A modern branch of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) located in Manchester, Great Britain
. It differs from the original IWM
and its other outlying branches (esp. Duxford
) in that it is not a classic war museum with a focus on military hardware and the history of battles fought. Instead it concentrates much more on telling the stories of people affected by war, in various individual ways, as well as on the impact of war on society at large. And it does this in a convincing and admirable way.
The IWM North is the newest of the five branches of the Imperial War Museum and the first in the north of England. It is the most modern of these branches too, in more than one way.
For starters there's the stunning architecture
. Designed by the famous architect Daniel Libeskind
(cf. also the Jewish Museum
and the Military History Museum
), it is a prototypical example if his hyper-modern, deconstructivist style
The building is made up of three large sections (and a couple of smaller ones) that are referred to as “shards”. Apparently Libeskind took the inspiration for this from the shards of a broken teapot. The arrangement of these “shards” at odd angles is intended to symbolize destruction in war and conflict.
The “Air Shard” rises dramatically upwards into the sky, almost vertically, but at a slight angle. The “Earth Shard” is the largest component and houses the museum exhibitions. It is slightly curved and tilted (one side of the interior is 8 feet lower than the other end). The “Water Shard” that stretches away from the rest of the structure houses the museum cafe.
IWM North was opened in 2002. It sits right in the middle of a larger “revitalized” former industrial landscape opposite Salford Quays on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. There is plenty of other recent modern architecture about, but the IWM North is easily the most noticeable of these.
The museum is quite modern
on the inside
too, not just in terms of design, but also content. The permanent exhibition is far from a simple celebratory approach. Instead in focuses on the human side of war, from WW1
to the present day (i.e. it does not go back in history beyond the 20th century).
This non-glamorizing approach
is definitely a development of more recent years. In the past, war museums mainly displayed weapons and big hardware together with stories of heroes and military glory. Here, this is reduced to a minimum (there is a slight patriotic streak, with British resilience and courage emphasized at various points), but the tragic and nasty sides of war are brought much more to the foreground. I've seen such a departure from the older, traditional look of war museums also at the new Military History Museum in Dresden
, or the reworked WW1
exhibition at the equivalent museum
What there is to see:
Before you even enter the museum, take a good look at the outstanding exterior. The deconstructivist aluminium-clad shape of the building
is quite remarkable – see also above
Inside you can take a lift up to an observation platform inside the towering “Air Shard” for good views over the surrounding urban landscape and the old harbour quays.
In the museum proper, the main permanent exhibition is on the first floor. It is housed inside one single large and maze-like hall, where no wall is straight, and the floor slightly uneven (you don't notice it at first, but it slopes at a small angle to end 8 feet lower at the far end).
There aren't many big objects on display here, but one of them greets you right at the entrance to the exhibition: a Harrier jump jet hanging on cables suspended from the ceiling.
The design of the exhibition follows a dual approach. On the one hand, you can follow a more traditional chronological timeline, running from the First World War to the present day. On the other hand, there are specific topics picked out and explored in more depth in semi-separate exhibition spaces referred to as “silos” here (they're not really that claustrophobic, though). Amongst those topics are: 'Women and War', 'Experience of War', or 'Empire, Commonwealth and War' and a few more.
An additional unique feature at the IWM North are the so-called Big Picture Shows, when the lights in the exhibition hall are dimmed and projections onto the up to 27-foot (18m) high walls are used for differently themed light/image and sound shows accompanied by a narration. The dimmed light makes it more difficult to continue with the regular exhibition displays, but it's not impossible. However, it really is worth sitting through the Big Picture Shows before returning to where you left off before in the main exhibition.
The topics of the Big Picture Shows include: The War At Home ( a look at the home front and how people of Britain were affected by the Second World War
), Children and War (from child transports to child soldiers), Build The Truce (about conflict resolution) and Al Mutanabbi Street (about a bomb attack in contemporary Baghdad, Iraq).
It is impossible to give a full account of all the displays or of all the many individual stories told in the main exhibition, so I will only pick out a few elements that stand out in my memory especially.
Within the World War I
section, one of the “interactive” displays is pretty unique: the Trench Stenches
. Here you can lift three lids on little pots attached to the wall and have a sniff. Around the pots are little disks with different suggestions as to what the stench in question may be. So it's a bit like a mini quiz. I won't give away the correct answers here, but let's just say that you are at least spared the worst ('decomposing corpses' is among the wrong answers), but some of the smells are pretty rank, others surprisingly subtle given what they stand for …
Within the WWII
section there are some remarkable objects from the Nazi era
, including little dolls dressed in SA and SS uniforms
, but also more serious objects such as a big Reich's Eagle with a swastika or a Totenkopf (skull) SS
A rare relic is a piece of the wreck
of the plane
that Rudolf Hess
, nominally Deputy “Führer
” and thus second in command of Nazi Germany
, flew to Scotland in 1941 in a somewhat mysterious attempt to initiate peace negotiations with Britain
A different kind of air war history is that of Bomber Command
and its systematic targeting of one German city after the other in the second half of WWII
. A map showing the bombing damage to Hamburg
brought this close to home for me. I was born there and lived in the city for 25 years (until I left for Britain
– is that ironic?).
