Dramatic effects

Simon Stephens, 08.05.2013
Architecture and artefacts at IWM North
Daniel Libeskind’s style of architecture might not be to everyone’s taste but there is no doubting the drama of Imperial War Museum (IWM) North in Salford.

The museum is more than 10 years old now, but on a recent visit to interview its director, Graham Boxer, I was struck by how dramatic the building looks, even though it now competes with newcomers such as the recently opened MediaCity, home to the BBC in north-west England.

Libeskind’s design for the IWM North is based on the concept of a world shattered by conflict. The result is a building designed to represent a fragmented globe reassembled in three interlocking shards, which represent conflict on land, water and in the air.

But landmark architecture aside, it’s the objects on display inside that really tell the story.

The main exhibition hall is a space that is almost as dramatic as the aluminium-clad exterior. It’s on such a scale that artefacts could get easily get swamped but fortunately IWM North has some huge objects that can hold their own.

Chief among them is a piece of twisted steel from New York City’s World Trade Center.

Nearby is what is left of a car that was hit in the bombing of the historic Al-Mutanabbi street book market in Baghdad in 2007. It was brought to the UK by artist Jeremy Deller and the museum hopes this piece and the steel from the 9/11 attacks are powerful reminders of the impact of war and conflict on society.

But IWM is not just about huge objects. Displays featuring letters and personal possessions from those involved in conflict remind visitors that war is of interest because it profoundly affects people’s lives, often in horrific ways.

This is shown by its Saving Lives temporary exhibition, which uses personal stories to examine medical care on the frontline.

The overall experience in IWM North is one where, unlike many museums, architecture and subject matter come together to great effect.