Imperial War Museum reopens in London after £40m revamp

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New atrium and bigger galleries give coherence to the collection

Redesigned atrium and galleries have added 2,000 sq. m to the museum

The new-look Imperial War Museum was unveiled in London today, 16 July, after a £40m revamp that was first conceived four years ago. At the heart of the project, designed by the London firm Foster + Partners, is a new atrium supported by “fins” that have helped create an additional 2,000 sq. m of gallery space. The reopening coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the start of the First World War on 4 August 1914.

Large-scale objects from the collection including a Spitfire, a Harrier jump-jet and a V2 rocket are suspended from a new gallery floor installed in the roof of the atrium, while a T34 tank and a battered Reuters news agency Land Rover damaged in Gaza in 2006—a new addition to the collection—are installed at ground level. In keeping with the collection, the new design has incorporated durable, robust materials such as sheet steel and concrete.

The museum stands on the site of the former Bethlem Royal Hospital for the insane, or Bedlam, as it was commonly known. Exposed brickwork from the hospital building has been retained. “The point is to get back to the original building,” says Spencer de Grey, the head of design at Foster + Partners. “It’s always a balance between what you remove and what you retain.”

One of the most notable changes is that the ground floor has been lowered so visitors will eventually be able to enter the museum at street level. The first-floor gallery is dedicated to the First World War, the second floor focuses on the Second World War, the third examines war post-1945 and the fourth floor is dedicated to contemporary conflicts. “We wanted to make it more intuitive and to address the previously fragmented collection,” says Michael Jones, a senior partner at Foster + Partners.

An exhibition of British First World War art, “Truth and Memory” (until 8 March 2015), occupies galleries on the third floor. Also on the third floor is an exhibition by Mark Neville of photographs created in response to the war in Afghanistan (until 25 September).

The unveiling marks the completion of phase one of the redesign. Phase two, expected to take place in the next four years, will include transforming the top floor into an exhibition space, refinishing the barrel vault with high-tech materials and moving the tea room into the Sidney Smith-designed dome. “We are seeing [the museum] as a moment in time where not everything has been achieved,” Jones says.

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