The map reflected my memories of the cityscape when I was growing up there: the eastern half of Hamburg, marked in red on the map, is where the bombing and firestorms caused almost total destruction, so that in those areas there are now only buildings built post-WWII (see also under Nikolaikirche
!). The western half, in contrast, with less red on the map, is where a much higher proportion of older buildings survived. When I was little you could still see war damage in the harbour areas, and the eastern working-class districts were characterized by bland, uniform, cheap housing estates built quickly in the post-war era.
The biggest crime against humanity, however, was perpetrated by Nazi Germany
: the Holocaust
. And that is a theme in this museum too. Artefacts on display range from some of those yellow stars which Jews were forced to wear, as an early form of repression, to prisoners' clothes from the death camp
. Particularly touching is the display of a little doll made from bits of those striped concentration camp
Back to Britain
, the living conditions on the Home Front
are another theme, especially the issue of food rationing
The eventual victory of the Allies in WWII is duly celebrated in the exhibition too, of course. The prize object on display here is the original Oscar for the film “The True Glory” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in late 1945.
Moving into the post-WWII times
, this is signified for instance by a large jet engine on display, accompanied by small models of the British V-Force bombers. Even more of a sea change of modernity than jet aircraft, however, was the arrival of nuclear weapons
The museum has displays of some of those scorched tiles from Hiroshima
(see also Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
!), a replica of the triggering device of The Gadget (the first atom bomb
detonated in the Trinity
Test), as well as a model of a standard British free-fall nuclear bomb. The madness of it all is also illustrated, namely through the display of several government pamphlets on “protect and survive” or the infamous “Duck and Cover” drills. The protest movement against nuclear weapons also gets a mention.
The Cold War
is covered in other aspects too, such as the extensive espionage efforts that both the West and the Soviet
-led Eastern Bloc
were engaged in. Also in this section is the very largest object on display in this museum: a Soviet T-34 tank.
Other conflicts of these times are brought up on the side as well, such as that between Israel
and Palestine, or Britain
's own nasty conflict right on its doorstep in Northern Ireland
, as well as far away in the Falklands War
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
, which led to the end of the Cold War
era, is exemplified by the usual fragment of the Wall (not a whole segment here) and a Trabbi – the iconic little car made in the GDR
conflicts continue the exhibition's timeline – such as the war in the Balkans
, especially Bosnia
and Kosovo. A side section ('silo') here is 'Legacy of War' including war and art, which features amongst other things a crocodile sculpture made out of rusty old cartridges from Mozambique (whose long civil war ended in 1992).
The arrival of the new era of 'asymmetric war' and international terrorism
is dramatically illustrated by a section of mangled steel from the World Trade Center
that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks
(cf. 9/11 Museum
), which then sparked off a new “War on Terror”
Covered here is also the worldwide protest movement against the starting of the 2003 Iraq war by Bush and Blair. This contrasts with the set of playing cards featuring the portraits of the “most wanted” in the Iraqi regime. These sets were apparently handed out to coalition troops at the beginning of that war.
In another corner of the museum, suspended from the ceiling, there's a jeep ripped apart by a bomb – like a warning that in this day and age acts of terror can strike out of the blue.
Apart from the main permanent exhibition there is also a section for special temporary exhibitions
. At the time of my visit (in March 2016) this was one entitled “Blitzed Brits” and was aimed more at children. However, they also had a few remarkable objects on display, such as a search-light and anti-aircraft gun, a barrage blimp/balloon, and artefacts relating to the V1 and V2 missiles
fired randomly at London
and other places. This exhibition, however, will long have been replaced by different ones by the time you read this.
Finally, there is also a museum shop
on the ground floor. They sell the usual items also found in the Imperial War Museum's main museum
in London, ranging from books about war history to plastic model kits and toys to regular souvenirs. The area space of this shop and hence its range/choice is a bit smaller here, though.
All in all: I found this museum a very valuable addition to the IWM's portfolio.
The permanent exhibition is definitely designed to be thought-provoking! And I also enjoyed its focus on people and historical-political backgrounds and effects rather than just the display of hardware.
If, however, you come here with the erroneous expectation of just seeing lots of tanks, guns and missiles and other big-boy toys, which you hardly find here, and won't engage with the many stories told and angles pursued, then you'll probably be disappointed and might be out again within half an hour. But the museum really does deserve more attention – and hence more time
So it may not be for everybody, but those looking for ways to try and understand the human side of modern warfare, this museum comes highly recommended.
in the middle of the regenerated former industrial harbour area of Salford Quays in the south-west of Greater Manchester, Great Britain
. The official address is: The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, M17 1TZ.
