Imperial War Museums
Reviewed by: Elena Abou Mrad, Ostap K., and Brianna Caszatt
Review started: March 20, 2021
Review finished: April 11, 2021
- Main site: https://www.iwm.org.uk/
- IWM London: https://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-london
- IWM North: https://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-north
- IWM Duxford: https://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-duxford
- Churchill War Rooms: https://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/churchill-war-rooms
- HMS Belfast: https://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast
Data and Sources
- Objects and stories related to personal experiences of war, from World War I to the present
- Art, books and publications, documents, more than 155,000 objects, more than 23,000 hours of film, approximately 11 million photographs, more than 33,000 audio recordings, administrative records for the museum, and registry of more than 90,000 war memorials in the UK as well as the more than 1 million names of people commemorated by them
- Objects have been categorized and made searchable by type and time period; not all objects in their collection have a digital media counterpart, though the entire collection appears to be searchable in their online database
- Many of the objects have been grouped together to fit within multiple narratives about varied topics, including specific wars, specific aspects of war, and the history of the museum
- The registry of memorials has been categorized and made searchable by name, type, and location; and the names associated with them by surname and location
- Searchable website currently undergoing an accessibility audit to ensure it meets WCAG 2.1 AA compliance
Digital Tools Used to Build It
- Information not prominently displayed on site
The National War Museum was founded on March 5, 1917, with approval from the UK’s War Cabinet. The founders aim was to begin collecting objects and documenting the experiences of the war for both soldiers and civilians. The first director envisioned it as both a memorial and a museum, but this vision was rejected by the War Cabinet as they believed these to be mutually exclusive--at least in terms of physical space and location, if not also in function. The name was changed to Imperial War Museum (IWM) to reflect the contributions to the war effort of the colonies, and it was formally recognized by an act of Parliament in 1920.
Today IWM is a group of five museums: IWM London (their flagship branch and institutional headquarters), IWM North (in Manchester), IWM Duxford (a historic airfield in Duxford), the Churchill War Rooms (in London), and the HMS Belfast (a World War II Royal Navy warship docked in London). Since its founding, the IWM has expanded its scope to preserve and share the experiences of conflict from 1914 to the present day.
Objects and History Section
Reviewed by: Elena Abou Mrad
In the Objects & History section of the website, visitors can explore the IWM by searching for specific objects or browsing the collections. Objects do not all have a digital image, but it is already impressive that one can browse the museum’s catalog online and gain precious historical information from the metadata. The Projects & Collaborations page offers a list of organizations that partner with the IWM and of initiatives such as the Contemporary Conflict Collection and the War and Conflict Subject Specialist Network.
The History section is at the end of the tab for Objects & History, and I initially thought it would simply be a page dedicated to the history of the IWM. Instead, what visitors find here is a rich repository of articles and blogs, YouTube videos, and digital exhibitions based on the collections at the IWM. Exploring these materials led me down a true rabbit hole: you can keep exploring topics, going deeper and wider without getting tired. The content is carefully written and put together: in a blog-like fashion, the articles alternate between photos, text, and videos and eye-catching graphics, which kept me interested and wanting more. If a visitor wants to learn more about an object that appears in one of the exhibitions, a link leads them directly to the object in the catalog. Being a curious person and a history nerd, I really enjoyed jumping from one digital exhibit to the next and learning more about the collections at the IWM.
Visiting this section of the website, with its wealth of multimedia materials, feels really immersive and reminded me of when I had the fortune of visiting the IWM in person, in the fall of 2015. Their First World War Galleries are one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen, an immersive experience that succeeds at conveying not only historical information, but also emotion, sound, and even tactile sensations. I remember trying on the replica of a soldier’s jacket, helmet, and rifle and feeling their physical and psychological weight. They created a soundscape that is truly evocative, and that suscitates profound reactions in the visitors. Exploring the History section evoked the same feeling of curiosity and exploration I felt in the actual museum. Similar to the IWM Gallery, the website is geared toward an audience that is diverse in terms of age, interests, and ability.
Reviewed by: Ostap K.
As we all know very well, the museums are not just collecting materials for the sake of preserving those materials but also opening up research centers as part of their activity. More and more often this is what is happening with the museums, and IWM is not a different case; moreover, as it looks like from surfing through their Research page, they managed to come up with a very strong springboard in terms of research materials in a very particular topic—to war and conflict—which immediately makes them an influential institution and could be having lots of researchers and scholars coming to work with their various collections.
The part Research at IWM informs that research is a “major” activity at IWM, and their extensive collections provide “essential grounding to how we curate and present the history of conflict.” This part also lists several current projects including The Tim Hetherington Collection and Conflict Imagery Network, Filming for Piece in 1990s Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Provisional Semantics. On this page, one can also be lined to Research Projects (lists major projects conducted since the early 2000s till nowadays) and Research Reports (a selection of newsletters from 2010 through 2019 summarizing the activities of this institution)—these will provide information about the projects IWM was involved in during the last two decades or so.
The most demanding part in the Research section would probably be the Archive & Research Room. When you enter that page, you have an option of learning more about Collections online or Film research. Collections are divided into Art and Design; Books and Publications; Documents; Exhibits; Film; Photograph; Sound Archive; and Museum Administrative Records. This is everything a researcher might only wish for. I find this classification pretty straightforward, and as it seems from my searches, the search engine works very well, and you can get really satisfying results in the areas you’re interested in. Since the institution has rich collections, one can find all kinds of information—of special interest is metadata they offer along with the description of archival materials: you know right away what kind of material you are looking at, a collection it is part of, and when it was acquired and catalogued.
People Power: Fighting for Peace Exhibition and Web Story
Reviewed by: Brianna Caszatt
As an institution that preserves the memory of war and also machines of war, the IWM has also been a site of anti-war protests. Their exhibition and web story on People Power: Fighting for Peace spans 100 years (1917 to 2017) to tell the history of anti-war protesting through more than 300 objects, including a British Army officer’s letter of resignation during World War I, photographs of actions organized by the anti-nuclear movement in the United Kingdom, and a video recording of actors and activists discussing the past and future of protest movements. Also included in the exhibit are photographs—contextualized with narrative—from a 1983 demonstration that took place outside of IWM London around the two large navy ship guns that sit in front of the museum’s main entrance. Women gathered here and across the country to call for a general disarmament and end to nuclear weapons as part of International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament. In 2017 the museum placed large flowers inside the barrels of both guns as part of the last weeks of their exhibition (photographs of which live in their digital collections archive).
The IWM seems to understand and engage with itself in a very meta way, between incorporating their physical location into this exhibit and their commitment to including their own administrative records as part of their archive. Perhaps the in-person exhibit elicited more reflection, but the web story of it seems to just acknowledge that protests exist, while glossing over more difficult questions of “Should war exist?” and “How does a museum dedicated to the preservation of war memory contribute to the legitimization or delegitimization of war?”. Comparing the number of objects in this exhibit (300) with the total number of objects in their collection (155,000), I’m left thinking that their engagement on this topic is limited, if not outright trivializing.