The new Imperial War Museum North is a failure—as a museum

Our reporter visits Daniel Libeskind’s latest building in Manchester


War shapes lives, but these days architects shape museums; these are the messages, declared and otherwise, of the Imperial War Museum North, which opens to the public on 5 July.

Fifteen years in the making, the new museum is the result of plans by the trustees to build outposts to display more of its enormous collection to a larger audience. This is the first large scale external building the museum has built, though exhibitions will be curated and researched primarily from the London base.

Manchester was chosen for its catchment area of 15 million potential visitors. The museum is located in Trafford Park, the former industrial centre, now a desolate expanse of crumbling factories. The new museum and the nearby Lowry Centre are intended to help regenerate the area, though there is little sign of it so far; the area is a ghost town even on a sunny day.

The Imperial War Museum North was designed by architectural superstar Daniel Libeskind. His complicated design is intended to communicate the three arenas of war, sea, air and land, by dividing the structure into three parts.

The “air” shaft, which is empty except for a viewing platform at the top, rises dramatically above the curved “earth” structure, which houses most of the museum.

The “water” structure is a smaller inversion of the earth structure and houses a restaurant overlooking the disused Manchester ship canal. Inside, the museum is divided into two galleries, one for the permanent collection and one for temporary exhibitions. The floor gently slopes throughout, following the curve of the building as a whole.

Within the permanent collections gallery there are six “silos,” a name intended to suggest “what wars are fought with and for,” and in each of these there are smaller themed displays.

Within the main gallery there are two modified industrial part picking machines which visitors can use to select a tray of objects, which is then brought forward behind a glass screen. There is a separate room in which visitors can handle objects.

The whole space is quite flexible, in that the few large pieces are mounted on wheels and can be rolled out, and the silos could be removed.

Yet in spite of all these innovations, this is a not a successful museum. There is nearly nothing to see, and this is not because the museum is new; it is because the design has so overtaken the mission of the museum that it has replaced it, producing an inverted museum, whose exhibits serve to emphasise the design, not the other way around. Though it does bring the collection of The Imperial War Museum geographically closer to a new audience, there is almost nowhere to display much of it as the architect has allowed for only a few cases around the perimeter of the main space. The silo displays within this area are over-designed, with one looking like a bad parody of a Lichtenstein. Significantly, the first exhibition to be held in the temporary exhibition space will not be about any issue related to war or its causes and consequences, but will instead tell the story of the construction of the museum, so enamoured are the curators with “Daniel's” new creation.

These issues are not unique to the Imperial War Museum North, however. Starting with the Guggenheim Bilbao, museum directors around the world have clamoured to retain the services of top architects, to build not just new exhibition spaces, but new landmarks to which private hires and tourists will be expected to flock, forgetting, it seems, that museums are not sculptures, but institutes for preservation, display and research. If all that is being displayed is the design of the structure itself, then it is no longer a museum; it is something else; an expensive bauble on the landscape. But this is not the only problem.

Running parallel to this tendency to over-design has been the over-interpretation and simplification of displays, to the point that there are almost no exhibits and all is interpretation. Museums today do more and more to bring a “message” to their visitors, who are consequently less and less willing to draw their own conclusions.

The Imperial War Museum North has fallen prey to this in the most spectacular fashion, by introducing something called “The Big Picture.”

Intended as a means to present the museum's vast unseen archive of sound and pictures, “The Big Picture” is a fifteen minute sound and slide show projected onto the angular surfaces of the main exhibition space. Every hour, the space is darkened and visitors, like it or not, must endure a barrage of distorted images and sound clips, which serve to illustrate points such as children in war, the causes of war, and so on.

The handful of yellowing album photographs displayed in the cases is worth more than this bombastic spoon feeding.

In the gallery, visitors will find: the log book of a British World War I pilot who describes in calm handwriting as “interesting” a nearly fatal encounter with a German aircraft; a chain mail visor to protect a tank driver, which at once evokes medieval barbarity and the technical sophistication of war; and an indigenous canoe from Vietnam, made out of a discarded American fuel tank.

It is objects like these which convey the human aspects of war, the intended aim of the museum itself.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Imperial War Museum North, Manchester: The great architectural take-over'