Access and costs: quite a distance from the centre of Manchester, but not too difficult to reach; free
Details: You can get to the museum by public transport. There are bus stops nearby and the nearest Metrolink tram stations are within easy walking distance (MediaCity, Harbour City). New footbridges connect the site to the Salford Quays opposite the museum.
If you are coming by car from outside Manchester along the M60, use the M602 leading towards Manchester city centre, but at the first roundabout (junction 3) take the third exit onto Trafford Road and head for Trafford Park along the A5081. The museum is signposted from here.
You can use the museum's own secure car park (for up to 160 cars), however it is not free and costs 5 GBP for the first four hours, 7GBP for up to six hours, and 15 GBP for 24 hours.
Admission to the museum itself, however, is free!
Opening times: daily (except over Christmas) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., last admission half an hour before closing. Occasionally closing time is brought forward by 30 minutes. But it makes sense to try and get there as early as possible in any case, so this should normally not affect you so much.
If you are coming specifically to visit the IWM North and want to stay overnight nearby, you can find accommodation options e.g. in Salford Quays, including relatively affordable chain hotel branches that also offer free parking.
Time required: longer than you would guess from the size of the museum and its single exhibition hall. I spent something like three hours in the museum in total and could have stayed even longer and explored more deeply. With a superficial approach, an hour or so might do.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
not much in the immediate vicinity, but Liverpool
or the Hack Green former secret nuclear bunker
in Cheshire to the south-west of Manchester, or Bradford
in West Yorkshire to the north-east, are within fairly easy reach from Manchester (at least by car).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The museum is not far from one of Manchester's most famous places, at least in the sports world: Old Trafford Stadium, home of the legendary football club Manchester United. There's a museum about the club on site and you can go on stadium tours (unless a match is on, of course).
The rest of the area is not exactly touristy. The regeneration of Salford Quays has produced the usual well-intended but ultimately rather dead, artificial urban landscape. Still, some of the industrial heritage to be seen here is quite cool. There is even a hotel inside a converted former brick warehouse of huge proportions (hence many rooms on the inside do not have windows). The MediaCity and the film set for the series “Coronation Street” may be of interest to some too. The same may go for the shopping centre The Lowry.
To get to the other, more established tourist attractions of Manchester, you have to get closer to the centre. The one that impressed me the most is the Museum of Science and Industry, which features lots of heavy machinery, including (working!) steam engines.
The nearest other larger city is Liverpool
to the west, which also features some regenerated harbour areas and a few other attractions (not least ones related to the city's Fab Four, aka The Beatles, if that's your kind of thing …).
If it's more scenery and the outdoors that you are after, then the Peak District National Park to the east of Manchester offers plenty of that. The landscape of Yorkshire to the north-west is also worth seeing, even outside the designated national parks. Here you find the so-called Brontë country – especially the village of Haworth, where the Brontë sisters used to live and write their famous works.
- IWM North 01 - hyper-modern museum building
- IWM North 02 - entering the main exhibition
- IWM North 03 - Harrier jump jet
- IWM North 04 - toy helicopter made from war relics
- IWM North 05 - wall projections
- IWM North 06 - depiction of destruction
- IWM North 07 - gas
- IWM North 08 - drawer installation
- IWM North 09 - colonial heritage
- IWM North 10 - women acknowledged
- IWM North 11 - trench stenches
- IWM North 12 - the Penguin guide to VD
- IWM North 13 - another unsavoury book
- IWM North 14 - Nazi symbolism
- IWM North 15 - Nazi dolls
- IWM North 16 - Totenkopf SS - scary
- IWM North 17 - piece of the plane of Rudolf Hess
- IWM North 18 - bomber war
- IWM North 19 - city after city
- IWM North 20 - bomb damage in Hamburg
- IWM North 21 - Holocaust
- IWM North 22 - beginning with repression
- IWM North 23 - ending with death camps
- IWM North 24 - concentration camp doll
- IWM North 25 - rationing on the home front
- IWM North 26 - Oscar for the film True Glory
- IWM North 27 - beginning of the era of the jet aircraft
- IWM North 28 - beginning of the atomic age - scorched tiles from Hiroshima
- IWM North 29 - model of The Gadget
- IWM North 30 - British thermonuclear bomb
- IWM North 31 - pointless protection measures
- IWM North 32 - Cold War - tanks and intelligence
- IWM North 33 - Israeli protection suit
- IWM North 34 - Northern Ireland Troubles
- IWM North 35 - Trabbi and one-man shelter
- IWM North 36 - war in the Balkans
- IWM North 37 - sometimes war leftovers are turned into art
- IWM North 38 - mine-proofed vehicle
- IWM North 39 - overhead installation
- IWM North 40 - steel from the WTC
- IWM North 41 - what came next
- IWM North 42 - main exhibition
- IWM North 43 - entrance to the temporary exhibition space
- IWM North 44 - Blitzed Brits temporary exhibition
- IWM North 45 - blimp
- IWM North 46 - V1
- IWM North 47 - V2 warhead
- IWM North 48 - shop