is a definable intersection. My ultimate aim then, is to find the right questions about the British cultural memory embodied in and sold by the IWM even if this short project will not allow me to answer them.
I have presented on material from this study at several conferences and workshops. Additional findings will be included as a book chapter, “’An act of wilful defiance’: Objection, Rebellion, and Protest in the Imperial War Museum’s First World War Galleries” in a book called Figures of Transgression in War Representation edited by Lisa Purse and Ute Wölfel. It will be published by the University of Edinburgh Press.