Theatre of war opens new front in the North

Imperial War Museum North

Trafford Park, Manchester

Memorabilia from the First World War to September 11, 2001 goes on show in an impressive and innovative space. Elaine Williams pays a visit

Imagine a globe shattered by conflict, its fragments reconfigured into something strange and new, tilting at all angles, wildly out of kilter. War changes everything.

This is the concept behind the Imperial War Museum North, its message proclaimed by three vast steel and aluminium shards that slice disconcertingly into the Trafford skyline.

The shards represent the three arenas of war: "Air" rises 55 metres skywards, four degrees off the vertical; "Earth" and "Water" curve uneasily alongside the Manchester Ship Canal.

A footbridge away from the Lowry Centre across the canal, the new museum houses some of the Imperial War Museum's vast collections, in which awesome bits of military hardware are viewed alongside a huge archive of domestic paraphernalia - personal belongings, documents, letters - as well as millions of sound recordings, photographs, and film footage of those affected by war.

The Imperial War Museum in London was established by an Act of Parliament in 1920 to collect, preserve and display material and information connected with military operations in which Britain or the Commonwealth had been involved since August 1914. Its founders realised that the First World War heralded a new era in which war would consume those at home as well as on the battlefield. Before 1914, only 10 per cent of casualties were civilian. Today, only 10 per cent of casualties are soldiers - the rest are civilians.

While visitors to the rambling London museum experience busy rooms jam-packed with artefacts, the Imperial War Museum North is a pared-down piece of conceptual risk-taking. The narrative begins with the architecture. The Air shard houses a viewing platform 29 metres above an area, now alive with redevelopment, which was once the largest industrial centre in Britain, transformed during the Second World War to accommodate munitions manufacture, and smashed during the Manchester blitz. Geography, history, technology - the learning is all to be had even before you enter the exhibition spaces.

From these heady heights, visitors descend through a low, wide entrance lobby with a family room and workshops into the one large permanent exhibition space. Floor, walls and ceilings are imperceptibly curving and cross-hatched with artificial lighting, like tracer fire. This vast theatre is broken up by significant military objects, such as the artillery gun that fired the first British shell in the First World War. Six huge "silos" (vast screens outside, rooms of artefacts inside) are devoted to themes such as "Legacy of War" or "Women and War".

The silo devoted to "Impressions of War", for example, is dazzlingly decorated in Pop Art patterns, and contains two big armchairs and two TV sets. One set shows footage from the US war in Vietnam, one from Britain's in the Falklands, so visitors might understand how media coverage of the former led to protests, of the latter to rampant patriotism. Two of the silos house "time stacks" containing more than 50 themed trays. Staff who will offer objects for handling have been trained to listen to visitors'

own stories as well as talk through the collections. Education manager Debra Walker says: "We want people to have an emotional involvement, we want to encourage a Northern voice and learning between the generations, we want them to come back and tell us their stories."

The Manchester Polish community has already offered narratives and artefacts. A "time-line", with mounted objects, light boxes, sound recordings, film and text, stretches for more than 200 metres around the perimeter of the main space, chronicling 20th and 21st-century conflicts up to September 11, 2001.

For 15 minutes every hour, the space is transformed by "The Big Picture", a 360-degree "wrap-around" audio-visual presentation on one of three themes, "Why War?" "Weapons of War" and "Children and War", featuring voices and images of child soldiers in the First World War, evacuees in the Second World War, and child asylum-seekers and refugees.

Two "learning studios" can be turned into a lecture theatre for Inset days and schools programmes, which start with an emphasis on citizenship. A special exhibitions and performance space will allow the museum to show its collection of modern art (the largest in the UK outside the Tate galleries) as well as performances. The premiere of 52 Degrees South, a play about the Falklands War by veteran Andy Farrell and Kevin Fagan, opens on July 9. Admission is free, but the museum is expected to generate revenue from shop sales, corporate events and performances (most education services are free).

The innovative form, with few mounted exhibits, has partly come about through necessity. When lottery funding for big projects dried up, the budget was cut from pound;42 million to pound;28.5 million. There has also been support from a partnership that includes the European Regional Development Fund; Peel Holdings, which owned the land on which the museum is built, Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council; and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The target is 300,000 visitors a year, which the museum hopes to meet easily.

History studies are driven by interpretation, and that is what the Imperial War Museum is all about. Its founders were far-sighted and their underlying vision should ensure the success of this bold northern venture.

Imperial War Museum North,Trafford Wharf Road, Trafford Park, Manchester M17 1TZ. Tel: 0161 836 4000; education and group bookings, tel: 0161 836 4064; education email: learning@iwmnorth.org.uk

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